During the silent era, the great studios profitted enormously from the screen adaptations of the action-packed romance novels of Vicente Blasco-Ibanez; among them were: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse(Metro Pictures, 1921), starring Rudolph Valentino; Blood and Sand (Famous Players-Lasky, 1922), also starring Valentino; and Enemies of Women (Cosmopolitan Pictures, for Goldwyn, 1923), starring Lionel Barrymore. After The Torrent (M-G-M, 1926), starring Greta Garbo, came Mare Nostrum (M-G-M, 1926), starring Antonio Moreno; and The Temptress (Cosmopolitan Pictures, for M-G-M, 1926), Garbo's second American picture.
In late 1925, M-G-M had another Ibanez novel ready to be adapted to the screen: Entre Naranjos (Among Orange Trees). Among Orange Trees looked ripe to the studio: it featured promising parts for Ricardo Cortez, "the M-G-M Valentino," and Alma Rubens, Cortez's real-life wife. Rubens bowed out, and a young actress from Sweden, who had been cooling her heels for months since her arrival, was to be given her chance. Director Mauritz Stiller, Garbo's mentor, was removed from the picture and reliable contract director Monta Bell was his replacement. The studio gave its adaptation a more sultry title: The Torrent.
The Torrent is about the love between a provincial Spanish girl, Leonora (Garbo) and the spoiled, yet handsome scion of an aristocratic family, Don Rafael (Cortez). When his mother Dona Bernarda (Martha Mattox) thwarts their plans for marriage, the talented Leonora goes to Paris to study voice. Returning as a famous prima donna, she rekindles her romance with her lover - after he heroically saves her from a flash flood. However, his domineering mother separates them again, forcing her son to marry a woman of her choice, Isabella (Lillian Leighton). Several more years pass, and The Fates brings the former lovers together once more...
Until recently, The Torrent - Greta Garbo's first American feature - was best remembered for one of the most bewildering bits of criticism ever penned. Reviewing this film for the New York Herald Tribune, Richard Watts Jr. wrote about the Swedish star: "She seems an excellent and attractive actress with a surprising propensity for looking like Carol Dempster, Norma Talmadge, ZaSu Pitts, and Gloria Swanson. That does not mean she lacks a manner of her own, however." Come again?
One of the least-revived Garbo films and one never released on video, The Torrent has recently surfaced on TCM in a beautiful print with a superb new score by Arthur Barrow. Watching the film, one understands why Watts was momentarily discombobulated: he was attempting to pinpoint the hypnotic appeal of an actress who was unlike anyone else on the screen - and, though he could not have known it at the time, he was witnessing a performer whose talent and beauty, both soon to be legendary, were not yet fully realized.
To get a measure of what set (and still sets) Garbo apart from almost all of her contemporaries, watch the other actors onscreen with her. The Torrent, like many of her films, is not an exercise in ensemble acting. With the exception of the fine performance by Martha Mattox as the domineering mother, the other players are either comic relief or window dressing. Even Ricardo Cortez, in what is admittedly a "blah" role, mostly stands around, looking handsomely sullen or defeated. For all the hype and comparison to Valentino, he has the sex appeal of a plate of cold leftovers.
Against this arid backdrop, Garbo moves at her own charismatic pace. In long shots, her gestures are discernably slower and more restrained than those of her fellow actors; in medium shot and especially in close-up, she invariably moves with that slow, languorous grace that was to become her trademark. And even here, at the tender age of 20, her lovemaking is in a class of its own: it isn't frenetic, like Clara Bow's, nor is it coy, like Lillian Gish's. Eyes half closed in a dreamy swoon, Leonora magnetically pulls Don Rafael toward her figuratively and literally, kissing him in a dominating fashion with direct and unrestrained hunger. One can understand why the silver nitrate ignited when Garbo's intensity was pitted against the sizzle of John Gilbert's the following year in Flesh and the Devil.
