This month marks TCM’s 25thanniversary. To celebrate, TCM’s April 2019 Star of the Month is the same star they featured as the very first SOTM 25 years ago: Greta Garbo.
Due to some curveballs in the TCM schedule, I’ll start our month with Garbo by reviewing The Mysterious Lady. And next week, I’ll cover Greta’s life in more detail.
Let’s get right to the plot of The Mysterious Lady (1928).
It’s pre-WWI Austria. We meet our male protagonist, played by Conrad Nagel, almost immediately. He’s Karl von Raden, an Austrian soldier, enjoying a night on the town. Karl decides to go see a show, and he ends up with a box seat next to a mysterious lady he’s never met. The mystery woman is incredibly beautiful as she takes in the play, and Karl is immediately smitten.
As you probably guessed, the mystery woman is played by our Star of the Month, Greta Garbo.
Karl and Tania Fall in Love
Little does Karl know, his seat next to this woman has all been carefully planned and arranged, for she is Russian spy Tania Fedorova, tasked with seducing Karl to get secret Austrian war plans back to the Russians!
But something the Russians and Tania don’t account for occurs: Tania and Karl fall in love.
It doesn’t take much–a romantic evening together after the show, and a picnic in the woods the next day–and suddenly Tania finds herself torn between her duty to her country and her love for Karl.
The Mysterious Lady is a Spy
But Karl must leave the day after their picnic. A henchman of Tania’s boss/boyfriend General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) comes to warn her that she must double cross Karl and get the Austrian plans, OR ELSE.
Before Tania meets up with Karl on the train the next day, Karl learns Tania’s true identity from his Uncle Eric, a secret agent man.
“No wonder you’re chief of the secret service, Uncle Eric!,”
Karl exclaims, amazed at his uncle’s super advanced detective work. Karl rightfully feels betrayed by Tania. When she comes to his room on the train, he gives her a talking to. Tania, pride injured and frustrated that Karl doesn’t believe her when she professes her love for him, leaves Karl’s room with a dramatic flourish:
“I came to you as the woman who loved you–I leave–your enemy.”
Tania and Karl Meet Again
Tania steals the Austrian plans while Karl is sleeping, and disappears into the night. Back in Russia, while being heralded by her countrymen and Boris for a job well done, Tania learns that her handy work has led to Karl being deemed a traitor by his country. The Austrians believe Karl must be a double agent for “losing” the plans. His death has been scheduled, and Tania feels responsible.
But…Uncle Eric to the rescue! He sneaks Karl out of jail because he knows Karl is innocent, and sends him on a mission to Russia to prove his innocence. Which, as luck would have it, includes finding Tania by acting like a pianist in a joint that is the popular hang out spot for Boris and his hoity-toity crowd.
Karl ends up playing the tunes at one of Boris’ parties, and Tania sees him. Their love is (of course) reignited as Tania sings to Karl’s piano playing.
Boris can tell there’s something going on between Tania and the piano player, and he becomes suspicious. Tania decides to prove her love to Karl by stealing some secret Russian plans from Boris.
But Boris catches her!
“I taught you everything you know, but not everything I know!!!”
Tania proceeds to shoot Boris dead in his office, just before his right-hand man knocks on the door to say that they’ve just captured Karl.
The Mysterious Lady Thinks Fast
Tania thinks fast, and moves the dead Boris to an oversized armchair, with the back of the chair facing the office door. She positions herself on his lap so that only her face and body, and Boris’ arm and hand—which she arranges on herself to look like a romantic embrace—are visible from the office door.
She tells Boris’ man to open the door, and acts like the dead Boris and herself are…busy…
Tania then pretends like Boris has whispered to her, and tells the man that General Alexandroff wishes to do away with Karl himself, and to bring him in the office and leave the three of them alone.
Smart move Tania.
Tania and Karl Escape
Naturally, Boris’ office has a secret passageway that leads out to the (also naturally) unguarded courtyard. Tania and Karl use the passageway to escape, and make their way to the Austrian border, which they successfully cross.
Now Tania and Karl can start their life together, happy and free in Austria.
And that’s the end of the film.
The Mysterious Lady: Simply Intriguing
The plot line of The Mysterious Lady is simple–and oversimplified at that–but it’s a completely intriguing film.
The Mysterious Lady was directed by the now mostly forgotten Fred Niblo. But Niblo does a superb job with the film, creating an almost Hitchcockian feel.
The Mysterious Lady is also pretty perfectly cast. Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel reportedly got along very well on set. Some critics found Nagel a little boring. Though he’s certainly not at Garbo’s skill level, Nagel does a fine job in the film. Unlike many silent actors of the time, Nagel keeps from overacting. He’s quite charming and endearing in the beginning scenes when Karl and Tania meet, stealing glances at Garbo whenever possible with a clear look of longing in his eyes.
And we can’t blame Nagel/Karl for stealing looks at Garbo/Tania.
The Breathtaking Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo is absolutely breathtaking from the moment the camera allows us to lay eyes on her. The bright lighting lends Garbo an angelic quality, and she’s simply luminous. The Mysterious Lady’s cinematographer was William Daniels, who became known as “Garbo’s cameraman.” After viewing The Mysterious Lady, it’s clear why, without fail, Garbo requested him for all her films. Greta Garbo is always gorgeous, but through the capable lens of William Daniels, her beauty becomes immortal.
The Mysterious Lady was released a mere two years into Garbo’s Hollywood film career, and she was already revered for her immense beauty and acting talent. The screen had never seen anything like Greta Garbo before, and audiences of the time went absolutely wild for her.
Greta Garbo's Timeless Talents
In The Mysterious Lady, we see what all the fuss was about: besides being utterly gorgeous in every scene, Garbo’s acting is impressive. Even without words, Garbo conveys exactly what her character feels, through the slightest eye movement, or the lift of an eyebrow.
In the scene where Tania shoots Boris, and must quickly figure out what to do in order to save Karl’s life and simultaneously keep from being caught herself, Garbo shows us every thought that crosses Tania’s mind as she concocts her plan. Again, she does this successfully with no words, and no overacting.
Garbo’s performance in The Mysterious Lady stands the test of time—this is not just a good performance for a 1920s silent, this is a good performance period.
The Mysterious Lady: Worth Watching
The Mysterious Lady is not a perfect film, and there are some comical scenes that totally weren’t supposed to be funny. Such as the scene where Karl receives his death sentence by the heads of the Austian Army, and one guy breaks Karl’s sword simply by bending it over his knee. With such superhuman strength, it’s a wonder the Austrians need swords, or an army at all, when they’ve got this guy around.
But The Mysterious Lady is an intriguing film worth watching, and an appropriate introduction to Greta Garbo’s silent career.