“Diana, I’ve tried but I can’t live without you!”
A Woman of Affairs tells the story of Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo), a woman whose life spirals out of control and into darkness when she is refused the love of her life, Neville Holderness (John Gilbert).
Diana Merrick, Neville Holderness, and David Furness (Johnny Mack Brown) are childhood friends who later find themselves in a love triangle in which Neville and David are both in love with Diana but she with Neville. The only problem is, Neville’s father (Hobart Bosworth) does not consider Diana fit for marriage to his son and sends Neville away on a two year expedition to Egypt to separate the young lovers. Diana waits and waits as she slowly loses hope for his return and eventually marries David instead. Tragedy strikes into her life once again when David commits suicide and Diana loses all hope for love. All the while her brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) blames her for his close friend David’s death and falls deep into alcoholism.
Diana turns to men, seducing and using them for cheap thrills and tarnishing her reputation in the process. Years pass and Diana discovers that her brother Jeffry is on his deathbed from years of alcoholism. She attempts to visit him but he refuses to see her still holding onto his belief that she pushed David to suicide. Upon her visit, she runs into Neville and their love for one another cannot be contained. Neville is to be married to a woman named Constance (Dorothy Sebastian) but finds himself unable to restrain his love for Diana. The two spend one last passionate night together and once again separate for many months. When Neville returns to Diana he finds that she has been ill (in the book she’s suffered a miscarriage) and comes to her bedside. She confesses her love to him without realizing that he has been married or that his wife is close by listening to every word. Once more, Diana loses any sliver of hope she held in her heart for Neville and puts an end to her suffering once and for all.
The story of A Woman of Affairs is based on the novel “The Green Hat” by Michael Arlen but due to heavy censorship on the behalf of the Hays Office, it hardly resembles the book. Because of the censor board, MGM, and many other studios, were forced to get creative with how they adapted such novels as “The Green Hat.” An example of how MGM worked around the censor for A Woman of Affairs is the scene in which Diana loses her virginity to Neville. The scene shows a close-up of Greta Garbo’s hand as a ring slips off of her finger and falls to the floor while she lies with John Gilbert. The ring symbolizes the loss of her virginity and subtly lets the audience know that she has slipped or lost something precious. But even this scene was removed from the film in certain states where it was against the rules for a movie to show a woman losing her virginity, even if symbolically.1
Another example is Diana’s illness at the end of the movie. In the book, she has a miscarriage of her and Neville’s baby. This too was against the censor because it inferred pregnancy out of wedlock. In the movie, Diana has an unexplained illness and it was left up to audiences to decide if it was a miscarriage or just some sort of unknown mystery illness. However, considering the book was highly popular at the time, it is safe to assume that most audience members were clued in.
In addition, the use of heroin and the portrayal of a sexually transmitted disease were omitted and altered for the silver screen. Movie audiences are led to believe that David commits suicide due to the police being onto him for an embezzlement crime. In the book, however, David contracts syphilis and is too ashamed to go to bed with Diana because of it. This would suggest that David had sex out of wedlock which was not okay with the censor board. Furthermore, the portrayal of venereal diseases was generally prohibited because it too suggested “impure” sex.
The one vice that MGM was able to slide past the censors was alcoholism. In 1928, drinking on film was prohibited by the Hays Office due to prohibition, but in this film Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s character is never seen without a drink in hand. MGM was able to get away with this for a couple of different reasons. For one, Jeffry’s ultimate deathly demise due to alcoholism occurs on screen. So-called “immoral” behavior in movies had an easier time passing the censor board if the character faced harsh consequences for their wrongdoings. In many cases, the character either dies or is forced to live out a miserable existence. It was also easier for immorality to get by the censor board if either the character was not American or if the story was not set in America. Once again, Jeffry’s alcoholism was able to get by the censor board because it takes place in England. Lastly, MGM was able to get by the censor by simply having Fairbanks drink from an unlabeled glass.2 That way, the censor board could not simply assume it was alcohol in his glass. Despite any changes, the movie is still rather racy and does not shy away from the dark themes that appear in the original story but it was just the kind of movie that movie fans were craving.
