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Erich von Stroheim
Young Harry is in love and wants to marry an actress, much to the displeasure of his family. Harry thinks that Bishop Armstrong knows nothing about love so Armstrong tells him the story of Rita and himself. Rita was an Opera Star singing in New York who was at a party given by Cornelius. Armstrong was a 28 year old rector. He fell for Rita when he saw her and after six weeks he wanted to marry her. Naive as he was, he thought that all of Rita's "relationships" were in the distant past, but Rita lives for the moment and knows that she can never marry Armstrong. Written by
Tony Fontana <email@example.com>
ROMANCE (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1930), directed by Clarence Brown, features Greta Garbo with her large size name above the title in what became her second talkie following her enormous success as the title character of "Anna Christie" (1930). Despite the Swedish born actress apparently miscast playing an Italian opera singer, it did earn her an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress coupled with "Anna Christie." Most remembered for top MGM leading men as her co-stars ranging from John Gilbert to Conrad Nagel during the silent era, Garbo's leading support of Gavin Gordon and Elliott Nugent are hardly notable screen personalities compared to soon to be popular names as Robert Montgomery or Clark Gable. There is, however, the familiar screen presence of Lewis Stone, both long time resident of MGM and Garbo's frequent co-star adding considerable interest in a simple love story scripted by Bess Meredyth and Edwin Justus Mayer taken from the play by Edward Sheldon.
The 76 minute narrative (never revealing whether the locale is European or American) begins on New Year's Eve where people gather together on the streets cheering and blowing their horns to celebrate the start of a new year. Harry (Elliott Nugent) enters the home of Bishop Thomas Armstrong (Gavin Gordon), his aging grandfather, after being called to visit with him. Armstrong, having already learned from appalled family members of Harry's intentions to marry Lucille who happens to be a actress. Feeling his grandfather will try to talk him out of it, and telling him he's too old to remember how it was to be young and in love, Tom, takes out a "box of romance" consisting of a handkerchief and a rose once belonging to a woman he loved and lost fifty years ago. He then shares his memories to what took place when he was a 28-year-old rector of Saint Giles' Church. It's New Year's Eve (the year is never given) and Armstrong comes to visit with Susan (Florence Lake), whom he plans to marry. Her wealthy uncle, Cornelius Van Tyle (Lewis Stone), host of the dinner function, awaits for Madame Rita Cavallini, a famous Italian opera singer, the guest of honor, to arrive. After hearing gossip from one of the guests of Cavallini being the mistress of his friend, Cornelius, Tom later meets the guest of honor (Greta Garbo) only to become attracted to her. After months together, Armstrong becomes embittered to learn the truth about Rita's previous affairs with other men, including the 51-year-old Cornelius. Though he continues seeing her, something gets in the way with their romance. After completing his story, young Harry must come to a decision on what he intends to do with his own life.
Although Garbo is the major star attraction here, much of it appears to be a promotional build-up for newcomer, Gavin Gordon, whose the main focus from start to finish. Gordon, who does make a convincing clergyman, singing nicely to the tune of "Annie Laurie," never assumed leading roles in major motion pictures again. He did have a long career, but mainly in secondary, or to much lesser degree, uncredited bit parts. His compassionate love scene with Rita (Garbo) fails to recapture those similar moments between Garbo and John Gilbert in Clarence Brown's earlier direction of FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1927). Regardless of early sound techniques where slow pacing and lack of underscoring take desperate measures, ROMANCE is actually an interesting story that benefits in sections by chorus vocals filling in for mood score. The only downside is having to accept the Swedish accented, heavy speaking Garbo doing brief operatic interludes in high pitch singing manner. Obviously dubbed, these operatic sequences are presented briefly, either heard off screen or captured on stage in extreme long camera range. Garbo's character, costumed in period clothes and stylish curly hair, could very well be the classic character she was to enact years later in her 1936 masterpiece, CAMILLE. Elliott Nugent, looking very much like a youthful Eddie Bracken (comedic actor of the 1940s), has no scenes whatsoever with Garbo. Though his range as a movie actor was brief, he found better success both as actor and playwright in later years for the Broadway stage.
Displayed to home video around 1998, ROMANCE also earned its cable television rediscovery when initially broadcast on Turner Network Television (1988-92) and later on Turner Classic Movies (1994-present). ROMANCE is no cinematic masterpiece, but an early example of the studio broadening Garbo's acting range, even to a point of an Italian opera singer. Here's to Garbo. Here's to ROMANCE. (***)
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