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In 1937, Greta Garbo had completed probably her most celebrated role, that of Camille (1937) for George Cukor, known as a "woman's director" at MGM. However, it was director Clarence Brown who was best able to communicate with the famously reserved actress. They made seven films together, including Garbo's last dramatic role, that of Polish countess Marie Walewska, in Conquest (1937).
It would be her final assignment with Brown, who had helped shepherd her through such silent films as Flesh and the Devil (1926) to the talkies, in Anna Christie (1930). Brown once commented on their unique rapport, saying, "I had a special way with her. I never gave her direction in anything louder than a whisper.... She liked it that way."
Napoleon's romance with a Polish countess supplied the plot for Conquest, a lavish period drama. Illustrating the tug-of-war nature of the film's production, the script not only bore the marks of the 17 writers who worked on it, but changed titles on a seemingly daily basis. It was known in its European release as Marie Walewska, but that name was deemed too difficult to pronounce for American audiences. Other titles ultimately discarded included Flame of the Century, Symphony Without Music, A World Is Born, and The Woman Before Waterloo. As a lengthy five-month shoot wound to a close, the cast and crew had dubbed themselves members of the "Walewska-Must-End Association."
Casting male leads capable of holding their own against Garbo, a formidable and intimidating actress, was never an easy task. In Charles Boyer, however, MGM had not only found a Frenchman to take on the role of one of the most famous of his countrymen, but someone who could also match Garbo's intense style. Boyer's career accelerated during the 1930s, as he found himself playing opposite the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, Irene Dunne and finally Garbo in Conquest. Boyer later admitted nervousness about playing the great historical figure: "I was fearful that, to the French people, no performance of Napoleon Bonaparte, not even a perfect one, would be satisfactory." Boyer had little to fear after the film was released, however; one critic for the New Yorker commented that "for the first time, Garbo has a leading man who contributes more to the interest and vitality of the film than she does." The role would earn Boyer an Academy Award nomination; Garbo was also nominated that year -- for her role in Camille.
Conquest was more successful in Europe than America, title notwithstanding, but today it is recognized as a worthy final collaboration between Garbo and Brown, her favorite MGM director.
Producer: Bernard Hymann
Director: Clarence Brown
Screenplay: S.N. Behrman, Samuel Hoffenstein, Salka Viertel, based on the novel by Waclaw Gasiorowski
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons, William Horning
Cinematography: Karl W. Freund
Costume Design: Adrian
Film Editing: Tom Held
Original Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Greta Garbo (Marie Walewska), Charles Boyer (Napoleon), Reginald Owen (Talleyrand), Alan Marshal (Captain d'Ornano), Henry Stephenson (Walewska), Leif Erickson (Paul Lachinski), Dame May Whitty (Laetitia Bonaparte), Maria Ouspenskaya (Countess Pelagia Walewska).
BW-112m. Closed captioning.
by Genevieve McGillicuddy