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By the late 1920s, author Michael Arlen's successful but controversial novel The Green Hat had already been turned into a hit stage play. But the novel faced a difficult battle before it made it to the big screen. According to Leatrice Gilbert Fountain in Dark Star, "At first, the Hays Office blocked production of a movie based on The Green Hat because of its explicit references to venereal disease and its overall "immorality." The studio answered by changing the names of the characters, deleting any references to venereal disease, and changing the title to A Woman of Affairs."
The Hays Office, which was the motion picture industry's censoring board, had very strict guidelines. The Green Hat had to be cleaned up before it would pass approval. Even after MGM changed the names of all the characters and removed objectionable material, the Hays Office still would not allow the film's credits or any advertisements to refer to the novel by name. They could only say "from the story by Michael Arlen."
In A Woman of Affairs, Greta Garbo stars as Diana Merrick, a woman in love with Neville Holderness, played by Garbo's real-life love interest, John Gilbert. Neville's father opposes a marriage between the two, so Diana eventually marries another man. But her new husband commits suicide on their wedding night when he is exposed as an embezzler. Soon after his death, Diana's brother, Geoffrey (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), also dies. Diana eventually meets Neville again, but by this time he is married.
Many of the same events happen in both the novel and the film, but character motivations are often different. In the novel, the main character's husband commits suicide because he had syphilis. Some critics thought the switch to embezzlement in the film made later plot points seem contrived. In the film, Diana's affair with her former lover is downplayed. According to Frank Miller in Censored Hollywood, "Garbo's one night of illicit passion with former lover John Gilbert is played in such a way that less aware audience members might think they spent the evening talking." Additionally, the reason for her character's later hospitalization is also changed. In the novel the main character is hospitalized after giving birth to an illegitimate child. In the film, however, Diana's illness is more mysterious. She becomes ill with grief after her brother's death and the loss of Neville. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in his autobiography, The Salad Days, commented on another difference between the novel and the film: "The United States still had prohibition and so even though my character was supposed to die of drink, no bottle label was ever allowed to show."
Greta Garbo and her co-star John Gilbert had an on-again, off-again romance that spanned two years and three films. After Rudolph Valentino's death in 1926, Gilbert had become the most popular romantic lead in silent films. Audiences couldn't get enough of his real-life romance with Garbo, and MGM made the most of it. They even changed the name of a film based on Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina so the ads could read, "Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Love."
While filming A Woman of Affairs, Garbo and Gilbert often quarreled. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. recalls that when the couple argued, Gilbert asked him "to be a go-between, carrying his scribbled note to her and, he hoped, returning with her loving reply. The offstage atmosphere seemed quite chilly for days. Then all would be well again - until the next time." Garbo and Gilbert split for good shortly after A Woman of Affairs and in 1929 Gilbert married the actress Ina Claire. Garbo never married.
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: Marian Ainslee, Ruth Cummings (titles), Bess Meredyth. Based on the novel by Michael Arlen.
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt, David Mendoza
Principal Cast: Greta Garbo (Diana Merrick), John Gilbert (Neville Holderness), Lewis Stone (Dr. Hugh Trevelyan), Johnny Mack Brown (David Furness), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Geoffrey Merrick), Hobart Bosworth (Sir Morton Holderness).
by Deborah Looney