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USA 1935
Directed by
Clarence Brown
95 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Anna Karenina (1935)

Greta Garbo plays Tolstoy’s most famous heroine for the second time (the first was in a 1927 film called Love) in this top drawer production from David O. Selznick.  Impressive as a facsimile of Tsarist-era high society the film is big on style, opening with a bravura long pan down a fully set banquet table and treating us to lavishly-staged set-pieces such as an extended mazurka in a splendiferous ballroom while the drama itself unfolds in expensively appointed aristocratic homes. In the latter respect it is not so impressive, bolting headlong in the Anna-Vronsky romance and in general suggesting more the idea of a grand passion than its actuality, spending more time on display of upper-class manners than generating much emotional heat. Then again this was 1935 when adultery on screen was Production Code censored so one must make adjustments, as one must for the back-projection particularly in the steeple-chase sequence (which looks like it was hard on the horses).

Although there is no attempt to simulate Russian accents Fredric March is quite satisfactory as Count Vronsky whilst Basil Rathbone is a scene-stealer as the, not exactly villainous but incorrigibly stick-up-his-keister snob, Count Karenin. On the other hand the go-to child actor of the day, Freddie Bartholomew, is annoyingly perky in a typically American way as Anna’s son. I’m afraid I’ve never been persuaded by the star power of Garbo and nothing here changes my mind but in the kind of performance that was her stock-in-trade she does a good job as a woman who sacrifices everything for love.

This is where the film is at its best, looking at the options for women in a sternly patriarchal, Orthodox society where particularly in the upper echelons of society, moral codes were highly restrictive. At least for women, men being treated according to a completely different standard. The film handles the way in which this hypocrisy eventually destroys Anna and Vronsky’s love is treated quite well. However for one of the most famous suicides in Western literature, Anna’s demise is given noticeably short shrift and the final scene in which Vronsky’s repents of treating her so poorly is decidedly lame.

Tolstoy’s huge novel apparently does not lend itself well to screen adaptation as despite various attempts no one has really brought it off.  All things considered this version is as good as any that followed.

FYI: Journeyman director Clarence Brown whose career extended from the silent era into the 1950s (although he lived until 1987) directed Elizabeth Taylor’s starring debut, National Velvet, in 1944.




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