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Budapest bar entertainer Zara is a discontented alcoholic who is pursued by many men but lives with novelist Carl Salter. A strange man (Tony) shows up on Salter's estate claiming that Zara is actually Maria, the wife of his close friend Bruno. Maria, Tony claims, had her memory destroyed during a World War I invasion ten years ago. Zara doesn't remember but leaves with Tony to Salter's dismay. Bruno, now an officer in the Italian army, tries to coax Maria's memory back on his large estate. No one is really sure if Zara is Maria, and when Salter shows up with a mental case that he claims is the real Maria, everyone on Bruno's estate is desperately searching for the truth. Written by
Gary Jackson <email@example.com>
AS YOU DESIRE ME (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1932), directed by George Fitzmaurice, taken from the play by Luigi Pirandello, stars Greta Garbo in what may be considered atypical role from her formula material. Aside from this being her shortest Hollywood feature film (70 minutes), and the only one where, early into the story, sports a short platinum haircut, here she plays an amnesic woman searching for her identity. Another interesting aspect to this nearly forgotten melodrama is the casting of the youthful Melvyn Douglas and veteran actor/ director Erich Von Stroheim as her co-stars.
The plot opens in Budapest (Hungary), 1925, in a café where the sultry Zara (Greta Garbo) sings (off screen dubbing) to the beer drinking patrons. As Zara entertains her guests, Albert (Roland Varno), a college student; The Baron (Albert Conti) and a Captain (Warburton Gamble) in her dressing room with a drinking party, she is soon approached by a man (Owen Moore) calling out to her by the name of "Maria." After closing the door on him, Zara later returns home, accompanied by her male admirers where they make the acquaintance with her live-in lover, famous novelist Carl Salter (Erich Von Stroheim). Moments following their departure, Tony reappears, explaining the reason for his visit. He tells Zara and Carl of being an artist who painted a portrait of Maria, whom he recognizes as Zara. Maria is said to be an Italian countess and wife of his very best friend, Count Bruno Varelli, who, ten years ago during the World War, mysteriously disappeared following an invasion and destruction of her home by drunken Austrian soldiers. Having no recollection of those missing years and being amnesic herself, Zara, thinking she could be that woman, leaves with Tony against the protests of the possessive Carl, trying to hold her at gunpoint . Upon her arrival with Tony by train to Florence (Italy), Zara, having transformed herself to physically resemble the missing countess, is reunited with her grief-stricken husband, Bruno (Melvyn Douglas), now an officer in the Italian Army, and her loyal servants (Rafaela Ottiano and William Riccardi). Aside from having restored their home to the way it was, Bruno makes every effort in helping "Maria" regain her memory. Though "Maria" strongly doubts herself being the countess, her strong resemblance and happy greeting the great dane, Rex, a family dog, proves otherwise. Things become more complex upon the arrival of Carl Salter, a psychiatrist (Reginald Barlow) and an amnesic veiled woman who's been a patient at his sanitarium since the time of Countess Maria's disappearance, causing more doubt for all.
Following the pattern of Garbo's romantic sounding movie titles as LOVE (1927), ROMANCE (1930) and INSPIRATION (1931), AS YOU DESIRE ME (lifted from the Garbo line, "Take me and make me as you desire me") is less a love story and more of a mix of riddle and mystery. Appearing more theatrical mostly towards the end, it proved more interesting through spoken words rather than by its actions. The basic premise of AS YOU DESIRE ME was used to better advantage in ANASTASIA (20th Century-Fox, 1956) that earned Ingrid Bergman an Academy Award as Best Actress. Though not a remake, themes of this nature where amnesic victim becomes someone else, makes good storytelling, and guessing from the viewer's part all worth while.
Garbo's initial entrance dressed in black tight slacks and blonde wig is somewhat unbecoming to her screen personality but makes up for it during its second half, looking more like the traditional Garbo, a woman of mystery. Von Stroheim, quite menacing, as usual, nearly steals the show from his leading players, while Melvyn Douglas, early in his career, makes a satisfactory husband, though far from convincing as an Italian. Douglas would work with Garbo again in comedies, NINOTCHKA (1939) and TWO-FACED WOMAN (1941), the latter which marked the end to Garbo's movie career.
Though AS YOU DESIRE ME could have been a little longer by developing its characters to a little further extent, as it appears, it's fine the way it is, even with limited underscoring. Among the members of the cast is Hedda Hopper, future Hollywood columnist, playing Maria's sister, Ines, and Edmund Breese as the Friar. Distributed to video cassette in 1990, AS YOU DESIRE ME turns up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. (***)
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