Originally posted to Criterion Cast on February 25th, 2011
“Garbo Laughs”: one of the most famous movie taglines of all time. In 1939, MGM paired up screen legend Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas and director Ernst Lubitsch for the comedy Ninotchka. It would be Garbo’s first attempt in the genre after a career of playing smoldering temptresses and tragic figures in romance films. Ninotchka’s success impelled MGM to place her in another comedy in what was perhaps an attempt at shaping a new era of her career. The result is Two-Faced Woman, a weak and ill-advised screwball comedy recently released on DVD by the Warner Archive Collection. Critically it sank; furthermore, the film’s failure prompted Garbo to leave acting forever. Her career may have survived the transition to sound, unlike so many others, but it would not survive an attempted transition into something she was not; a comedienne.
Two–Faced Woman is an attempt at the screwball comedy complete with a contrast in rural and urban life, a bickering couple, disguises, misunderstandings and an unearned happy ending. The story concerns magazine editor Larry (Melvyn Douglas) who meets ski instructor Karin (Greta Garbo) on vacation. He falls for her immediately but she is uninterested. Soon, after being snowed in at a cabin together, they are married. Karin lives to ski and abhors the urban lifestyle. Larry misleads Karin into thinking they will spend their life at the lodge and he soon announces his trip back to New York. They argue for a while and he ends up leaving without her. Weeks pass and Larry has not visited Karin. She decides go to New York to surprise him. Once there, she sees him flirting with playwright Griselda Vaughn (Constance Bennett). She decides to play a trick on Larry in order to test his loyalty to her. She makes up an imaginary twin sister named Katherine, a sophisticated “indoor” loving, man hungry socialite. It does not take long for Larry to figure out that Katherine is really Karin and the rest of the film has each spouse playing a trick on the other.
One of the main problems with the film is that there is no reason to be invested in Larry and Karin as a couple. Their early scenes together show no signs of romance between the two. It then skips to them being married without the audience being able to see any transition in their feelings for each other. They know nothing about each other. After a few minutes of bliss, they begin arguing because neither wants to live where the other resides. Their arguing continues and repeats. He spends his time flirting with other women and neglecting his new bride. Finally, when he finds out about her deceit, he plays hurtful tricks on her even though her motives are out of desperation and not malice. These two clearly should not be together in the first place and Douglas’ character is a cad and outright unlikable. To see someone like Garbo going this far to win someone like Douglas’ Larry is almost embarrassing. Are we supposed to root for them? I certainly did not.
Douglas and Garbo are lacking in chemistry. There is no connection between them and the audience is never really allowed to buy them as a couple in the first place. Garbo’s performance is probably the most interesting aspect of the film, but not for the right reasons. She is woefully miscast and it is a very difficult performance to assess overall. There are times she is not even making eye contact with Douglas when she should be. There are other times where her heart does not seem to be in it. In other instances when she tries something out, it fails. In another scene she might try something out and it works. There are times when she seems to be going through the motions. She just does not know what to do with this role and by far the most engaging aspect of the film is trying to figure out if Garbo completely flounders in the role or has achieved a bizarre and unlikely level of success that nobody.
Cukor is always dependable for a sleek production and he does what he can. Regardless, he is unable to get a consistent performance from Garbo, who he also directed in 1936’s Camille. He does give us a charming treat with a sequence in the middle of the film which has Garbo’s Karin inadvertently inventing a new dance; this easily serves as the film’s highlight. The film’s only actively positive component is Constance Bennett who deserves better material as Grizelda. She contributes little to the story but she is excellent and amusing here as the hopeful man stealer; it helps that she gets the film’s best dialogue.
Two-Faced Woman is topped off with a ludicrous finale which has Larry endlessly falling down skiing mountains for five minutes. This is followed by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it unearned reconciliation between the two spouses. That this is the way the film resolves its conflicts should be evidence enough that it has no idea how to function as a screwball comedy. With uninvolving characters and an even less involving romance at its center, Two-Faced Woman wants to be mischievous fun but makes missteps at every turn. This DVD should only be seen by Garbo enthusiasts and those who are interested in seeing her attempt to navigate through the realm of comedy.