“Well, I don’t know. To be able to absorb oneself must be better than to have nothing to absorb oneself.”
What is it that connects two people? This probably sounds pretty easy. Most of the time it falls it to a number of cut and dry categories, either love, lust, or just an apathetic sense of inertia.
But sometimes the line is blurry and sometimes there’s just no line. That’s the problem Katrin stumbles on in The Painted Veil. Katrin is played by Greta Garbo, too, so you know this isn’t going to be resolved with a song and dance.
Katrin sees her sister married at the film’s beginning, while a childhood friend, Walter (Herbert Marshall), is visiting from his post in China. Walter is a dedicated scientist much like Katrin’s father, and Katrin knows that his passion, first and foremost, involves staring into microscopes day in and day out. But he’s got a nice smile and seems to adore her. Katrin presses her mother for advice, and she tells him that all that matters is that he is good. Katrin moans, “Must he be good, mother? It’s not very exciting to be good.”
And you know this isn’t going to go very well. Walter’s proposition of marriage is met with a ‘let me think about it’, but he makes her smile and suddenly they’re arriving in Hong Kong. Katrin’s choice to marry Walter without love soon comes back to haunt her when she arrives in the exotic port and meets Jack (George Brent), one of the British attachés to the city.
Jack is a good little bureaucrat who’s sought adventure all across the British Empire– which, at this point in history, included Egypt, India, Australia, and exotic Canada. We only briefly see Jack’s wife, but it’s obvious that she’s a diplomat’s wife to a ‘t’, following her husband anywhere across the globe so long as there’s enclave of other British to play a hand of bridge with.
But while Walter is passionate in his desire to help cure cholera, Jack is passionate in the more conventionally romantic sense– he owns horses and knows enough Chinese to play up the exoticism to the naive Katrin. Jack ain’t a good man, but considering the looks the two share, he’s going to make Katrin feel good.
One locked bedroom door later, and it doesn’t take long for Walter to catch on. The poor man is completely devastated. He gives his wife three choices: run away with Jack, return home to her parents, or go with him inland, to the very heart of the cholera epidemic. On confronting Jack, it’s not long before Walter’s ploy is made clear to Katrin– Jack will put his career before her and goes so far to guilt her into returning to her parents rather than have him named in the divorce.
And so it’s off to the wonderful land of cholera…
If Hong Kong was beautiful, exotic, and, most importantly, highly anglicized with Chinese doctors trying to imitate the British vernacular, inland China is a perfect inversion. The ground is mud and the houses derelict, with the dead being left in acres of unmarked graves. General Yu (Warner Oland in “yellowface”) tries to keep order, and there’s also a drunk Cockney bureaucrat there named Waddington (Forrester Harvey) who indulges in plenty of scotch whiskey and plays records a bit too loud. As the only person with any expertise in the disease and an actual passion to end it, Walter puts himself in charge, working longer hours and exploring the area in hopes of discovering where to head off the disease.
**SPOLER ALERT!**Katrin, who’d flourished in the city she once found exotic, now languishes in a remote outpost, wallowing in sadness and fear. Slowly, as the long days filled with the smell of death roll by, a revelation takes over her. She understands how shallow Jack really was and how Walter didn’t bring her out there to die but because he wanted to destroy her illusions about life. It’s not about the spur of the moment beauty or the strange attractions of the foreign, as Katrin had indulged in. Walter believes the real beauty in life is from devotion to a grand cause.
(The righteousness of Walter is hinted at throughout the movie, outside of the dialogue. After they’re married, the first thing we see Katrin try to do is take a picture. Things are out of focus for Katrin without her knowing it, but Walter sees things and makes them instantly clear. It’s a nice little moment, and subtly reflects how Katrin’s world view is.)
Katrin comes around to understanding the way that Walter loves, slowly, painfully. But as she sees what Walter’s passion creates and inspires, she has to admit, “I don’t think I have a soul big enough to love you.”
The epidemic gets worse, and Walter has to resort to burning down the town in order to save everyone. The film’s finale definitely reminds one of the importance of informational public meetings before you start setting everyone’s houses on fire, but sometimes these things can’t be avoided. Walter is stabbed, and Katrin’s last minute prayer and denouement with Jack (who showed up at exactly the right moment to have her change in perspective painstakingly explained) reaffirm her new, more caring side. She’s lost the selfishness that so once ruled her, and she will now be at the recovering Walter’s side.
Just as soon as everyone stops trying to killing them for burning down the whole damn village. Seriously, would it have killed you to ask people to leave before the mass arson began?**END SPOILERS!**
While the fireworks of The Painted Veil are subdued, director Richard Boleslawski and cinematographer William H. Daniels make the most of the setting. China has rarely looked so luxurious, with a portrayal of a native Hong Kong ceremony looking less authentic and more like something out of Flower Drum Song many years down the line. Meanwhile, canted angles abound during the scenes at the cholera panic. And the film’s lighting, of course, makes the most of Garbo’s expressive face. The film’s visuals are backed up by a truly great score– a rarity for this time– and one that carefully enhances the magic of the film’s setting.
The most interesting thing about The Painted Veil is how much it resembles so many of a certain kind of drama that would come after it. While Mata Hari and other Garbo pre-Codes had ratcheted up the sex as well as the drama, this is the first I’ve seen that restricts the sexual component to a very literal scene of fireworks, something just euphemistic enough that it probably wouldn’t be allowed for much longer. Other productions would follow in this mold from Norma Shearer in MGM’s Romeo and Juliet to grand Warner Bros. productions like Jezebel, climaxing in Gone with the Wind, the most pure of the big studio melodramas where production design and bombastic scores did their damnedest to replace sex with sumptuousness.
And, hey, that’s fine. No one in the audience is going to complain about movies being too good looking. And while there’s no real romance to write home about in The Painted Veil, this one’s got Garbo’s face, a singular tool of yearning and longing that makes the muddy dialogue ring crystal clear. The Painted Veil ain’t a classic, but as a bookend indicator of how Garbo’d grown into the sound era and where movies seemed to be headed, it’s invaluable. The woman could act.
Danny’s Rating: Like
Proof that The Painted Veil is Pre-Code-ish:
•The film opens with Katrin’s sister’s wedding, and she gives her sister a negligée for a wedding present.
“But don’t tell mother, she’ll think it’s wicked.”
“But isn’t it?”
“Wicked? But of course it is!”
• The two sisters kiss goodbye on the lips.
•It deals with British imperialism in China…kinda, sorta.
•The film centers on the results of a passionate extramarital affair.
Danny Reid lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934.