This is the kind of unusual release the Warner Archive line of made-on-demand DVDs is perfect for. The 1941 Two-Faced Woman was Greta Garbo’s last movie, re-teaming her with Melvyn Douglas, who co-starred so memorably with her in one of my favorites, the two-years-earlier Ninotchka. Now you can order Two-Faced Woman and find out for yourself why she quit pictures after making it. (The studio provided a review copy.)
George Cukor directs this misfire, intended to be a screwball comedy but winding up muddled. Melvyn Douglas plays Larry Blake, a magazine editor who while vacationing at a lodge falls in love with his ski instructor, Karin Borg (Greta Garbo). They quickly marry, only to discover that they don’t have much in common. She’s a nature lover who doesn’t smoke or drink. He’s a “sophisticate” urban workaholic who leaves her behind when he returns to New York City.
The period lodge footage, all those snowy, tree-topped mountains, is lovely. From the beginning, though, she’s miscast. A down-to-earth Garbo ignores her screen history and glamour. She’s supposed to be a terrific ski teacher, but her instruction style is simply to yell orders at him he doesn’t know how to follow. I don’t see the attraction between the two that’s supposed to indicate instant love, and putting her in caps and activewear plays down her beauty. His impulsive desire to marry her makes a certain amount of sense, under the rules of this cinema genre, but what does she see in him?
Their first night together, when they argue over whether to sleep with the windows open or closed, shows immediately how ill-suited for each other they are. Today’s viewer will wonder why they just don’t divorce (or get an annulment), because the movie hasn’t made much of a case for why they should be together, while it’s shown plenty of reasons for them to part quickly, before they hurt each other more. A modern audience will also find his assumption that he can make decisions for the couple and she’ll meekly follow remarkably boorish and old-fashioned. It resembles the classic case of the man who admires the independent woman until they’re married, at which point he wants a quiet, meek wifey. “Your plans don’t amount to much…. My plans are important,” he tells her, as they fight again the morning after, as you can see in this scene.
The movie’s title is explained by the increasingly ridiculous plot that attempts to bridge this gulf. After Larry returns to the city without Karin, and keeps putting off his return to the country, she finally follows him. When she sees him with his former girlfriend, Karin buys new clothes and introduces herself as Katherine, a previously unmentioned twin sister. She feels he’d been untruthful to her in promising he’d leave the magazine for a “new way of life” when he didn’t mean it, so she’s going to lie to him and teach him a lesson, changing herself from outdoorsy natural girl to well-dressed exotic seducer.
This all leads to a rhumba dance number that I can’t even attempt to describe, created when Karin gets her dress caught on her heel. The ending’s even worse, not actually solving any of the conflict or problems but nicely returning to the snowy country scenery.
I was surprised to note an older Constance Bennett as Larry’s former girlfriend (actually named Griselda), thrown over by him abruptly. She looks wrong with a 40s matron hairstyle and suits, a far cry from her 30s elegance. It all makes her look puffy, although her performance is strong in spite of it. There’s a lot of overkill throughout the movie. Too many jewels, dresses (by Adrian) too exaggerated, and a ridiculous hairstyle for Garbo that includes two diamond clips holding back everything but a silly bit of bangs in the middle of her forehead.
There’s some visual garbage onscreen, spots and scratches, since this film is not remastered. Still, it’s marvelous to see for myself what ended the great Garbo’s career, so I can make my own evaluation. It’s not as bad as I feared, and there are other reasons (outside the film) for her retirement. Garbo had been an international star, and with the war, those venues were no longer available for her films. Although Ninotchka showed she could do romantic comedy, she was better known for tragedy, and the overly goofy tone of this picture may have been just too much for audiences.
Additionally, the movie was originally considered immoral for suggesting that a man might be more attracted to his wife’s twin. I wonder if it all made more sense before it was edited to say that Larry knew about the game. If played for adults, with all its implications, it might have been a lot of fun — and more plausible, as it puts the lie to Larry’s protestations that he knows his wife so well. There’s a lot of potential in a plot in which a woman decides to become a vamp to test what her husband says against what he does, and seeing how he reacts to her different personalities.
Aside from the 90-minute movie, which has chapter stops every 10 minutes instead of at scene changes, the disc also contains the film’s trailer, which plays heavily off of Garbo’s mystique. You can see it here:
This movie was one of four Garbo films released last week at the Warner Archive site. Check out Garbo’s other movies, including Romance and Torrent (her American on-screen debut), there.