Feminist Fridays: Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Welcome to the introductory post for our Feminist Fridays series! Keep in mind that many of the comments contained herein are tongue-in-cheek in nature and are not intended to offend or inflame those who may take them otherwise. Also, these posts are not intended to be scholarly or academic or otherwise “learned” reviews, but are merely chock full of opinion and plain ol’ conjecture.

Also, let me just insert a quick “spoiler alert” here–I will be discussing specific details of this film, including the ending, so if you have not seen it and do not want the ending ruined, do not read any further. Until, you know, you’re done watching it. Then come back and read this.

Recently, I re-watched the 1926 silent film Flesh and the Devil after recommending it for John Gilbert’s Summer Under the Stars tribute last month on TCM. And the first thing that came to mind when I was done was, “Daaaaaaaaaaaaaamn.”

You see, in the years since I had first seen it, I had forgotten some of the less-than-palatable elements of the film, the elements of sexism and hyper-judgment that make a modern-day self-ascribed feminist want to punch something. Or perhaps this is just what grad school has done to me–made me a hypercritical, overanalytical mess of a human being who can no longer enjoy even the most inane entertainment because the vestiges of underlying thematic elements–and the need to comment upon them–practically ruin the viewing experience.

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Now, I want to preface this discussion by saying that I really do enjoy this movie. Criticizing Flesh and the Devil, as I am about to do, for its somewhat sexist themes and motifs, does not mean that the film is necessarily a “bad” one. Like many films of the early Hollywood era, this movie is, in large part, a reflection of the times in which it was made. And while 1926 was positioned slap-dab in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, a somewhat progressive decade (at least by the standards of the years that came before), it was still guided by the mores of what constitutes so-called “proper” behavior. Even seven years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and seven years before the enactment of the Hays Code in Hollywood, the double standard separating and defining the parameters of male and female behavior was well in place and not budging an inch.

We begin the film at a military academy, meeting Leo (Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson), young cadets and lifelong friends. Leo is nowhere to be found in time for morning drills, so Ulrich nervously covers for his friend. And when the two are assigned manual labor for their insubordination, Leo completes the work for the weary Ulrich. So sweet. Yes, the first twenty minutes or so set up the strong bond of friendship between the two men–a prototypical “bromance,” to borrow a 21st-century term–a relationship that is rife with underlying homoerotic tension, as such relationships are wont to be. In fact, at one point in the film, we see a flashback of the young men as boys, pledging their troth–I mean, cementing their friendship–on the island near their childhood home, which they called, appropriately, the Isle of Friendship.

Blood brothers, through and through, pledged to have each other’s backs no matter what may come.

You just know what’s coming next.

That’s right … a WOMAN.

Dun dun DUN.

Leo meets Felicitas (Greta Garbo). She’s married; he’s unaware. The force of attraction is strong between these two. Cue the illicit lovemaking.

Cue the angry husband and the gauntlet across the cheek.

Cue the pistols at dawn.

Cue the unlucky husband’s death.

Oops.

Leo is sent to Africa for three years because the military wants to avoid a scandal. He entrusts Ulrich with watching after his victim’s widow, without telling Ulrich the entire story behind the duel and his relationship with Felicitas (instead, he blames the duel on a dispute over cards). All things considered, this a bad move on Leo’s part, as Ulrich is immediately mesmerized by the beautiful widow.

See? Mesmerized. Or ... something. Wow, that's a creepy look.

Leo endures his time in Africa with the thought that, upon his return, he can finally be with his one true love. Well, both of them, actually–for not only does he pine away for the woman, but he really, really misses his bro.

Leo finally returns home, only to discover that in his absence, Ulrich has married Felicitas. And all of Leo’s fanciful dreams come crashing down. His BFF is married, and to his former lover and the cause of his banishment.

"A toast ... to how much you guys SUCK!"

What does any sane man do? Well, he doesn’t accept responsibility for his own part in the (admittedly) crappy turn his life has taken. And he certainly doesn’t suck it up, congratulate the happy couple, and build a new life with his friend’s so-obviously-in-love-with-him-it’s-downright-painful-to-watch little sister, Hertha (Barbara Kent).

No, he isolates himself upon the advice of his “well-meaning” pastor.

Oh, that pastor.

Of course, the film must have a religious voice of reason, because otherwise the themes of adultery and lust and hate and violence remain unchecked. The filmgoer must be reminded that the actions of these people are not merely human. They are WICKED. They will be PUNISHED. By a VENGEFUL GOD. Who put us on this earth to be MISERABLE, because seeking happiness for happiness’ sake is WRONG.

I think you get my drift.

The pastor advises Leo that he must stay away from Felicitas, because her influence will lead to sin:

He continues: “Once before, that woman lead you into temptation … and you sinned … Aren’t you afraid of what she may do to you a second time?”

Note that Pastor Voss does not chastise Leo for his own part in their mutual sin–no, the power lies solely in Felicitas, the evil woman whose devilish flesh causes men to lose control of their minds and their faculties.

And they say women are the weaker sex.

Now, let me interject here and say that Felicitas is not solely without blame in any of these scenarios. She is a devious little thing, vain and spoiled, more concerned with her own beauty and comforts than with a little thing like a dead husband or three. She relishes the drama that is left in her wake–to her, it’s romantic, in a sense, to have men fighting and willing to die over her.

