Two-Faced Woman (1941): Garbo’s Last Film, Frothy Comedy Directed by Cukor

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“Go Gay with Garbo”–Tagline

George Cukor’s second film with Garbo, after the superb 1937 Camille, which contained her finest performance, was the comedy Two-Faced Woman.

This feature turned out to be a dismal experience for both director and star.

WWII broke out and the closing of the European market, where Garbo was always more popular than in the U.S., made another picture with her risky, especially at her high salary.

 

Our grade: C+ (** out of *****)

Hoping to make Garbo more “accessible” with American audiences, Cukor talked Garbo into playing a part that was not suited to her considerable talent. A rambling, familiar comedy about mistaken identity, Two-Faced Woman became Garbo’s 24th and last feature.

Perceiving the film as a “frothy and light entertainment,” and lacking subtlety and nuance, Cukor said he tried to make it more “gay” (in more senses than one) and broadly funny.

The story (previously known as “The Twins”), based on the old formula of mistaken identity, was rather silly. S.N. Behrman, Salka Viertel, and George Oppenheimer fashioned a workable scenario, based on a 1925 Constance Talmadge silent film titled “Her Sister from Paris,” which in turn was based on a play by German playwright Ludwig Fulda.

Publisher Larry Blake (Melvyn Douglas) goes to a ski resort, where he meets and then marries Karin (Garbo), a ski instructor.

He promises to give up his sophisticated N.Y.C. life, but his ex-flame Griselda (Constance Bennett) plots to get him back. Realizing she can’t compete with the glamorous Griselda, Karin decides to impersonate her own twin, a world-wise woman.

In the tradition of “Garbo Talks” and “Garbo Laughs,” MGM’s publicity machine announced that in this movie, “Garbo plays a dual role, swims, wears a new hairdo, dances Rumba, skis, and even wrestles.” In her first publicity stills since 1929, Garbo displayed her boyish physique in a bathing suit.

Scorning Adrian’s fancier design, Garbo designed her own simple bathing suit. Cukor somehow managed to make Garbo more relaxed than the usual.  To everyone’s surprise, she allowed the stagehands and electricians to watch her more intimate scenes.

The critics agreed that there was no excuse for the film’s tedious repetition and distasteful heartlessness. “Open the windows, Messrs. Cukor, Behrman, Oppenheimer, et. al,” wrote one critic, “This is 1942, and Theda Bara’s golden age is gone.”

The film caused a run-in between MGM and Joseph Breen’s Production Code Administration. In June l941, when the first 84 pages of the incomplete script were submitted, Breen was concerned with the dialogue, which he found replete with sexually suggestive inferences. His office would not approve a line like, “If you got snowed in with Karin, you’d be married too.”

Breen also suggested omitting the scene in which Blake is taking a shower, with the business of him giving her pajamas, because of its sexual flavor. Their embrace on the bed was objectionable too–as neither could be seen in horizontal position. But the script was sent to Breen’s office in segments, and it was difficult for him to render an opinion about its acceptability.

Cukor knew that the drinking had to be kept down to a minimum–Breen reminded Cukor of the numerous protests about his 1940 picture, “The Philadelphia Story.”

There were also textual objections.  Karin’s line, “I have no past before last night,” was questionable–it took place in the morning after their reunion, which gave it a decidedly suggestive flavor.

The script was sent in sections, because nobody–least of all Cukor–knew how the story was going to end. When the picture was finally submitted for review, it was approved with the elimination of one line. But then Cukor did considerable retakes, and the Code demanded to see them. On October 6, after reviewing the picture, Breen issued a final certificate.

MGM still had to face the more conservative Catholic Legion of Decency, which condemned the “immoral” movie for its un-Christian attitude toward marriage, suggestive scenes, dialogues, situations and costumes.” The Production Code office actually supported Cukor, claiming the story was about the preservation of marriage as a permanent institution; “the wife came to recognize the proper relationship between a husband and wife and went back to him.”

A telegram from MGM to the Legion’s office, on December 5, requested not to cut Two-Faced Woman. “Pictures have been so cleaned up,” stated the memo, “that they are becoming uninteresting. There are groups who would remove all the spice of life and make this world a very drab place to live.” On December 17, the Legion of Decency reviewed Cukor’s revised version and voted to lift the movie from the C (Condemned) list. Controversial publicity of this kind was hoped to be a pull, but it was not–the movie failed miserably.

Perceived as “disastrous” at the time, Two-Faced Woman was reevaluated in later years. Like Sylvia Scarlet, the movie is held in higher regard today–albeit for different reasons–than it was half a century ago.

The movie holds up much better than other Garbo vehicles and, contrary to popular opinion, it does not feature Garbo’s worst performance, and was not a box-office failure.  Ultimately, Two-Faced Woman recouped its budget, which was higher than the norm, due to reshooting several scenes after the first preview.

Still, Cukor always said in private that he regretted asking Garbo to take on such a light comedy part.

As I pointed out in my biography of George Cukor, Garbo did not retire from the screen due to the relatively poor reception of this movie.

Cast
Greta Garbo as Karin Borg Blake/Katherine Borg
Melvyn Douglas as Larry Blake
Constance Bennett as Griselda Vaughn
Roland Young as O.O. Miller
Robert Sterling as Dick Williams
Ruth Gordon as Miss Ruth Ellis
Frances Carson as Miss Dunbar

 

Credits:

Directed by George Cukor
Produced by Gottfried Reinhardt
Written by S. N. Behrman, Salka Viertel, George Oppenheimer

Music by Bronislau Kaper
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Edited by George Boemler
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date: November 30, 1941
Running time: 90 minutes
Budget: $1.25 million