The Divine Woman (partially found silent drama film; 1928)
The Divine Woman is a 1928 American silent drama film adapted from the successful 1925 Broadway play Starlight, written by Gladys Unger. The film was directed by pioneering Swedish film director, screenwriter, Victor David Sjöström (sometimes known in the United States as Victor Seastrom) and produced and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
For the film, Sjöström teamed up with extremely successful Swedish actress, Greta Garbo. Garbo had three separate nominations for the Academy Award for best actress. In 1954, she later went to receive an Academy Honorary Award for her "luminous and unforgettable screen performances". In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked her as 5th on their list of the greatest female stars of the classic Hollywood cinema. Many film enthusiasts agree that her performance in The Divine Woman may be one of the best performances in her entire career.
As previously mentioned, the movie is adapted from the 1925 play Starlight by Gladys Unger. The plot was loosely based on stories from the early life of renowned French actress Sarah Bernhardt. In the late 1800s, Bernhardt dominated Parisian theaters and soon went on to perform and be in high demand in several countries.
Marianne (played by Garbo) is an impoverished but beautiful young woman living on a farm in Brittany, France in the 1860s. Tired of living in miserable conditions while being neglected by her parents, she heads off to Paris to seek fortune by fulfilling her dreams of becoming an actress. Once she arrives in Paris, she meets and befriends a soldier by the name of Lucien (played by Lars Hanson) who is soon to be shipped off to Algiers, Algeria. They hit it off and Lucien offers her a place to stay with a friend of his, an elderly seamstress named Madame Pigonier (played by Polly Moran). Within a few weeks, Lucien goes off with his regiment.
Around that time, she meets a big-time theatrical producer by the name of Henry Legrand (played by Lowell Sherman). Legrand is fascinated by Marianne and offers to make her a big stage star. Excited by the idea of becoming a rich and famous star, she soon enough becomes Legrand's mistress, despite knowing she still loves Lucien. As she devotes herself to Legrand, she rapidly rises to success and, soon enough, becomes the most successful actress in Paris. Living the life of the rich and famous, she didn't know she wanted anything more.
She soon finds Lucien and learns that he deserted himself from the army. As he is on the run from the authorities for his actions, they develop a romantic relationship towards one another. To prove his dedication towards her, he goes out and steals a dress for Marianne. However, this only catches the police's attention and lands him in jail. With Lucien behind bars, Marianne has to make an important decision of choosing between to continue living as a famous Hollywood star or go back and help Lucien to get him out of jail.
Marianne waits a long time before she has to make her decision. However, when Lucien gets out on parole, he finds Marianne and criticizes her. She, still in love with Lucien, renounces her career and leaves Legrande. She goes on to become impoverished once again before being found by Lucien, who saves her from her own self-destruction. They make up for what happened in the past and leave for South America to start a new life.
The movie, which was filmed in only a total of 35 days and had 8 reels, premiered on January 14th, 1928 in the Capitol theater in New York. The film was shown in different parts of the country before getting an international release and has been known to have been screened in Germany, France, Sweden, Poland, and Russia.
Starting out with a budget of $267,000, the film only profited $354,000 overall. While it was not a complete box office bomb, the film was not a big success either, especially with critics. If anything, to most critics, Greta Garbo's role was the only thing keeping the movie from flopping.
One of the several reviewers with this opinion, the magazine Screenland in its February 1927 edition said:
"This picture is a huge disappointment, and, although I am trying to bear up, my emotions get the better of me at times; you see, I counted on Greta Garbo. I rooted myself hoarse for her. The most potent personality on the screen–the girl who made Hollywood actresses look like stock company ingenues the Swedish marvel at emotional massage–she was all of that. And now, just look at The Divine Woman. Here is a new Garbo, who flutters, who mugs. This interestingly reserved lady goes completely Hollywood, all at once. It may have been the part. It may have been the direction–but I don't think so. Miss Garbo seems to me to have only one scene in her usual marvelous quiet manner... But for the rest–excuse me! “I go now!”
As of today, the film has been listed by the American Film Institute as "one of the ten most important lost films of the silent era". This is due to only one film reel out of eight, and roughly nine minutes and forty seconds of the film having been found. In 1993, at the Gosfilmofond, a Russian film archive in Moscow, Russia, one of the eight reels was found (though it was, unfortunately, the shortest of the eight). The contents of the reel are now available on the Garbo DVD collection and have been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, however with Russian intertitles with English translations under them. The nine-minute clip can also be found on YouTube. In late 2010, the Swedish Film Institute found two fragments of the film in their archive which they fully restored and publicly screened on February 27th, 2011. As of right now, the nine-minute clip is available online while the other two are not publicly available.