Anna Karenina (1935)
Anna Karenina (1935)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.

Release Date: August 30th, 1935 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Clarence Brown Actors: Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Freddie Bartholomew, Maureen O’Sullivan, May Robson, Basil Rathbone, Reginald Owen, Phoebe Foster, Reginald Denny, Gyles Isham, Joan Marsh

 


 

A

n officer of the Emperor’s Guard, Count Vronsky (Fredric March) returns to Moscow for a lavish, celebratory feast in an ornate hall, full of decorated military leaders and the finest of foods. Afterwards, the soldiers retire to yet another place of leisure – this one a pub with unending shots of vodka and plenty of women. The extensive cavorting and imbibing finds the officers barely able to stand up, though Vronksy must head to the train station to meet his mother, the Countess (May Robson), journeying from St. Petersburg. His good pal Stiva (Reginald Owen), whom he happened to run into during the second part of the evening, accompanies him, as the practiced drinker must meet his sister, Anna Karenina (Greta Garbo), at the station too.

When the locomotive departs again, a man is crushed between the cars, marking an ill omen. Back at Stiva’s home, his wife Dolly (Phoebe Foster) is upset that her husband continues to see other women behind her back – this time the governess for their own children. Anna questionably defends his actions, suggesting that he can’t help himself. Dolly’s sister Kitty (Maureen O’Sullivan) is less forgiving, though pervasive unfaithfulness is not uncommon among the upper class. Plus, Kitty is juggling two men, unsure of whether or not the serious Konstantin Demitrievitch Levin (Gyles Isham) is preferable to the dashing Vronsky. And at an upcoming ball, she’ll have the opportunity to see them both – as well as countless other elites hoping to attract her attention and win companionship for the main-event mazurka.

But Vronksy has his eyes set only on Anna, much to Kitty’s disappointment. When Anna departs prematurely, insistent on getting back to her husband Alexei Alexandrovitch Karenin (Basil Rathbone) and young son Sergei (Freddie Bartholomew) in St. Petersburg, the love triangle dissipates … momentarily. Vronksy follows Anna back to the Northern Capital, where his persistence in seeing her stirs up a bit of controversy and gossip among her circle of acquaintances. She tries to distance herself, but eventually succumbs to his advances. “I know now that there is no escape for me.”

Although it’s foreshadowed, based on her lenient judgment of Stiva, Anna’s whirlwind romance is too sudden to be believable. And her willingness to abandon not only her husband but also her child is an even greater stretch of realism. Alexandrovitch is eventually shown to be moderately strict and cold (demonstrated through a warning about public opinion, the effects of scandal, the viability of the marriage tie, the sanctity of the home, and, predominantly, his own embarrassment and honor in high society), but far from contemptible or abusive. To aggravate the point, Anna’s husband is depicted more and more like a villain – a contrived development that doesn’t fit his introduction or her initial interplay with him. And his actions aren’t even particularly cruel, considering the time period.

This adaptation of the famous Leo Tolstoy novel definitely truncates the exhaustive text. The major characters are reduced drastically, basically down to just a few, cutting away so many details that the plot becomes surprisingly simple. The spanning of days and months are problematic as well, moving hurriedly but without grasping the significance of the passing of time or Anna’s separation from her loved ones. Even the encroaching war doesn’t present much gravity.

Ultimately, for a great love story (here based on what is often considered the greatest in all literature), it’s essential that the audience buy into the central relationship. But with such a brief running time, it’s difficult to create a convincing union – both during the moments of bliss and quarreling, which are equally rushed. Many of the stars’ lines are still poignant, however, as are the universal themes of forbidden love, jealousy, hypocrisy, reputation, regret (“I’m sick and tired of love!”), and striking tragedy. Garbo is by far the best part of this picture, managing to carry the bulk of it despite its many shortcomings. “Whatever way one lives, there’s a penalty I suppose.”

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10