“Greta Garbo was my favorite actress in the world. For three years I’d come out of my dressing room every day, run past hers, and call ‘Good morning!’ I could hear her deep voice talking to her maid but she never did speak to me. I’d see her occasionally on the lot. Never a word! Then one morning there was a rush call.
Someone was ill and couldn’t show up for still art in the gallery. Wouldn’t I come and pose in their place? I went sprinting past Garbo‘s dressing room in such a hurry I forgot to yell ‘Good morning.’
An instant later I heard her door open, then a resonant ‘Allooooo!’” – Joan Crawford speaking about her experiences with Garbo on the set of 1932’s Grand Hotel.
Greta Garbo was a generational talent.
So many classic Hollywood actresses (and heck, even some actors) have been inspired by her smooth Swedish inflection. It’s no surprise that her 1932 effort As You Desire Me, co-starring Melvyn Douglas, Erich Von Stroheim and Hedda Hopper is dripping with that Garbo charm that we all know too well.
Directed by George Fitzmaurice, this pre-code film tells the story of Zara, a flirty Budapest nightclub singer who’s down on her luck. When she’s not entertaining hundreds of drunken patrons, she lives with acclaimed Hungarian novelist, Karl Salter (played by Von Stronheim.)
Zara finds her ticket out that lifestyle when a man named ‘Tony’ (played by Owen Moore) approaches her by calling her the name, “Maria” as if he knew her personally. It’s soon learned that Tony is harassing Zara because he believes that she’s his best friend’s long-lost wife.
Zara vehemently denies this, but when faced with the prospect of going back to her smutty job she swiftly joins Tony in his quest to return her where she “rightly belongs.”
At the estate, we’re introduced to Bruno Varelli (played by Melvyn Douglas) – the man who’s patiently waited 10 years to be reunited with his lover. When Zara arrives, however, no one (not even the family dog Rex) recognizes her.
She’s cold, distant, and completely foreign, but she sticks with it.
Overcome with guilt, she confesses to Bruno that she isn’t his beloved Maria. Shocked but not saddened, he presses Zara into staying anyway, conforming to the mold left by his wife a decade ago.
Back in Budapest, Karl is fuming with rage.
Taking the matter into his own hands, he travels to ‘Maison de Varelli’ and confronts Maria’s sister Ines Montari (played by HEDDA HOPPER, I still can’t believe that) insisting that they have an imposter living with them. As Zara and Bruno get to know each other better, they genuinely start falling in love.
Believing that happiness truly is possible, Zara comfortably starts adjusting to her new lifestyle. It all comes crashing down, however, when she spots Karl from afar addressing Ines.
Karl walks over to her and explains that Bruno’s estate was a week and a day away from being it being reverted back to Maria’s sister Ines. Zara reluctantly believes him and confronts Bruno, who tells her it’s all a lie. Karl retorts, saying that the real Maria has been locked up in a sanatorium since the war. For more proof, he brings in “the real Maria” wrapped in a headscarf and shivering from shock.
She shuffles in and proceeds to name Ines and their maid Lena (played by Rafaela Ottiano) as familiar faces. The family slowly start to accepts her as Maria until Zara intervenes, causing a stir.
She starts to question,”Maria’s” intentions; so much so that when her memory starts to come back she begins to speak incoherently and it turns out “Maria” wasn’t Maria at all, but a woman who lived on the estate during the war.
With all of that out in open, nobody seems to care – really. The movie ends with Bruno and Zara confessing their love for each other with everyone else going about their regular schedule, including the heartbroken novelist Karl Salter.
I thought this film was quite peculiar.
The first 15 minutes didn’t quite hold my attention like I thought it would. It started off a bit slow, but when Owen Moore‘s character stepped into the frame, the plot started to pick up a bit. The storyline was very interesting. I really enjoyed the “Parent Trap” aspect to it.
Erich Von Stroheim was excellent in his role of the abusive, over controlling novelist, Karl Salter. He really brought another dimension to the lie Zara was caught in.
Speaking of Zara, Greta Garbo was phenomenal – per usual – in this role. She played it with such a breezy realness that I certainly felt bad for when the family started to believe she wasn’t the real Maria.
In summation, As You Desire Me is a fabulous pre-code movie about deceit and is most worthy of being included in this lovely blogathon.
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