Anna Karenina (1935)

ANNA KARENINA—in Czarist Russia of the 1870’s, ‘Anna Karenina’, unhappily wed to a cold government official, becomes romantically involved with ‘Count Vronsky’, a dashing and impetuous cavalry officer, the affair placing both their reputations at risk. The time and place make it worse for the mature, smitten yet agonized Anna, as the self-ensnared soldier can at least depend on a handy war to come along and rescue him from love’s commitment vagaries.

Various editions of Leo Tolstoy’s 1878 novel run well over 800 pages, so brevity’s sake called for the screenplay adaptation to trim to the bone and focus on the fateful love story; the treatment excludes the novel’s character’s hashing over the many issues of the day that frame the story, ideas and changes raised by Czar Alexander II’s liberalizing: abolishing serfdom, judicial,  governmental and military reforms, freer press, the Pan-Slavism push, expanded railroads, commerce and communication. The daunting reduction was accomplished by S.N. Behrman (Quo Vadis, Fanny), Clemence Dane (Perfect Strangers) and Salka Viertel (Queen Christina, Conquest), with Clarence Brown (National Velvet, The Yearling) directing. Brown’s direction and David O. Selznick’s elaborate production values, along with the strong performances, carry the day, since the script makes too many quick jumps between see-saw emotions and events, at times feeling like a breathless Classics Illustrated spin thru LitLand. Most memorable exchange is between the Count and his trusted comrade ‘Yashvin’—-VRONSKY: “As a matter of fact, I’ve been analyzing this code of ours, lately, and it doesn’t stand up. For instance, one must always pay a card sharper; but, need not pay a tailor.”  YASHVIN: “Quite right.”  VRONSKY: “One must never tell a lie to a man; but, one may to a woman.”  YASHVIN: “Naturally.”  VRONSKY: “One must never cheat anyone; but, one may a husband.”  YASHVIN: “Inevitably.”  VRONSKY: “One must never pardon an insult; but, may freely give one.”  YASHVIN: “Obviously.”  VRONSKY: “Well, it’s trivial! It’s nonsensical!” YASHVIN: “My dear Vronsky, has your liver been bothering you lately?” *

Brown’s piloting gets a major assist from William H. Daniel’s fine cinematography, notably a stunning tracking shot down a long table at a vodka-fueled feast: the camera gliding past heaps of gourmet food, glassware and candles set to sate aristocratic officers is practically a one-minute lesson on why a revolution was inevitable.

Greta Garbo, 29, evokes the essential dignity, longing and rue to breathe poignant life into the tragedy-destined heroine. Other than having to finesse a few of the script-mandated gushes, her performance holds up well, as does that of Fredric March as the lover who has to learn the hard way. At 36, he may have been a good decade past Vronsky’s early 20s blithe immaturity, but he superbly conveys the character’s rush-to-lust fervor, ultimate weakness and final self-reckoning. Basil Rathbone is splendidly severe as the chilly, unforgiving husband ‘Karenin’: at 43, Rathbone enjoyed a banner ’35 with key roles in seven films including David Copperfield, Captain Blood, The Last Days Of Pompeii and A Tale Of Two Cities. As the fought-over son ‘Sergei’, 11-year-old Freddie Bartholomew left brigades of squeaky child actors in the shade with his honest delivery, range and likability.

Selznick and MGM unloaded $1,152,000 onto 95 posh minutes, with an international gross clocking $2,500,000 (against heavy competition it placed 50th in the States). *

In able support are Maureen O’Sullivan (22 and sparkling), May Robson, Reginald Owen and Reginald Denny.

* 1935 was stocked to burst with literary culls, among them David Copperfield, Les Misérables (with March), A Tale Of Two Cities, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the less high-toned but durable Mutiny On The Bounty, Call Of The Wild, Alice Adams, She, The Last Days Of Pompeii and Ah, Wilderness!

There had been five silent versions, the last in 1927 also with Garbo. Among the numerous later productions that went at Tolstoy’s tome were those in 1948 (Vivien Leigh), 1997 (Sophie Marceau) and 2012 (Keira Knightley). Plus plays, ballets, operas and mini-series.

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