“I feel that we’re being watched eternally — watched and criticized, from all sides.”
A married countess (Greta Garbo) falls in love with a handsome military man (Fredric March), but her socially conscientious husband (Basil Rathbone) refuses to provide her with a divorce, ultimately forcing her to choose between a life with her new lover and contact with her beloved son (Freddie Bartholomew).
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Basil Rathbone Films
- Clarence Brown Films
- Freddie Bartholomew Films
- Fredric March Films
- Greta Garbo Films
- Maureen O’Sullivan Films
- Morality Police
Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has been adapted for the stage and screen numerous times, but this early version by director Clarence Brown remains perhaps the most famous and beloved. The screenwriters do a decent job compacting the meaty novel’s most critical plot points into a 90-minute storyline, though it lacks one essential element: a strong enough sense of why Anna would give up contact with her beloved son for a man like Count Vronsky. As played by March, his charm simply isn’t magnetic or overpowering enough to convince us he’s worthy of such a sacrifice by Anna, no matter how unhappy her marriage is to cold and rigid Karenin (Rathbone). The film opens rather creatively on a scene of Vronsky carousing with his military comrades, during which time we get a strong sense of this man as both “one of the boys” and apparently among the mightiest (given that he wins a lengthy drinking contest). Later, once he lays eyes on luminous Anna (Garbo) emerging in a shroud of mist from her train, we can see how and why he’d be smitten — but too little time is ultimately spent building a sufficient context for their life-changing romance.
However, Anna Karenina is really all about its titular character — and this film is Garbo’s all the way. She inhabited the role once before, in a silent adaptation by Edmund Goulding entitled Love (1927); ironically, that version — while too pared down narrative-wise to remain a must-see adaptation of the novel — demonstrates chemistry in spades, given the very-real romantic tensions between Garbo and her on-and-off-screen lover, John Gilbert. Nonetheless, those hoping for a more authentic, albeit radically condensed, look at Tolstoy’s famous novel would be best off checking out this version, which features lovely cinematography by William Daniels (who also served as DP on Love) and creative direction by Brown, who worked with Garbo in no less than seven of her films — including Flesh and the Devil (1927) and Anna Christie (1930). Watch for Maureen O’Sullivan in a truncated role as Kitty, who initially has eyes for Vronsky herself.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina
- William Daniels’ luminous cinematography
- Often-inspired direction by Brown
Yes, simply to see Garbo in one of her most iconic roles.