Torrent (Monta Bell, 1926)
[note: review originally published 6Feb2010]
My sister-in-law, who is still quite young, was in the room for bits and pieces of Torrent while I was watching it, and is stymied at my ability to pay attention to silent movies. It never occurred to me to rebut this way while we were watching the movie, but after an hour or so of reflection, it became obvious to me; Torrent, Greta Garbo’s first film in America, is a straight Brokeback Mountain. I’m not sure whether playing it that way would have helped or hurt my cause, but once the idea was in my head, it all made perfect sense; just cast Garbo as Jake Gyllenhaal (and, honestly, Gyllenhaal, at least in the days of Donnie Darko, was just as beautiful as Torrent-era Garbo) and Ricardo Cortez as Heath Ledger, transplant them from Wyoming to Spain, stretch the post-climax (pardon the pun) action out much longer, and you have Torrent, made eighty years before and just as heartfelt.
The film (directed by producer Monta Bell, though released without a directorial credit) casts Garbo as Leonora, a poor young girl who’s in love with Rafael (Cortez, who would go on to play Sam Spade in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon), the son of the town mayor. Rafael’s shrewish mother Bernarda (Martha Mattox, who died far too young and is now best remembered for a movie for which she got no credit—The Bitter Tea of General Yen) disapproves of the classless Leonora, but can’t really do much about it until it is discovered the two have spent the night together (whether they were talking or fucking is left to the viewer to decide). Rafael, who’s being groomed to take over the mayorship himself, can’t have that sort of stain on his reputation, so Bernarda arms the populace and drives Leonora and her father out of town. Well, they say, living well is the best revenge. Leonora goes to Paris and becomes a celebrated opera singer. She does eventually get back to her hometown, only to discover Rafael is now the mayor, and has married another woman. This is the first adult encounter between the two of them, but it is not the last; this is what I mean when I say the denouement is more drawn out here than it is in Brokeback Mountain.
Torrent is now remembered for being Greta Garbo’s first American film, and honestly, there’s not a great deal more to remember it for; Garbo bats her eyelashes fetchingly, and Cortez is quite dapper, but there’s not a great deal of chemistry between them save in one scene (the obvious one). You can never quite believe that these two are pining for one another as the years pass. There’s a very good supporting cast, though, featuring wonderful turns from Mack Swain, Lillian Leighton, and especially Lucien Littlefield, whom I’ve always thought should have been a much bigger star than he ever was. Everyone involved here would go on to much greater fame (including Vicente Blasco Ibanez, who wrote the novel on which this movie is based; he also wrote the novel upon which Garbo’s second film, The Temptress, was based, and that is the movie that really kicked her American career off). Still, there was a point when even the Guinness Book of World Records, departing from the usual empirical standards, listed Garbo as the world’s most beautiful woman; given that she made only thirty-two films, can you afford to pass one up? I think Nicole Kidman makes that many per year. ***
Not a trailer, just a scene.