By 1928, Greta Garbo was one of the top stars of MGM and was receiving a top salary. According to fan magazines of the day, Garbo used her popularity as a power tool over studio executives by threatening that she would return home to Europe if they did not give her what she felt she deserved in terms of roles and pay. While this method didn’t always work out for other stars, it seemed to work for Garbo. Studio executives knew that they had something special with her and that paying audiences would not be pleased if she were to disappear from the screen. They also were aware that they had a goldmine in Greta Garbo and John Gilbert.
A Woman of Affairs was Garbo’s fourth movie under contract at MGM and her last pairing with John Gilbert, who was equally as popular. Gilbert was sold to the public as one of the great Latin Lovers and was a popular heartthrob during the silent era. Much to the satisfaction of movie fans and gossip rags, Garbo and Gilbert were romantically linked in their personal lives as well. Greta Garbo and John Gilbert first appeared on the screen together in Flesh and the Devil and the two began a love affair that lasted off and on again over the next couple of years. By 1928 there romance was fizzling out and some audiences felt that it showed in A Woman of Affairs. The two had been living together and it was rumored that Gilbert even proposed several times to Garbo to no avail. She later recalled that she was frozen by his proposals because she feared that he would try to become the boss of her. Despite her love for him, she could not give in to the possibility of being submissive to anyone. While some felt that their chemistry was off in A Woman of Affairs, I would argue that they are just as romantic as ever and the sparks still fly.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. remembered the set was often tense during filming due to Garbo and Gilbert’s tumultuous relationship. He often acted as a messenger between the two actors, delivering handwritten and verbal messages. He later wrote, “I resisted the temptation to peek, but I doubt if Jack’s notes won many Brownie points. The offstage atmosphere seemed quite chilly for days. Then all would be well again – until the next time.”3
He remembered the two as being warm and sincere people individually. He admitted that Gilbert was maybe even too kind and trusting of him at times as he had his eyes on Garbo. He later blamed his lack of maturity and perhaps overconfidence for thinking he even had a chance with her. He often innocently attended parties and gatherings with her and drove her home at the end of the night. The two were never romantic but Fairbanks always remembered her very fondly.
A Woman of Affairs was an important role for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., whose movie career was still relatively new in 1928. In the few years following his 1923 film debut, Fairbanks intermittently appeared on the screen in movies such as Stella Dallas and The American Venus. By 1928 he was appearing on the screen more regularly and in roles with stars such as Marie Prevost, Jobyna Ralston, George O’Brien, and Will Rogers. A Woman of Affairs gave him a chance to work with some of the biggest stars of the silent era at arguably the biggest studio. It also gave him a chance to play in a role with depth that would allow him to show off his acting chops. Picture Play Magazine wrote, “Young Fairbanks’ characterization of the decadent and neurotic young Englishman revealed his insight, sensitivity, mobility.”4 According to that same article, director Clarence Brown declared that Fairbanks had the potential to be the greatest actor on the screen. Whether one agrees with Brown or not, his statement shows the types of conversations that were cropping up around Fairbanks’ early film career and his role in A Woman of Affairs was important in contributing to that buzz.
Overall, A Woman of Affairs is a harrowing but beautiful film that places true love on the highest of pedestals by regarding it as the exclusive key to happiness. Without true love, Diana’s life loses all hope and is cut tragically short. We are even led to believe that not even Neville will ever truly live with his heart fulfilled despite his marriage to Constance. Perhaps this was the perfect ending to the romance of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. There is such a feeling of finality that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Audiences and critics were favorable toward the film, if not slightly disappointed by its tragic end.
Photoplay magazine described the picture best by writing, “The story is a study in emotions. A girl sets out to uphold the wild reputation of her family because the father of the man she loves won’t let him marry her. Her life becomes a whirl of escapades. Also one tragic marriage. Through it all, however, she clings fast to her first love. And the beauty of this love story lifts the picture to exalted heights and purges it of any possible tang of sordidness.” The reviewer goes on to call it Greta Garbo’s greatest performance yet and lauds her for giving such a performance without a “clinging dress” or “a single Garbo slink.”5 Her portrayal of Diana is honest and heartbreaking and never once do you feel that she is at fault for any of the tragedies that befall her. And that truly is the magic of Greta Garbo and what makes her still so captivating a century later.
***This piece was written for the Greta Garbo Blogathon hosted by the wonderful In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, click below to read the posts!