Critics and buffs alike have yet to figure out whether instinct or technique lay behind Garbo's art. One can only attempt to analyze what prompted the subtle and psychologically astute nuances that were present in her acting. For example, look at the sequence where the now famous prima donna meets Don Rafael for the first time since their long separation. She decides to toy with him as she reveals her famous identity as "La Brunna" by playing a recording of one of her arias and singing along with it. There's no overt pretentiousness, no eyes and hands flung wide open - she removes a record from her gramophone, pauses, looks just beneath the camera, and quickly reaches for another record. As she concludes accompanying her own voice, she smiles at the astonished Don Rafael and slightly lowers her head with satisfaction and pride: that is all. Garbo's acting compells the audience to look for emotion, rather than anticipate its delivery - it cuts through decades of film performance with a freshness that hasn't dated a bit.
Surveying the entirety of Garbo's career, Louise Brooks pinpointed for Barry Paris, author of Garbo (Knopf, 1995), what was at least partially on display from her beginnings: "Everything is built on movement, and Garbo is all movement. First she gets the emotion, and out of the emotion comes the movement and out of the movement comes the dialogue. She's so perfect that people say she can't act." Garbo's achievement in The Torrent is all the more remarkable when we keep in mind that here was a young woman of 20 in a foreign land, separated from her mentor Mauritz Stiller, being guided by a director whose language she could not speak and expected to act as a woman deeply in love with an arrogant leading man who resented being paired with her.
Yet the factors that give rise to our sympathy and admiration also make one understand why Garbo's performance isn't completely consistent. At times she overtly emotes by rolling her eyes heavenward, she invariably throws back her head to indicate suffering, and in at least one scene she overacts hysterically. But this may not be the fault of youth, for Garbo occasionally applied too much pressure to fiercely charged moments in her films when she played prima donnas. In the 10 minutes that survive from The Divine Woman (M-G-M, 1928), her tribute to the great Sarah Bernhardt, it is overtly evident. This is also true in Romance (M-G-M, 1930) [an Academy Award nominated performance] and Grand Hotel (M-G-M, 1932). Perhaps her reasoning for throwing restraint to the winds was to indicate what she took to be a stage artist's large, expansive passions.
So while there are treasured moments of Garbo-induced hypnosis in The Torrent, there's no true center as yet to her acting, as is the case with her later and greater performances in A Woman of Affairs (M-G-M, 1929), Anna Christie (M-G-M, 1930) [an Academy Award nominated performance], Queen Christina (M-G-M, 1933), and especially Camille (M-G-M, 1936) [also an Academy Award nominated performance]. Her legendary face in this film is also like her acting: the unique contours are there, and at moments the singular beauty of this raw material takes one's breath away, but the whole picture isn't fully formed. The hypnotic eyes and mouth aren't as accentuated as they later became, nor is the high-key lighting that would bring out the perfect bone structure. However, in the very last shot of the film - a great close-up of La Brunna sitting in splendor in her limousine, her sleek head regally lifted in lonely but unyielding pride - we have the genesis of what was soon to become an icon of 20th-century cinema.
Apart from Garbo, The Torrent has other elements to recommend it. The story is still quite absorbing, and it's nice to see that there's no concession to Hollywood's (and especially M-G-M's) inclination to wrap things up with a happy ending. William Daniels' photography is beautiful, and so is the tinting of the film. The print quality, as noted previously, is superbly crisp, and Arthur Barrow's excellent score with a Latin flair will have viewers tangoing up and down their living rooms. One may catch The Torrent on TCM, but it won't be listed in any video catalogues. So, Turner Entertainment and MGM/UA Home Video, with all due respect, what's your excuse?
The Torrent (M-G-M, 1926). Cast: Ricardo Cortez, Greta Garbo, Gertrude Olmstead, Edward Connelly, Lucien Littlefield, Martha Mattox, Lucy Beaumont, Tully Marshall, Mack Swain, Arthur Edmund Carew, Lillian Leighton and Mario Carillo. Directed by Monta Bell. Adaptation by Dorothy Farnum from the novel by Vicente Blasco-Ibanez. Beautifully tinted. 7 reels. This is a crisp print accompanied by a specially composed orchestral score. The Torrent is occasionally shown on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). This is a film we would like to see released on video.