powered by AFI
As You Desire Me (1932), one of the more potently bizarre film offerings ofthe 1930s, teams Greta Garbo and Erich von Stroheim in a narrative thatlinks, among other things, amnesia, nightclub singing, royal living,self-hatred, romantic betrayal, and systematic revenge. Based on a play byLuigi Pirandello, it's an altogether fascinating viewing experience.
Garbo plays Zara, a singer in a tawdry Budapest nightclub who, due to abrutal assault by drunken soldiers during World War I, can't recall her pastas an Italian Countess. Ten years down the road, she finds herself in thegrip of Karl Salter (von Stroheim), a cruel writer who treats her as anerotic possession. When informed of her earlier existence by a nightclubpatron who painted her wedding portrait (Owen Moore), Zara leaves Karl andreturns to her husband, Count Varelli (Melvyn Douglas). Varelli still lovesZara, but her misadventure has tainted her standing in high society. Soon,the ever-obsessive Karl shows up with another woman in tow, insisting thatshe, and not Zara, is the real Countess.
Though now praised for Garbo's performance - and for her outrageously sexystage outfits, which may have been a sarcastic poke at Marlene Dietrich inThe Blue Angel (1930) - audiences at the time couldn't get a handleon As You Desire Me. Its troubled characters were probably too darkfor American audiences who were suffering from the effects of the Great Depression.
MGM couldn't have been pleased with the public's relative lack of interest,especially since Garbo had cleverly manipulated both Louis B. Mayer and IrvingThalberg during filming. As You Desire Me went into production veryquickly because Garbo's contract was about to end, and MGM wanted to squeezeanother film out of her...a move that left her decidedly cold toward thestudio. Her irritation was further compounded when she requested vonStroheim for the role of Salter and Mayer and Thalberg flatly refused.
Von Stroheim, to say the least, had had a difficult past with MGM. He was ademanding but brilliant actor-director who'd been humiliated by Thalberg when the MGM mogulirrevocably altered his epic masterpiece, Greed (1925), by removingand burning several hours of footage. Knowing full well what she was askingof her bosses, Garbo insisted on von Stroheim's participation. MGMgrudgingly relented, but the chess match with their star had just begun.
Von Stroheim hadn't directed a film since The Wedding March (1928),and he'd been stuck acting in mostly second-rate pictures. He took a hugelyunjustified fall from glory, a situation that left him with cripplingnervous attacks. Several times during the filming of As You DesireMe, he phoned Garbo, telling her that he couldn't find the courage towork the next day. Garbo would then call Thalberg, informing him that shewouldn't be able to film, thus protecting von Stroheim from Thalberg'swrath.
Director George Fitzmaurice was little more than an interested bystanderonce the jostle for control began. Douglas later claimed that the onlything Fitzmaurice told him about the character of Count Varelli was that hewas a soldier, so he should wear a military corset. Fitzmaurice wasapparently convinced of the garment's importance. He made a point ofchecking each morning to see if Douglas was actually wearing one.
Garbo, of course, had little use for what the industry, and fame in general,could do to people's lives, a revulsion that eventually convinced her toquit acting altogether. Douglas once said of his mysterious co-star, "Shewas shy, perhaps even frightened, about her own work." Garbo had announcedthat As You Desire Me would be her final picture, and appeared to bemaking good on her promise when she boarded a ship for Europe shortly afterfilming wrapped. Luckily, she returned to grace audiences with classicperformances in Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935),and Ninotchka (1939), also co-starring Douglas. Shortly thereafter,she left the film industry for good.
Director/Producer: George Fitzmaurice
Screenplay: Gene Markey (Based on a play by Luigi Pirandello)
Cinematographer: William Daniels
Film Editing: George Hively
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Costume Design: Adrian
Cast: Greta Garbo (Zara), Erich von Stroheim (Karl Salter), Melvyn Douglas (Count Bruno Varelli), Owen Moore (Tony Ferrara), Hedda Hopper (Madame Inez Montari), Rafaela Ottiano (Lena), Warburton Gamble (Baron).
BW-70m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara