Two Faced Woman (1941) with Greta Garbo

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Garbo rhumbas! Garbo skis! Garbo swims! Garbo laughs! Her first picture since “Ninotchka,” and it’s twice as hilarious!

1941’s Two Faced Woman marked an attempt to soften megastar Greta Garbo’s somewhat hard image, a process which had begun with her previous film, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 film Ninotchka, which had been a large success. Again teamed with her as her leading man is Melvyn Douglas and Constance Bennett and Roland Young are in smaller buy significant supporting roles. Released to tepid reviews from the critics the film did go on to be modestly successful, but ultimately is of interest more today simply as Garbo’s swan song.

But why? And why is the film usually blamed for her departure?

Garbo, never a social butterfly, became an increasingly reclusive and reserved personage as her career progressed. This increased still further during her 39 year retirement, which ended in 1990 with her death. She had incredibly high standards for herself and perhaps the ego to go along with them. And although Two Faced Woman is not a great film, it isn’t a bad one either.

Merely average, which from my perspective forced Garbo to reserve herself for a sure fire hit more suited to her strengths. Unfortunately that film never came along, and although Garbo seriously considered returning several times, and went so far as to film tests for one potential subsequent film, Two Faced Woman sees the curtain fall on her career.

In it Garbo plays ski instructor Karin Borg, who is a rather demure character, perhaps somewhat like Garbo herself. She meets and is in short order swept off her feet by magazine editor Lawrence Blake (Melvyn Douglas), who drops his current girlfriend (Constance Bennett) in a moment for the lovely Karin. Unfortunately the viewer barely has time to get to know Karin’s character before she marries, which in some ways is the last we see of the character.

After marriage, Lawrence is called to New York, leaving his bride behind. However, Karin decides to go to New York as well shortly thereafter to surprise her new husband and finds him in a somewhat dubious situation with his former flame but is discovered in the process. In a panic, the young Karin pretends to be Karin’s twin sister Kathleen, who is a complete fabrication.

Lawrence becomes smitten with Kathleen on the surface, but it’s obvious he is in on the joke and knows Kathleen’s true identity. This, coupled with the absence of any character development for poor Karin , does make the film a bit jarring and lessens the appeal somewhat. But not dramatically. I found rewatching it quite entertaining in fact- it isn’t bad, just not good enough to blow your socks off.

The last half is really just a case of switched identity, which really isn’t that exciting. There is a great dance sequence in the middle where Kathleen dances to support that she is in fact the twin sister. However, since she is really Karin and Karin doesn’t dance at all, she makes up an impromptu dance step. The whole process is actually well done and pretty amusing.

So with the great cast and great director, what went wrong. Unfortunately it may be Garbo herself, as romantic comedy wasn’t her forte, although she had done in before. A more comedically gifted actress may have been able to pull it off, but Garbo looks uncomfortable at times which is pretty easy to pick up on.

Warner Archive just released this title, along with Garbo’s earlier films Romance and Torrent, this past Tuesday. Fairly standard fare at this point in terms of quality, but again kudos for Warners continued aggressive work in releasing deep catalog classic titles most other studios forget about. And I continue to be taken with the new format in the cover art, which for the last several months has transitioned to the original movie poster art from the rather staid color insert on a blue field which the series started with.

Unfortunately most who get this will want it to have another Garbo film. These folks should look elsewhere and get a stronger Garbo entry, but those looking for a good romantic comedy of the 1940s need look no farther.

Get it at The WB Shop.

Review copy provided by Warner Bros. Thanks!

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