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Some films seem like a sure thing - a great director working with the reigning queen of Hollywood in an attempt to repeat the comedic success of a previous film with her original costar. Sounds like a winner, right? Well, so much for foolproof formulas. Disaster can occur when you least expect it and such was the fate of Two-Faced Woman (1941), Greta Garbo's second attempt at comedy that resulted in her final film appearance. The box-office belly flop and negative PR that Two-Faced Woman endured drove Garbo into a film hiatus from which she would never return. But with reviews such as "Its embarrassing effect is not unlike seeing Sarah Bernhardt swatted with a bladder," wouldn't you run away too?
Studio executives were counting on a second home run for Garbo in the comic genre; Ninotchka (1939) had proven to be a box-office hit with Garbo trying her hand at levity and humor for the first time on film. Her costar from that movie, Melvyn Douglas, was cast again as her foil in Two-Faced Woman, no doubt increasing the odds of another success. Also no stranger to the ways of "The Face," George Cukor had directed Garbo previously in Camille (1937), widely regarded to be her best film. To top it all off, they had a fail-safe gimmick: Garbo would dance. The storyline, based on the film Her Sister from Paris (1925), featured a new bride posing as her sexy, cosmopolitan twin sister in order to woo her husband away from the affections of an old girlfriend. It was an innocent enough sounding premise that cleared the censors' radars . . . but the opinion of the Legion of Decency was another matter altogether.
Prior to its release, the Legion declared the film "Class C," or "Condemned," due to its "immoral and un-Christian attitude toward marriage and its obligations: impudently suggestive scenes, dialogue, and situations: suggestive costumes." And that's not all. In addition, the film was banned in Boston and Providence (both Catholic hotbeds), and the Archbishop of New York also condemned the film - the first time a specific picture had been singled out. The vicious press that followed became a public relations nightmare for MGM; new scenes were quickly written in an attempt to defuse the inflammatory material. To no one's surprise, Cukor refused to direct the corrective scenes, so new directors were called in to hastily shoot the new material. This footage was quickly re-edited into the film before its release on December 31, 1941.
But the damage was already done; critics panned the film heavily, audiences could not accept Garbo as a madcap comedienne, and, on top of it all, the attack on Pearl Harbor just three weeks earlier had an adverse effect on the public's moviegoing. Garbo was faced with the worst reviews of her entire career and just-as-dismal receipts. Shortly after the box-office debacle, her contract with MGM was terminated (it was said to be a mutual decision). During her final meeting with Louis B. Mayer, the studio head gave her a hefty check as a contractual payoff; Garbo refused to accept the money, explaining she had not earned it. She had only planned to take a break from films until the end of WWII - but no other projects ever came to fruition.
Its poor timing and bad luck aside, Two-Faced Woman remains Garbo's riskiest venture. For the first time on film, we see her experimenting liberally with comedy and presenting herself in a more casual manner than her audiences were used to seeing. She skis, she swims, and, most memorably, dances. The rhumba scene in which Garbo shakes her moneymaker doing a dance called the "chica choca" is not to be missed. But Garbo was not a natural dancer by any stretch--there is a story that the dance director for the sequence, Robert Alton, was sent to her house to teach her the steps. After knocking and ringing the bell several times to no avail, he finally found Greta hiding up in the branches of a tree in her garden; when spotted, she cried out, "Go away, Rhumba! Go away!" One pictures it as a fitting final image for a film legend that never quite climbed down from her tree.
Producer: Gottfried Reinhardt
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: S.N. Behrman, George Oppenheimer, Salka Viertel
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Costume Design: Adrian
Film Editing: George Boemler
Original Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Greta Garbo (Karin Borg Blake, Katherine Borg), Melvyn Douglas (Larry Blake), Constance Bennett (Griselda Vaughn), Roland Young (O.O. Miller), Robert Sterling (Dickie Williams), Ruth Gordon (Miss Ruth Ellis).
BW-91m. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin