From Verdi’s Violetta to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Part Two): Two Fallen Sisters under the Skin – Imitation of Life, Such as It Is

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Livin’ la Vida Loca

Greta Garbo in Camille (1936)
Greta Garbo in Camille (1936)

As stated in Part One of this post, La Traviata had as its main source the novel and play La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils. Memorably set to music by Verdi, with words and text by his librettist Francesco Maria Piave – and incorporating several name changes to its lead protagonists (to protect the innocent, one presumes) – Traviata was an ignominious failure at its 1853 premiere.

The work may have hit too close to home for some moralists, but its truths about passion and loss, along with sin and sacrifice, have stood the test of time and held firm to this day. It went on to attain a permanent foothold in the standard repertoire, with most productions stressing society’s duplicitous treatment of the courtesan Violetta Valery – that is, the inability to admit to certain types of “behavior” from a lady that could be readily endured in a gentleman.

Thus the description “fallen woman” came into being. This somewhat hackneyed term derived from nineteenth-century attitudes toward those women “who had given in to seduction, living a life in sin,” and heretofore “received the name ‘fallen women’ during the Victorian period. Though both a recognizable and sizable segment of the female population, it took some time before the fallen woman could be acceptable as an allowable subject in art.”[1]

Married female members of society who engaged in such activities were treated no better, if not a good deal worse: “The married fallen woman receives even less sympathy, for no one will grant forgiveness to the wife and mother who betrays her family.”[2]

In the literature of the time, we have untold examples of the breed, beginning with the Old Testament account of Eve, who gave in to temptation in the Garden of Eden, followed by those of Victorian-era writers Charles Dickens (Little Em’ly from David Copperfield, Nancy from Oliver Twist) and Thomas Hardy (Tess from Tess of the d’Urbervilles); the American-born Nathaniel Hawthorne (Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter); or the French authors Victor Hugo (Fantine in Les Misérables) and Gustave Flaubert (Emma in Madame Bovary), along with La Belle Époque’s Émile Zola (Nana) and Guy de Maupassant (Bel Ami) and the Italian nationalist Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play Francesca da Rimini.

Garbo Walks and Talks – And Gets the Last Laugh!

Garbo with John Gilbert
Garbo with John Gilbert

When the silent and early sound-era cinema eventually grabbed hold of Tinsel Town, the art and literature devoted to depicting these fallen women were finally put into practice in many screen adaptations of the above named works, in addition to various others.

Among the most prevalent were the films starring Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo, whose Anna Christie (1930), Grand Hotel (1932), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), and Ninotchka (1939) not only proved particularly appealing at the box office, but have subsequently gone on to become prime-time fixtures on the Turner Classic Movies network.

Much of their success came from the glamorous personality of the shy and reclusive Garbo herself. A woman of undeniable charm and inscrutable mystique, Garbo “communicated her characters’ innermost feelings through her movement, gestures, and most importantly, her eyes. With the slightest movement of them,” film historian Jeffrey Vance once noted, “she subtly conveyed complex attitudes and feelings toward other characters and the truth of the situation.”

Clarence Brown, who directed the star in Anna Karenina and six other pictures besides, told the Chicago Tribune that “Garbo [had] something behind the eyes that you couldn’t see until you photographed it in close-up. You could see thought. If she had to look at one person with jealousy, and another with love, she didn’t have to change her expression. You could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other. And nobody else has been able to do that on screen.”

Garbo’s well-publicized affair with real-life paramour John Gilbert may have had a lot to do with her allure. Still, there’s no denying their on-screen chemistry, in such crowd-pleasing opuses as Flesh and the Devil (1926), where the couple’s steamy love scenes spilled over into moviegoers’ laps; Love (1927), a silent version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, in which the title heroine and her lover, Count Vronsky, are happily (!) reunited in the end; A Woman of Affairs (1928); and Queen Christina (1933). All had contributed mightily to her fame and popularity. She and Gilbert provided additional fan-fodder for gossip columnists and their ilk until their relationship ultimately soured; it was irreversibly broken off around the fateful year of 1929.

Garbo & Fredric March in Anna Karenina
Garbo & Fredric March in Anna Karenina

While Garbo famously survived the transition to sound, Gilbert wallowed in alcoholism and self-pity, which reflected the parlous state of his own floundering film career (the MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain, from 1952, covers much of this territory, but in more humorous fashion). His declining health was such that actor Fredric March, at age 38, was recruited to play the much younger Count Vronsky alongside Garbo in the 1935 sound remake of Anna Karenina. Curiously, Gilbert died a year later of a heart attack and related alcohol-induced ailments. He was 41 at the time, a victim of his own excesses.

That Garbo, who never married or had children, but who was rumored to have had sexual dealings not only with men but with women as well, played both Marguerite in Camille (based on Dumas’ play and Verdi’s opera) and Anna in Anna Karenina has proven most enlightening, and indeed instructive, for film fans and anyone else attempting to assume these dramatically challenging parts.

We noted with equal fascination and delight how adroit French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay was in portraying the tubercular Violetta’s fall from grace and subsequent redemption in the Met Opera’s 2012 revival of Willy Decker’s deconstructed version of Traviata.

In that production, Violetta was the so-called fallen woman, whose only crime (or sin, if you prefer) was falling in love with an innocent society type, only to have that love taken away from her by the youth’s father. Her sacrifice, and the raison d’être for the entire piece, was to give up her love forever so that the youth’s sister could safely marry without benefit of scandal or other encumbrances – as if the misconduct of one’s siblings, be they the Kardashians or what have you, could spoil the pending nuptials of any individual bride or groom. But that’s strictly by today’s standards, not yesterday’s.

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
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[1] “Fallen Women in Victorian Art,” Elizabeth Lee, 1997, Brown University, The Victorian Web

[2] Ibid, above

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