Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Two-Faced Woman

Train Wreck Cinema

By Jean-Paul Garrieux

Two-Faced Woman (MGM, 1941) – Director: George Cukor. Writers: S.N. Behrman, Salka Viertel & George Oppenheimer (s/p). Ludwig Fulda (play, Die Zwillingsschwestern [The Twin-Sisters]). Stars: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Constance Bennett, Roland Young, Robert Sterling, Ruth Gordon & Frances Carson. B&W, 90 minutes.

Although Two-Faced Woman cannot be called a train wreck as such – it’s merely a mediocre romantic comedy – it was a personal train wreck for its star, Greta Garbo. The returns from the movie were enough for both the star and MGM to agree on a buyout of her contract. This would prove to be her last film.

The outbreak of World War 2 proved a mortal blow to Garbo’s film career, for Europe was where her films made money. In there U.S. they were mostly met with indifference by movie audiences, but overseas she was a mega star and her films drew sellout crowds not only in Scandinavia, but especially in France and Germany. MGM, reading the handwriting on the wall, decided to retool Garbo for domestic audiences. This first effort, Ninotchka (1939), was a surprise hit, with the domestic gross of $1,187,000 beating out the worldwide total of $1,092,000 (down because of the outbreak of war and the closing of the German market to MGM).

Since Ninotchka made money, MGM decided to strike again two years later, engaging George Cukor to direct. The perfect option would have been a sequel to Ninotchka, but in the end the writers adapted a 1925 Constance Talmadge silent film, Her Sister From Paris, which in turn was based on a Fulda’s play. MGM used the film to promote a new image of Garbo as a down-to-earth sporting type in hopes of increasing her appeal to American audiences. No more melancholy fallen noblewomen, Garbo was now a casual American-type woman. (MGM publicists described Garbo in Two-Faced Woman as “The greatest oomph girl of all time.”) In addition to scenes where Garbo skis and swims, the studio planned to have her dance the rhumba in a ballroom scene. Garbo, not a natural dancer, had to take lessons, but did well during the actual scene, though she later disparaged it. The studio also cut her salary from the usual $250,000 to $150,000, citing the War in Europe as the reason. Several re-writes were done before the Breen Office approved the script for filming.

Melvyn Douglas is Larry Blake, a workaholic editor of a New York fashion magazine who has come to Idaho to ski and rest. There he meets ski instructor Karin Borg (Garbo), who at first seems indifferent to his advances. But when he gets his pole caught in the ski lift she rescues him and they get the chance to “meet cute.” They become stranded, fall in love and marry.

Hearing the news of his disappearance, Blake’s partner, O.O. Miller (Young) and secretary, Miss Ellis (Gordon) arrive from New York. Finding him safe and sound they want him to return to New York and re-design their magazine.

Larry promised Karin that he’ll give up the city life and settle down, but goes to New York without Karin, who decided to stay behind, with Larry promising to return within a week. After receiving several telegrams from Larry announcing delays she  secretly comes to New York.

When she arrives she meets Miss Ellis at an exclusive dress shop for a glamorous makeover. They head to a theater where Larry is backing a new play and Karin overhears an intimate conversation between Larry and his former girl friend, playwright Griselda Vaughn (Bennett).

Karin’s first impulse is to return to Idaho, but she’s been spotted at the theater by Miller. Not wanting Larry to know she’s in New York, she has Miss Ellis tell Miller that the woman he saw is Karin’s twin cousin, Katherine. Miller buys the deception, but Larry, who at first is stunned when he meets Katherine, is highly suspicious.

Unbeknownst to Karin, Larry telephones the ski lodge in Idaho and learns that Karin has left for New York. He plays along, almost seducing his wife's purported twin sister, but stopping short each time. After a little back and forth, Larry tells “Katherine” he wants to divorce Karin. He plans to fly to Idaho to tell Karin, but Katherine somehow convinces him to take the train. 

Back at Karin's cabin, she acts like her old self, but when Larry sees that she still is wearing Katherine’s toenail polish, he is sure they are one and the same. They spend the night together and in the morning, Larry suggests that he could be happy with both Katherine and Karin. Karin goes into the bathroom and returns wearing Katherine's negligee to prove the point. Larry, however, pretends not to believe they are one and the same and she leaves in a fit of anger, with Larry in hot pursuit. But after he falls into a frozen lake she comes to his aid and they reconcile, with all being forgiven. 

It’s harmless fluff and at first passed the Breen Office, set for release in late November 1941. However, before the film could be released, the Legion of Decency threw a monkey wrench into MGM’s plans by declaring the film “Class C,” or “Condemned,” due to its “immoral and un-Christian attitude toward marriage and its obligations.” Listed among the film’s sins were impudently suggestive scenes, dialogue, situations, and costumes. In addition, Catholic hotbeds Boston and Providence both banned the film and the Archbishop of New York chimed in as well. Other cities ordered that scenes be cut before the film could play there. 

The bad press that followed became a public relations nightmare for MGM. New scenes had to be quickly written to defuse the situation. In addition to censorship-related changes, the studio also cut a number of Constance Bennett's scenes and changed the ending, due to reports that Bennett had upstaged Garbo in many of their scenes together. Cukor refused to direct the new scenes, so new directors were called in to shoot the new material, which was quickly re-edited into the film before its release on December 31, 1941.     

It was a perfect storm: critics heavily panned the film, audiences were not buying Garbo as a screwball comedienne, and, as if this wasn’t bad enough, the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor put a depression into overall movie attendance. Against a budget of $1,247,000, it earned $875,000 in the U.S. and Canada, and $925,000 elsewhere, resulting in a loss of $62,000. 

Garbo, faced with the worst reviews of her career and the paltry receipts, decided to terminate her contract with MGM, though the decision was said to be mutual. Louis B. Mayer offered a generous buyout, but Garbo turned it down, saying that she had not earned it. In reality, Garbo planned to place her career on hold until the war ended, but no proposed project ever got past the drawing board.


Both Cary Grant and William Powell were considered for the role of Larry Blake.     

The original uncensored version of the film still exists, and was shown in 2004 at a George Cukor retrospective in London, but has not been released on DVD.   

Ironically, Constance Bennett starred in a similar film called Moulin Rouge (20th Century Pictures, 1934).

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