In 1917 the Dutch exotic dancer Mata Hari was shot by firing squad after being successfully prosecuted for espionage during the First World War. It is almost certain that she was not guilty of the crimes for which she was convicted, but as soon as 1920 her scandalous exploits had already made the jump to cinema and public myth. That film was essentially remade 11 years later by producer/director George Fitzmaurice, with Greta Garbo in the title role.
Mata Hari – or, at least, the popular myth of her – is irresistible fodder for the movie business. It is a story about an exotic dancer and courtesan, sleeping with a variety of French politicians, generals, and diplomats, and selling their secrets on the sly to Germany. It is a story that incorporates sex, violence, deception, espionage, and war into one salacious package. Fitzmaurice’s film was also released at the perfect time: 1931 was only four years after the introduction of talking pictures, and showcases a strong cast of silent cinema actors still developing their craft in the delivery of dialogue and a more subtle performance style. Garbo, for example, is enormously theatrical here: large gestures and exaggerated motion abound. She is helpfully cast in a role that perfectly suited her own accent; a problem that stymied a lot of silent actors when they moved to “the talkies”. Co-star Ramon Novarro is less overt, and makes a strong impression as the lovestruck Russian flight lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff. The lead cast is rounded off by Lionel Barrymore as one of Hari’s lovers, General Serge Shubin, and Lewis Stone as Hari’s villainous spymaster.
The other benefit of Mata Hari’s 1931 release was a lack of censorship. Without the restrictions of the loathed Hays Code – which came into effect in 1934 – the film made no secret of its protagonist’s active sexual life and numerous lovers. Characters in the film were depicted together in bed, Mata Hari’s exotic dances were authentically sexualised, and Garbo’s costumes were particularly revealing. Sadly when re-released post-1934 three minutes of the film were cut. While it is understood an extant copy of Fitzmaurice’s original cut exists in Brussels, only the censored version has ever been released to home video. One hopes a future re-release will restore this lost footage, and offer the version of Mata Hari that its director intended audiences to see.
This is an excellent example of early 1930s cinema: it boasts a highly melodramatic tone, halfway between the dumb show acting of silent film and the more naturalistic performances of later decades. The film’s climactic scenes are shot and staged with a surprisingly strong expressionist bent. There are certainly better films that were released in 1931 – Tod Browning’s Dracula immediately comes to mind – but there were certainly also films that were far worse. It presents a good opportunity to experience some of the famous actors of its day. At the time Garbo was one of Hollywood’s most popular stars, while Barrymore was one of his generation’s most acclaimed actors – he won the Best Actor Academy Award for A Free Soul in the same year. For my own part I was particularly taken with Roman Novarro. He entered the industry during the silent era as something of a second-rate Rudolph Valentino. Valentino was Italian, Novarro Mexican, and they both played similar heroic and romantic roles. After Valentino’s death in 1926, Novarro rose to much greater prominence and continued to act well into the 1960s – even playing the original Ben Hur along the way. He died horribly in 1968, the victim of a home invasion and gay bashing. It cannot help but tint his performances with a terrible sense of tragedy: a man who lived hiding his authentic self and who died at the hands of thieves and bigots.