Every once in a while, a story takes an unexpected turn. One you did not see coming. And it knocks your socks off. For me, that moment came in Anna Karenina. If you have never read the book, it follows two different romantic entanglements, the pure love of Kitty and Levin, and the lustful passion of Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky in their adulterous affair.
Anna’s husband, Alexei Karenin, is willing to tolerate them, provided she adheres to social standards of decency (meaning, lets no one know about it), maintains their illusion of a solid marriage, and has no trysts inside their home. She refuses. Anna wants to marry Vronsky and asks Karenin for a divorce. Because it would ruin his successful political career, he refuses on the grounds of not legitimizing her “sin.” He is a proud man, deeply hurt by her betrayal, who after learning she is with child, wants to make her life miserable in recrimination for her behavior and intends to divorce her by exposing her adultery.
But something happens to change his mind… and change him into a far different man. He discovers Christian love and forgiveness. After the birth of Vronsky’s child, Anna lies feverish on her deathbed. She summons her husband to her side and begs his forgiveness. Moved even beyond his own understanding, he does as she asks and also forgives her lover.
A few scenes later, we see him showing tenderness to her infant daughter.
“At first from a feeling of compassion alone he took an interest in the rather weak newborn girl who was not his daughter and who had been abandoned during her mother’s illness and who surely would have died had he not taken an interest in her—and he himself did not notice how he had come to love her. Several times a day he went to the nursery and sat there for long stretches of time so that the wet nurse and nurse, who at first were shy in front of him, became accustomed to him.”– Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
It’s a moment of grace-driven redemption no one saw coming. Karenin becomes a man struggling to do “the right thing” by his wife. In his new-found desire for goodness, he realizes a deep desire for revenge drove his decision to divorce. Believing Vronsky a cad who will abandon her, Karenin decides to stay her husband. This time not to hurt her, but to protect her.
As a result, Alexei Karenin is one of my favorite literary figures—a man who undergoes a spiritual transformation by embracing divine love and forgiveness. It does not “fix” him (he is still flawed, and prone to listening to the wrong people), but it softens him in my eyes. So imagine my excitement to discover Basil Rathbone, an actor I admire, played him in Greta Garbo’s 1935 film. And my dismay when I realized… they took out his redemption altogether, something that must have disappointed Rathbone.
Fresh off an acclaimed role as the sadistic Murdstone in David Copperfield, Rathbone dove into portraying Karenin. In preparation, he read the book and took copious notes. He sent the studio producer, David O. Selznick (made famous a few years later by Gone With the Wind) a dozen letters outlining his suggestions for the script, especially as pertained to Karenin. Seltznick ignored them all.
In fairness, at the time the studios were under heavy censorship from the film board, which dictated what it allowed them to show the public based on “moral guidelines.” In the 1920s, before censorship, Hollywood had made risqué pictures featuring nudity, premarital sex, adultery, criminal behaviors, unpunished murderers, and other things religious leaders feared might have a negative impact on the morality of society. One of the “non-negotiable” areas was to show children born out of wedlock, which meant Anna’s pregnancy and subsequent illness had to go. And with it went any chance for Karenin to transition from a spurned, wrathful husband into a forgiving man, changed by his softening toward his wife.
Greta Garbo was a screen icon, having transitioned from silent pictures into talkies, and Rathbone credited her with teaching him the art of “subtlety.” Rathbone, a prestigious stage actor, learned to copy her use of small facial expressions, eye flickers, and hand movements, which give Karenin his iconic “stiffness” in body as much as in his mind. But Garbo was no easy actress to play opposite of, as both Rathbone and the actor who played her son, Freddie Bartholomew, soon discovered. A secretive and private woman who eventually disappeared from public life altogether, Garbo was at first warm and welcoming to Freddie. She became like a “second mother” on set to him… until, spurred by an eager uncle, he asked for her autograph. From that moment on, she took on the same distant reserve that she extended to Rathbone, who felt hurt and confused by her behavior. They had previously met at a party and enjoyed one another’s company, but when she walked onto the set, she acted as if they had never met.
Though not given a chance to fully redeem Karenin, Rathbone establishes empathy for him in his jealousy over Anna’s love for their son, Sergei. When he meets his wife at the train station, she ignores his comment that he missed her and demands to know if their son missed her. Later, watching them interact, Karenin tries to gain her attention several times, only to have her rebuff him and lavish praise on the boy. She never even looks at him whenever he speaks to her. He later uses this against her, when she demands a divorce. Karenin knows the only way he can keep her in the marriage is to refuse her access to Sergei if she leaves. To his dismay, she chooses her lover over her child. He tells Sergei his mother has died—a lie his son does not believe. “I would know if she had died,” the boy says, and ignores him. Much like his mother did before him.
One has to wonder what Rathbone said in his letters to Selznick. One also has to wonder why the studio kept him a villain. Perhaps the censor board felt his forgiveness of his wife would “legitimize their sin”? They wanted both lovers punished. Whatever the reason, it’s an iconic film. Garbo had the emotional maturity required to play Anna, a woman bored with her life, torn between duty and desire, and desperate for sexual passion. Rathbone is the ideal foil for her, a charismatic but cold man who knows not how to express the passions he feels inside. Instead of begging his wife not to break his heart, he warns her not to cause a scandal. When they meet in a stairwell, after she steals in to visit Sergei, he accuses her of hurting the boy through the lies he had to tell on her behalf. Though he is cold to her in every scene, he still conveys the pain driving his briskness.
In the book, Anna and Vronsky cannot marry because of Karenin’s refusal to grant them a divorce. His act to ‘protect her’ in case Vronsky leaves her a fallen woman destroys their relationship. Fearful of abandonment, Anna becomes more and more unhinged and hysterical, believing her lover will leave her. He soon tires of her jealous, possessive company. His mother, in the meantime, urges him to marry an heiress. Believing he will do it, Anna commits suicide. Because Anna never divorced her husband, Karenin must raise her daughter, upon which Vronsky now has no claim. Thus, Vronsky loses the woman he loves and their daughter in a fell swoop.
In Garbo’s version, out of boredom and a need for adventure, Vronsky decides to ride off to war—an abandonment that prompts her to leap in front of a train. The implication is that he is a cad who, in the last scene, feels repentant of his misdeeds and wallows in the mess he made. Thus, it fulfills the censorship demands that both lovers pay for their sins.
Though not a perfect adaptation of the novel, Rathbone’s version is worth watching for his performance. He called it one of his best—and I agree. Though no doubt disappointed not to play Karenin as Tolstoy intended, he gave it his best, and is more than a match for Greta Garbo.
I wrote this post as part of the Suave Swordsman Basil Rathbone Blogathon. Please click here or on the image below to read the rest of the articles.