Painted Veil, The (1934): Boleslawski’s Version of Maugham’s Novel, Starring Garbo, Herbert Marshall and George Brent

This typically lush Garbo star vehicle, set in China (that is, Hollywood’s China), unfolds as an “exotic” romantic triangle, though it’s replete with narrative cliches even by standards of the time.

Grade: B+ (*** 1/2 out of *****)

The Painted Veil
Poster - Painted Veil, The 01 Crisco restoration.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Based on the 1925 novel The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham, with a script by John Meehan, Salka Viertel, and Edith Fitzgerald, The Painted Veil concerns a woman who accompanies her new husband to China while he conducts medical research.

Garbo plays the repressed, neglected wife of an overworked medical missionary (Herbert Marshall), who succumbs to the advances of an unworthy diplomat lover (George Brent), but in the end redeems herself and saves her marriage during a cholera epidemic.

Garbo’s favorite cameraman, William Daniels, insures that the star lights up the screen with her sensuous charismatic presence. Along with the lustrous photography, production values are characteristically sumptuous in the fake manner of studio movies of the era.

Russian-born Richard Boleslawski, a disciple of Stanislavsky and his acting theories he began his career as an actor at the famous Moscow Art Theatre), directs with discretion and taste. However, rather strangely, Boleslawski lets each of his actors perform in his/her idiosyncratic way, which means that Garbo under-acts, relying on her strong screen presence to turn the magic, while Marshall delivers his lines in a theatrical, too eloquent style.

The film was produced by Hunt Stromberg for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Feeling neglected by her husband, the woman soon falls in love with a handsome diplomatic attaché. 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.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Synopsis)

After her sister Olga marries and leaves home, Katrin Koerber, the daughter of an Austrian medical professor, fights loneliness and dreams of 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, however, Walter becomes consumed with 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. Jack confesses his love to Katrin, and Katrin admits she is not in love with Walter.

Katrin treats Walter coolly–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. 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 his intent of divorcing his wife and marrying her. When Katrin presents Walter’s conditions to Jack, he tells her that a divorce would ruin his career and reputation and backs out of the affair.

Heartbroken, 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. 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. She is still conflicted in her feelings for Jack, but she now understands what a good man Walter is and 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 cholera victims at an orphanage, rather than returning to Hong Kong. Walter is knifed in the melee when villagers riot over having their houses burned and Katrin rushes to him.

While waiting to see her husband, Katrin is confronted by Jack, but tells him that she now loves only Walter and finally understands his sacrifices. After Jack departs, Katrin assures the wounded Walter that she is now genuinely in love with him.

A moderate commercial success, The Painted Veil, like other Garbo films, was more popular in foreign countries than in the U.S.

Greta Garbo as Katrin Koerber Fane
Herbert Marshall as Dr. Walter Fane
George Brent as Jack Townsend
Warner Oland as General Yu
Jean Hersholt as Herr Koerber
Bodil Rosing as Frau Koerber
Katherine Alexander as Mrs. Townsend
Cecilia Parker as Olga Koerber
Soo Yong as Amah
Forrester Harvey as Waddington


Directed by Richard Boleslawski
Produced by Hunt Stromberg
Screenplay by John Meehan, Salka Viertel
Edith Fitzgerald, based on The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
Music by Herbert Stothart
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Edited by Hugh Wynn
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: November 23, 1934

Running time: 85 minutes