FLESH AND THE DEVIL is a 1926 silent starring John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, and Lars Hanson in the lead roles. The story was based on a story, THE UNDYING PAST, by Hermann Sudermann. The film credits call it a novel, the Wikipedia entry a play. What it is is the age old story of a woman coming between two friends. In 2006, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Leo von Harden(John Gilbert) and Ulrich von Eltz(Lars Hanson) had been the best of friends from childhood. They even joined the Austrian army together. Ulrich had to constantly ride herd on his friend, pulling him out of one pickle after another. At the film’s beginning, when the troops roll out for reveille, Leo’s bunk is empty, out partying all night. Ulrich hastily rigs a dummy set-up in the bunk and just makes it out for roll call. He reports Leo as to sick to get there. The officer goes into the barracks with Ulrich and reaches to pull the blanket away, only to find Leo there dressed in full. Ulrich mumbles that he even tried to get dressed and out there. Ordered to nurse his friend, the pair celebrates when the officer leaves, only to get caught when the man loops back. The pair end up swamping out the stables, one bringing wheel barrels of manure outside while the other shovels it nto a wagon. They end up having a good laugh over it.
When they head home on furlough, Leo spots a young woman at the train station he eventually becomes enamored with, Felicitas von Rhaden(Greta Garbo). They meet at a ball, dance, and begin seeing each other on the sly. Professing love for each other, their play is interrupted when Felicitas’s husband, something she failed to mention to Leo, the powerful Count von Rhaden(Marc McDermott). A much older man, he catches the pair in each other’s arms and challenges Leo to a duel. Wanting his reputation covered, the Count insists the duel be over a quarrel during a card game.
Leo kills the Count in the duel and the Austrian army is not happy with him. The court martial requires him to sign a hitch in the North African army for five years. Leo asks Ulrich to look out for Felicitas, a woman alone. Ulrich is completely clueless about the real reason for the duel and agrees. When he visits the widow and offers her his help if needed, “I’m rich,” her eyes light up and we get some idea of her character. She secretly meets Leo in a park before he leaves from Africa, each professing love for the other, she promising to wait, his devotion apparent in his eyes. As she leaves, Leo realizes they have been seen. His Pastor, disgust showing as he strolls by.
Three years go by and Leo receives a letter out on the front in Africa. Ulrich has used some of his growing influence and gotten Leo’s exile ended early. He arrives home a month or so later to be met by Ulrich and his wife, Felicitas. Stunned, he manages to get through it and Ulrich soon realizes something is wrong when Leo refuses a ride from the train station, preferring to walk and see his mother alone.
Ulrich’s kid sister, Hertha(Barbara Kent), had come to stay with Leo’s mother after Ulrich’s marriage. She was a young woman of nineteen now and had always carried a torch for the older Leo. As Leo approaches, the two women are sitting on the porch and he hears his mother say her fondest desire was for Leo and her to marry. She rushes off when he steps up and Leo wonders why. “She’s a young woman and she’s not dressed.” leo is even clueless with a woman not much more than a child.
Leo begins avoiding his friend, mostly on the advice of the pastor, who knows nothing good can come of it. Ulrich is heartbroken, thinking Leo is disgusted with being around the widow of the man he slew in the duel. He wants the two to get along. Felicitas wants them to see each other and arranges to meet Leo, begging him to come back. She admits she still loves Leo and married Ulrich because he was so kind to her. Leo agrees to start coming around, much against the Pastor’s advice. Ulrich is happy that his friend has forgiven himself for the killing of the Count.
It doesn’t last though. The Pastor delivers a fiery sermon about fidelity when he sees them arrive together.
While Ulrich is away on business, Felicitas shows up at Leo’s home and asks why he hasn’t come around while Ulrich has been gone. “Not appropriate.” She wants to begin seeing him, but he was loathe to see her under his friend’s roof. They agree to run off together, that he could do, and arrangements are made.
But the night they are to leave, Ulrich comes home, bringing an expensive bracelet for Felicitas. Knowing Leo is coming, she sends her husband off to some other part of the mansion. advising her maid to quietly show Leo up when he arrived. She’s not dressed or packed and Leo questions her on it. She cries, saying she can’t leave all this, and why can’t they continue to see each other on the sly! Leo is infuriated that she would ask such a thing, loses his temper, and grabs her around the throat. That’s how Ulrich catches them and Felicitas claims he broke in and was going to kill her when she wouldn’t leave with him.
Nothing left but a duel for the two men.Leo is heartbroken, more for what he’d dont to his friend, than the suddenly transparent Felicitas.
Well, you know how it has to end. This was 1926, a wicked woman, two lifelong friends.
This clip is the ending, an alternate that stopped in the film I saw after the broken hole in the ice.
Initially, Garbo had refused the role. She was tired, having just finished THE TEMPTRESS, and her sister had died from cancer, she unable to go home to Sweden, upset that her contract hadn’t allowed it. She was sternly warned of what might happen if she didn’t report for work.
It was a turning point in her life on a couple of levels.
It set the scene for later battles over contracts that would eventually make her the highest paid actress of the times. It also sparked a romance.
The chemistry between John Gilbert and she was apparent in the film. It spilled over into their private life. Supposedly he proposed and a big wedding was planned, but Garbo backed out. That is disputed by some. Nevertheless, their romance continued and they made a number of films together. His career collapsed in the early thirties after talkies took off, but hers flourished.
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