|Released by MGM | Directed by George Cukor
Two-Faced Woman: The Two Farces of Eve
“You’ve made me lose my poise; for that I shall never forgive you.”
Two Faced Woman is kind of a disaster. Wresting mediocrity from the jaws of great artists, it’s a painfully slow screwball comedy where the stakes negligible and its content rendered moot thanks to the strict guidelines of the Breen Office. That it is the great Greta Garbo’s last film compounds the disaster– this isn’t a car wreck. It’s the Hindenburg.
Made a few years after the hit Ninotchka elevated Garbo’s place in the cinema firmament by giving her a comic bent, Two Faced Woman sullies it. Here, Garbo is a ski instructor named Karin who meets and falls for hapless magazine editor Larry (Douglas). They promise to stay together forever (in whatever warm bed they can find) before Larry reveals himself– he’s a two faced liar. (You like how I did that?) He wants Karin and the mountain air and all the sex, but he also wants his demanding career and life back in New York, which may or may not include the beautiful disgruntled playwright Griselda (Bennett).
He heads back to the big city after two days, promising to return. Months later, Karin decides to sweep into New York herself to surprise him, only to find he’s not busy in business meetings but in attending to Griselda’s ego and mischievous smile. Driven not to reveal that she’s come to see him, she fabricates a story that she’s actually Karin’s twin sister, Kathleen. Kathleen is quickly imagined to be a worldly prostitute, drawing admired arousal from all of Larry’s friends. Of course, within the first ten minutes of the lie, Larry has figured it out as a falsehood. (More on this in the Trivia below.) So Karin does her best to manipulate him– either to stick with his sister or run off with her, she’s never quite sure which is the best route– while Larry must come to terms with the fact that he’s extremely attracted to his wife but doesn’t want to admit to his wife that he’s in love with her.
It’s convoluted, and the fact that Larry knows well and good that his wife is simply trying to trick him deflates many of the jabs. Several reviewers have seen the film as an indictment of the Madonna-whore dichotomy, where men see Karin as a boorish, free spirited ski instructor, whereas Kathleen is a desirable, unmoored sex object. This is specious, though, since Karin is completely void of personality and Kathleen’s worldly facade is so utterly weak. It’s less a Madonna-Whore and more a Cardboard Box-Slightly Flirtatious Box Turtle dichotomy.
Karin is an innately weak character, and worse, a nothing one. She lacks a fanciful imagination, the ability to jab back at Griselda, or even the power to lie well. This can be Garbo being unsure how far to take her characterization of Karin’s twin, but never does she project an ounce of confidence, making her game and the underlying psychology seem that much weaker. Larry is such a rat, too, being even more duplicitous with everyone around him as he attempts to outwit this woman who he kind of loves who is acting pretty damn goofy.
Garbo looks bored and frustrated– she’s holding something back. Her accent is slipping, the movie removes all of her exoticism and charm in exchange for a paper-thin characterization that I’m not sure any actress could have saved. Director George Cukor, who would soon run Norma Shearer’s career into a wall with a similar romantic comedy mess, is clumsy, with awkward pauses abounding and a pace that is slooooooooow. Melvyn Douglas is similarly stuck with a deeply unappealing character who is simply unpleasant to watch, and he can’t find a bit of comedy in that.
It’s a comedy without a laugh outside a few arranged by Constance Bennett, whose character as a mildly annoyed playwright seems more fully formed than any of the rest of the production. Bennett’s Griselda is impetuous and haughty in the best ways, and loses her carefully maintained composure several times. It’s to the film’s detriment that she disappears too soon, though even then she’s merely a relief rather than a lifesaver.
An endless series of ski stunts cap the film, and I’ve seen better and more exciting ones tacked onto Ski School 2– which I totally did not watch late one night when I was a teenager. Two Faced Woman is an awful, frustrating film. If you love Greta Garbo, screwball comedy, George Cukor, or even old movies in general, avoid it.
Trivia & Links
- For background on this one, check out Mark A. Vieira’s Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy, which details the deeply troubled production from beginning to end. The film was caught between multiple creative forces who didn’t quite know what the point of the story was. Compounding that was when the film was released, it received a ‘Condemned’ rating from the Legion of Decency and was kept out of several markets despite the PCA having approved the picture. This lead to numerous reshoots, including dropping Griselda completely from the third act (though that may have also had something to do with Bennett stealing the picture from Garbo). The most important change and the one that eventually put the Legion of Decency at ease was the addition of the scene where Larry takes the phone call and realizes that Kathleen is Karin immediately after the charade began. I complained plenty about the scene, and learning that it was added in months later for no rhyme or reason but to appeal to censors makes a great deal of sense. Regardless, the controversy died down considerably after the film’s release, mostly because it was December 1941 and everyone suddenly had bigger things on their minds.
- Garbo didn’t intend for this to be her final film, but after a series of projects that just didn’t coalesce, she decided to keep staying away from the screen. Like Norma Shearer, she would leave the game in the early 1940s as the studios continued to evolve further from the glory days of the early talkies towards a new era, one that could be darker for the men and decidedly more simple for the women. It’s probably for the best– Garbo’s ethereal aura was dimming by this picture, and the decidedly more pedestrian constraints of 1940s film making in general was giving way. MGM was probably far more happy churning out Andy Hardy films than spending years negotiating for one Garbo film, and Garbo– well, she wanted to be left alone, after all. Though she was never lousy in a picture, a great Garbo movie needed all the right ingredients to push her to that next level. In her best movies with her best directors, she transcends the movie screen. If you ever get the chance to see a Garbo film in the theater, don’t even hesitate, even if it’s this one. There’s some things you can’t transfer to a DVD.
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