Classic Film Guide

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Directed by five time Best Director Oscar nominee Clarence Brown (including for Anna Christie (1930)), this essential silent drama, co-written by Benjamin Glazer (7th Heaven (1927)), features Greta Garbo in her third American film, following Torrent (1926) & The Temptress (1926), all of which were released in the same year. It's also the first of her four pairings with actor John Gilbert, their last was Queen Christina (1933), and first of seven with director Brown. In this film, Garbo serves as the woman in a love triangle with soldier Gilbert and wealthy Lars Hanson. Gilbert's and Hanson's characters had grown up childhood pals who'd made a "blood" pact on "Friendship" island. This film was added to the National Film Registry in 2006.

Upon returning from military service, Leo (Gilbert) meets and falls in love with Felicitas (Garbo), unaware that she's a married woman. When her husband the Count (Marc McDermott) returns to find them together in an uncompromising position, he challenges Leo to a duel. Leo kills the Count and is persuaded by Pastor Voss (George Fawcett), aware of the affair, to go away for 5 years. Before he leaves, Leo asks his childhood "blood brother", now rich Ulrich von Eltz (Hanson) to look after the widow, telling him the dispute with the Count was over a card game.

While returning from his self imposed exile, Leo dreams of nothing but Felicitas. He returns to his mother (Eugenie Besserer) and finds that Ulrich's sister Hertha (Barbara Kent) now lives with her, since her older brother's wedding. Hertha has always had a crush on Leo. When Leo finds that Ulrich's wife is Felicitas, he is crestfallen to the point of jeopardizing their long friendship. Felicitas intervenes to tell Leo that Ulrich is lost without his childhood friend, and Leo reconciles with his friend without revealing his past with Felicitas. Even though Pastor Voss preaches against it, when Ulrich is absent on business, Felicitas seduces Leo once again. Pastor Voss councils Leo about the Devil, who uses the Flesh to try and tempt men who are otherwise of great character.

*** SPOILERS ***

When Ulrich returns, he catches Leo in Felicitas bedroom. She had been willing to run away with Leo, but when he refused, she was satisfied with just continuing their affair. So, Leo was strangling her when Ulrich walked in. She accuses Leo of disloyalty and a resigned Leo admits it's the truth. Ulrich challenges Leo to a duel the next morning on Friendship island, the place of their childhood "blood" pact. While their duel has begun, Felicitas rushes to stop it when she falls through the frozen ice surrounding the island and drowns. Unaware of this, but aware that his friend Leo is about to willingly take his bullet, Ulrich realizes the truth ... that Leo had shot the Count because he was in love with Felicitas. The two men renew their friendship and leave the island arm in arm.

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