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Friday, November 27, 2020

Greta Garbo is the Two-Faced Woman (1941)

Greta Garbo’s last screen performance has her playing a prim ski instructor masquerading as her gold-digging twin sister to undermine her wandering husband’s (Melvyn Douglas) affair with Constance Bennett.

I can see why this George Cukor-directed film flopped at the box office; Garbo in a strictly comedic role was just too much of a stretch for audiences used to their stern, aloof heroine.  However, she is great; today she would be praised for stretching her boundaries.

Two-Faced Woman is a lot like Barbara Stanwyck’s The Mad Miss Manton (1938) in that it has lots of great parts that don’t add up to a whole. The script is inadequate and the direction dull. The fun in watching Garbo play polar opposite twin sisters is undermined by the fact that her philandering husband (Douglas) knows who she is all the time. This, for me, cuts the legs out from under the film, much like in The Little Shop Around the Corner (1940), where of the two pen-pal lovers, Jimmy Stewart knows who Margaret Sullivan is, but not vice versa. It becomes a bit painful watching both Sullivan and Garbo make fools out of themselves for men like Stewart who does not have the gumption to reveal his identity, or Douglas who is nothing more than a smooth talking egotist who treats women like chattel. 

Douglas played this highly unsympathetic role too many times opposite great actresses, e.g., Joan Blondell in There’s Always a Woman (1937) and Myrna Loy in Third Finger, Left Hand (1940), His character in these films is like watching a fine sports car trying to accelerate with the emergency brake on. It’s hard to imagine women ever falling for a cad like Douglas who is perpetually tittering on the edge of being physically abusive. Such was considered comedic back in the day.

Two-Faced Woman is buoyed up by Constance Bennett in her supporting role as Douglas’s paramour. Her one scene sparring with Garbo is worth the price of admission. Apparently most of Bennett’s scenes were cut as she upstaged Garbo whenever they were together. And one can see why. Although Garbo is excellent, she is clearly uncomfortable in her uncharacteristically comedic role, whereas Bennett is like a well-oiled machine playing the cool manipulator with a light comedic touch that she had perfected over the previous decade.

Kudos as well to the brilliant Ruth Gordon who sparkles as Douglas’s long suffering secretary. Did you know that in addition to winning an Academy Award (Rosemary’s Baby) and an Emmy (Taxi) for her acting, so had four Academy Award nominations for screenwriting?

A print exists of the original uncut & unaltered Two-Faced Woman, but, although it has been shown publicly, it has never been released to TV or DVD. Come on Criterion! It’s Garbo with Constance Bennett and Melvyn Douglas! If you can release The Atomic Submarine, surely this is more deserving of a spiffy 4K restoration and release!

Is It Worth My Time: A qualified yes. If you can sit through the first leaden 30 minutes, things pick up once Garbo switches from Karin to her Katherine persona. And while Constance Bennett’s knife-like hip bones are not on display, her razor sharp wit is undiminished.

Availability:   From Warner Archives and the usual on-line sources.