Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

“My boy, when the devil cannot reach us through the spirit, he creates a woman beautiful enough to reach us through the flesh.”

A soldier (John Gilbert) on leave from military training falls in love with a beautiful woman (Greta Garbo) who fails to tell him she’s already married; after killing her husband (Marc McDermott) in a duel, Gilbert leaves for overseas service, asking his lifelong friend (Lars Hanson) to look out for Garbo — with unexpectedly heartbreaking effects.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Clarence Brown Films
  • Friendship
  • Greta Garbo Films
  • John Gilbert Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Silent Films

Directed by Clarence Brown, this historical onscreen pairing of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert (their first) is notable as the film which brought Garbo to stardom. Garbo plays a seductive temptress who wreaks havoc on the lifelong friendship between Gilbert and Hanson; unfortunately, other than one potent scene hinting at more complexity with her mysterious character (as she looks at herself vainly in the mirror while trying on widows’ veils), we don’t learn enough about her to really understand her motivations. The primary draw of this disappointingly scripted film is William Daniels’ luminous cinematography, which is consistently a treat to behold, and certainly contributed to Garbo’s imminent cinematic mystique.

Note: It’s difficult to ignore the homoerotic tensions between Gilbert and Hanson, who are often pictured as remarkably physically intimate.

Their blood-brothers friendship ultimately drives the entire narrative, and is the most intriguing (if underdeveloped) aspect of the script.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Genuine chemistry between Garbo and Gilbert
  • The creatively filmed duel
  • Fine, atmospheric cinematography by William Daniels

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look simply for its historical relevance as the first of Garbo’s four pairings with Gilbert, and as the film which brought Garbo to stardom. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book. Added to the National Film Registry in 2006.


One thought on “Flesh and the Devil (1926)

  1. Not a must.

    First viewing.

    It’s true: this really should be a love story between Gilbert and Hanson – at least that makes a lot more sense! I mean…from the blood brothers scene and beyond… It’s a little intense. In a way, it’s the odd ‘Brokeback Mountain’ of its day! Or do I not understand male bonding well enough?

    But anywho…

    I’d almost recommend this film for its stunning production/costume design and cinematography alone – quite remarkable – at least those elements keep the film running at full-steam in a unique way for a silent. But then, of course, there’s the Garbo/Gilbert angle. They *are* an attractive couple – Garbo in a classic way, and Gilbert smoldering very much so (with a tad too much make-up, and again reminding me of Justin Timberlake somehow). Some shots of them kissing and swooning may put you in mind of the classic closing scene of ‘Cinema Paradiso’.

    The main storyline – overdone, as director Brown often plays things – is a tragedy for die-hard romantics. The only plot development of interest, though, comes with the twist in the last 15 minutes. ~which does make the wait for something of that sort sort of worth it.

    Of course, one should have seen it coming. Early on, there is this telling exchange:

    Gilbert: You are…very beautiful.
    Garbo: You are…very young.

    So we know his ‘love’ is surface, and we know that she knows he’s a total innocent. What can come of this?

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