Produced by David O. Selznick, the 1935 MGM adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a good measure of High Hollywood in all the wrong ways. While not terrible, it is not particularly enjoyable either. Ironically, many of the things that get in the way of enjoying it would have been considered assets when it was new.
Start with the tried and true practice of baking a high caloric pastry around a star, in this case, Greta Garbo. There has to be a story, so one at least moderately related to the star’s persona is found. It then has to be simple enough to proceed briskly to keep one step ahead of the audience.
So much grist for this mill, Tolstoy’s 800+ pages are transformed into a 95 minute romantic melodrama about a woman so deeply in love that she sacrifices everything, including her life. Anna meets Vronsky (Frederic March), they fall in love, she abandons her husband (Basil Rathbone) and son (Freddy Bartholemew) to be with Vronsky, who proves unworthy of her dedication. She kills herself—roll credits.
That may sound abrupt, but it is a reasonable facsimile of experiencing the film. We are repeatedly told Anna and Vronsky love each other, but we don’t feel much attraction between them, much less an overpowering emotion that moves her to suicide or him to abandon his career. Their “love” is entirely diagrammatic—they do and say what they do because that is what the story demands. Emotional complexities are treated as if the characters’ self-destructive actions are logical and inevitable for no deeper reason than because that’s what’s in the script.
To arouse emotions as strong as the characters’ feelings would require a director with interest in them greater than straightening his tie. Instead, Selznick and director Clarence Brown make Garbo and March as beautiful as possible and surround them with a sumptuous production. If the emotions are perfunctorily brisk, the filmmakers are happy to slow things down to flaunt their resources. The opening party sequence, for example, (starting on a close-up of a mammoth punch bowl of caviar) goes on and on to little purpose. A society ball is more interesting for the palatial architecture than the people. A train station is built at full scale with scores of costumed extras. When two minor characters are married, the movie pauses to depict the rituals of Russian Orthodox matrimony. And so on.
Such A-budget ostentation (reminiscent of that most bloated of Hollywood melodramas, Selznick’s Gone With The Wind) extends even to the credits, with a conspicuous “Count” placed before Tolstoy’s name. Yet for all the de rigeur emphasis on the story, the film registers most forcefully as expensive status-mongering. To be sure, only Hollywood could have recreated late imperial Russia with such fussy totality. It is also true, however, that only Hollywood could have made something so cheerlessly aggrandizing as Anna Karenina.