But Felicitas, more so than the men with whom she surrounds herself, is at least somewhat self-aware. She knows exactly what she’s doing when she plays Ulrich against Leo, or Leo against her first husband. And she’s unapologetically self-absorbed. When she goes into mourning after Leo has won the duel, she sits before her mirror, silently and almost cheerfully gauging her reflection as she tries on a series of veiled hats (a scene that was almost certainly borrowed thirteen years later in Gone With the Wind, as Scarlett does the same thing after the death of unloved first husband Charles Hamilton).

Felicitas is not above using her second husband as an excuse to ensnare her former lover’s attention, either. When Leo separates himself from the couple on Pastor Voss’ advice, Felicitas sends Leo a letter to guilt him back into her company:

She is also quite the smartass. In the church scene, the pastor, infuriated to see Leo walking in with Felicitas and Ulrich, thunders on about the evils of lust and sex.

“My sermon this morning will be: ‘David hath done evil in my sight, and his deed stinks before Heaven!’ … For David hath seduced Uriah’s wife! … And David hath slain Uriah … so that the woman might tarry with him! … And I found David not repenting in sackcloth and ashes! … but flaunting his sin in public places … and on his right hand was Uriah’s wife! … Yea, David, thou hast broken the Lord’s holy commandment! … and a fire from Heaven shall consume thee! … thee and that woman who sits in sin by thy side!”

Again, note that it is only the pastor’s anger at Leo’s flagrant disregard for his advice that finally leads Voss to assign him blame in the situation. Previously, the responsibility lay solely with the woman; now, the defiant man receives his slap on the wrist.

While Leo alternately looks down at his feet in shame and stares back at the pastor in utter horror, Felicitas displays a vastly different reaction … at least initially. She calmly stares right back at Voss and proceeds to put on another coat of lipstick, which only seems to inflame him further, as his voice reaches a thundering crescendo. Her bravado is shocking, in a sense, yet ultimately invokes a laugh (at least for me), as while she is basically being labeled a harlot, she responds by slapping on some more feminine warpaint.

Of course, this effect is ruined when Felicitas, finally overcome by the pastor’s bombastic lambasting and the sudden realization of her own inherent evil nature, faints in the midst of his sermon, because a female character simply cannot be portrayed as overly defiant. At least, not in 1926. Knuckle under, girl.

Yet even this brief demonstration of … well, whatever you want to label it–remorse, regret, contrition, penitence … does not last long.

Immediately afterward, as Leo and Felicitas kneel side by side at the altar, receiving their communion, Felicitas deliberately places her lips on the wine goblet precisely where Leo’s had just been, much to his dismay.

Throughout the film, it is evident that the jealousy Leo feels is not merely based on his lust for Felicitas. By marrying his “bro,” the woman has usurped his position as the most important person in Ulrich’s life. This is what ultimately fans the fire–he cannot stay away from his friend, no matter how much he may want to, so he must endure the horror of his former lover’s company.

And when Leo succumbs to temptation, his reaction is not to question his own behavior, or to lay the blame upon himself for being unable to resist Felicitas’ charms.

To do so would be to admit failure–his inability to restrain his baser emotions. Instead, he allows those baser emotions to take control, in the only way he knows how–to (literally) strangle the life out of the blasted woman, to somehow relieve the spell she has wickedly cast upon his very soul.

Kind of poetic, in a sense, isn’t it? Except for the whole “hands around the throat” thing.

When they are discovered, mid-strangle, by Ulrich, Felicitas naturally appeals to her husband, despairing that she has no idea why Leo would want to  kill her. At this point, we see Leo shut down. He will not defend himself; he will not explain his actions. The woman has won. He will accept defeat.

But! Guy Love is stronger, by far, than womanly charms.

As the two men stand across from one another on a snowy field on the Isle of Friendship (now the ISLE OF MANLY DEATH), pistols drawn for the duel to come, the memories of their friendship are replayed across the screen. Simultaneously, we see Felicitas, who has come to stop them at the urging of Hertha, fall through a patch of ice into the water below; unable to pull herself out, she drowns.

Flash back to Leo and Ulrich. They shake their heads, widen their eyes, as if awakening from a deep sleep (“Leo, everything is suddenly clear to me … as if a veil had lifted …”). Unknown to them, the object of contention between the two is dead, and somehow–magically!–they have realized the foolishness of letting a woman get between them. We’re friends! Bros! Forget the woman; it was all her fault! Let’s never fight again! Hug. The end.

So, kiddies, heed the lesson well. If a woman comes between you and your best friend, just off the bitch. Problem solved.

But in all seriousness, Garbo’s character in this film is a perfect example of early Hollywood’s “woman dilemma;” that is, how to deal with the independent, unconventional woman. She is not the home-and-hearth type; she cheats on both of her husbands (with the same man, true, but still) and is less concerned with the needs of her men than her own desires. What do you do with such a creature?

Well, you can reform her, turning her into the loving, devoted wifely figure, or you can destroy her, removing her influence altogether. Films such as 1931’s The Divorcee choose the former tack, as the adulterous Jerry is reunited with her equally adulterous husband, and we are lead to believe (in one of the most unbelievable fantasies early Hollywood has to offer) that their remarriage will be a happily-ever-after scenario. But Flesh and the Devil chooses the latter, which, if truth be told, is the only one of those options that would actually work in light of the film’s storyline, because reformation would be so unlikely a development for the character of Felicitas.

And, as in many similarly-themed films, the “hero” … well, he gets off relatively scot-free, his friendships and his family intact, happier than ever before.

Ahh, the joys of white male privilege.

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