The most interesting thing about Greta Garbo’s Hollywood films is how bad most of them are. She unquestionably was a star of the first magnitude, and much of her radiance manages to shine through the heavy trappings of the vehicles created for her by MGM. The films are still clunkers, however.
Case in point, Conquest, which dramatizes the long term relationship between Napoleon and Countess Walewska, his favorite mistress. In this thoroughly sanitized and Americanized version of history, Napoleon is less a tyrant than a tragic hero undone by his egotism. Walewska, on the other hand, is made into a Polish patriot who gives herself to Napoleon in the hope of freeing her country. These squeaky clean portrayals stop short of trying to convince us an Emperor and a Countess were nascent democrats, but Production Code demands required an adulterous relationship be made as Idealistic as possible. (The filmmakers even trot out Mama Bonaparte to bless the couple.) Heaven forbid that Napoleon and Walewska should have the hots for each other.
Which, given that Conquest is meant to be a romance, would make more sense than any pretense at historical analysis, but the cavernous sets, elaborate costumes and swashbuckling soldiers are in the service of a turgidly tasteful effort that smothers any chance of excitement or insight. At the center of it is Garbo, neither good nor bad, just Garbo, frozen like a scarab in amber. In her own ethereal, iridescent world, her sincere, occasionally affecting soulfulness remains remote at best for those of us down on the ground.
Aside from the opulent production design, which, while too shiny to be believed, is still nice to look at, only Charles Boyer’s performance as Napoleon is worth the effort of watching. He rises above the mummified trappings and excruciating dialog to make us believe he really is Napoleon. In the gilded cage of a Garbo vehicle, that is no small feat. Boyer repeatedly brings the movie to life, invigorating the drama with the Emperor’s fiery conceit and brilliance. Otherwise, the movie feels like an over-produced high school pageant. (That is literally true of the amateurish scenes between Walewska and her brother, played by Alan Marshal.)
It is probably unfair to blame Garbo for the stiffness of most of her films. A likelier villain would be the mindset of parvenu producers who wanted to embalm her expensively in a mistaken equation of gloss with class. If art could be bought for the price of the sets, Conquest would be a masterpiece. Of course, that’s a lot like thinking the secret of the “Mona Lisa” is Leonardo’s brand of paint. What is missing in Conquest is any sense of why we should care. Everything is so inertly well mounted, there’s nothing to do but “appreciate” the effort that went into it and go home. Somewhere between the intentions and results, they lost the movie.