How lucky can I be? I have been given the opportunity to write about something I love almost as much as I love my kitties, classic film. This month Turner Classic Movies repeats its annually anticipated event "Summer Under the Stars" (also known as SUTS). I have chosen two films to write about in the SUTS Blogathon which is generously hosted by Michael Nazarewycz (Michael's blog is here) and Jill Blake (and you can find Jill's blog here.) Be sure to check them both out! Today's entry in the blogathon is the MGM Greta Garbo vehicle Mata Hari (1931) which is on TCM Friday August 10th at 8:45AM EDT (a day dedicated to the films of the illustrious Lionel Barrymore who also stars).
Greta Garbo as the seductive spy Mata Hari
Hollywood has often take liberties in its treatment of historical figures, this is something that is actually made easier in the case of Mata Hari (Indonesian for "eye of the day") since much of that exotic dancer's life is veiled in mystery and misinformation. What is known about Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" Zelle's life is that she was born in the Netherlands and studied to become a teacher. When she was harassed by the headmaster of her school she was removed to the home of her uncle where she answered a newspaper advert for a wife placed by Rudolph MacLeod, an officer in the Dutch Colonial army. They were married and moved to Java where the marriage proved to be no bargain for the young Margreet. Bored and disillusioned she began studies of the native culture which included exotic dancing lessons. After many alleged affairs, syphilis, and disaffection from her husband and children she moved to Paris which is where her storied life began in earnest. (you can read more about the life of Mata Hari by clicking the link on her name)
The real "Mata Hari" dressed scantily in jeweled brassiere and little else
The movie Mata Hari starring Greta Garbo was not the first, nor the last, treatment of the glamorous spy's life. What she and Garbo have in common is an almost animal eroticism. Garbo was of course beautiful, which few would say about the real Mata, but they shared that ability to become the only person one sees in the room. That the real Mata was executed for "spying" is certain, that she had affairs with many officers during WW1 is certain as well, but the circumstances of her fall and redemption in the MGM movie are purely speculative. Still, to see virginal nuns weep for the heroic Mata as she is led away to her demise is almost poignant. It is nearly as moving, though in a completely opposite way, as the world weary and dominating Mata's soul stealing seduction of Ramon Navarro in front of a Russian icon of the Virgin Mary, a scene which was censored/altered in some quarters.
Mata (Garbo) manipulates a hapless General Shubin (Barrymore)
Be sure to be on the lookout for Garbo's scenes with frequent dependable co-star Lewis Stone who is the "master of spies". But, perhaps the real treat of the movie is the over the top portrayal by Lionel Barrymore as Mata's tortured and obsessed Russian officer lover. His jealousy over her serious infatuation with heroic Russian pilot Navarro (and Mata's love for the pilot) prove to be both of their undoings.
Not to be taken too seriously this movie is a complete pleasure from Garbo's erotic dancing (allegedly done by a stand in) to her ultimate and courageous end. (one in which she tries to spare the unlucky Navarro as much pain as is possible) Once this movie starts you cannot take your eyes from it. From the incredible designs of Adrian to the naive depictions of Parisian intrigue during WW1 it's a perfect over the top 1930s melodrama. It will suck you in and have you dancing too. Enjoy!
Mata's (Garbo) touching farewell to the blinded Lt. Rosanoff (Navarro)