Painted Veil, The: Garbo Shines in Maugham’s Romantic Triangle, Co-Starring Herbert Marshall and George Brent

The Painted Veil, directed by Richard Boleslawski, is starring Greta Garbo in one of her best roles of the sound era.

The film is based on W. Somerset Maugham‘s 1925 novel, adapted to the big screen by John Meehan, Salka Viertel, and Edith Fitzgerald.

After her sister Olga marries and leaves home, Katrin Koerber (Garbo), the daughter of an Austrian medical professor, dreams of a more exciting life outside Austria.  When Dr. Walter Fane, a British bacteriologist asks her to marry him and move to Hong Kong, she agrees, even though she is not in love with him.

As soon as the newlyweds arrive in Hong Kong, Walter becomes consumed with his medical work, and Katrin becomes the romantic target of Jack Townsend, the unhappily married attaché to the British embassy. While showing her the city’s exotic sights, Jack flirts with Katrin and kisses her. Katrin, unnerved by Jack’s actions, retreats to her house, but soon rejoins him to observe local dancers performing at a Buddhist festival. Stimulated by the dancing and the atmosphere of a Buddhist temple, Jack confesses his love to Katrin, and Katrin admits that she is not in love with Walter.

Katrin treats Walter coolly and reveals that his chronic lateness and fatigue annoy her. To make amends, Walter comes home early the next day, but discovers Katrin’s bedroom door locked and Jack’s hat on a table. That evening, Walter confronts Katrin with his suspicions, and she admits that she loves Jack. Distraught, Walter tells Katrin that he will grant her a divorce only if Jack promises in writing that he will divorce his wife and marry her. When Katrin presents Walter’s conditions to Jack, he tells her that a divorce would ruin both his career and his reputation and backs out of the affair.

Katrin reluctantly accompanies Walter to an inland region of China, where a cholera epidemic is raging. While Walter struggles to arrest the epidemic, Katrin grows more and more despondent and lonely. Eventually, Walter’s inundation in the death and destruction wrought by the epidemic causes him to see his resentment toward Katrin as insignificant. He tells her that he still loves her and will end her suffering by sending her back to Hong Kong, while he prepares to leave for a remote river village that has been identified as the root of the epidemic. She replies that although she is still conflicted in her feelings for Jack, she nonetheless now understands what a good man Walter is and that she’s ashamed of having cuckolded him.

After Walter has left, Jack realizes his genuine love for Katrin and leaves Hong Kong for the inland. Walter returns from the village after ordering it to be burned to combat the spread of the disease. He is overjoyed to find that Katrin has remained to help young cholera victims at a local orphanage, rather than returning to Hong Kong. Walter is stabbed by villagers angry over having their houses burned and Katrin rushes to be near him. While waiting to see her husband, Katrin is confronted by Jack, but tells him that she now loves only Walter and at last understands the sacrifices he makes for medicine. After Jack departs, Katrin assures the wounded Walter that she at last has fallen in love with him.

The film score was by Herbert Stothart, the cinematography by William H. Daniels, the art direction by Cedric Gibbons, and the costume design by Adrian.

A commercial hit, the film earned $1,658,000 at the box office.


Greta Garbo as Katrin Koerber Fane,

Herbert Marshall as Dr. Walter Fane and

George Brent as Jack Townsend