you may have noticed that i review a lot of john gilbert movies on this site. that is not because i have a john gilbert fetish, though i do. it's because he tended to be in my favorite kind of silent: tragic, melodramatic romances where the two star-crossed lovers are torn apart, resulting in lots of lovelorn brooding and impassioned speeches. yes, my secret's out. if you're here to find reviews of obscure european silents with christ figures and deep meaning, sorry. i'm all about the romances.
and flesh & the devil is a brilliant romance. it stars john gilbert (of course) as leo, a german soldier. he goes home on furlough with his lifelong best friend and fellow military man, ulrich. they're both filthy rich and live in big houses that look like bavarian restaurants, leo with his mother (who, by the way, he seems a bit too close to- gilbert had this way of acting madly in love with all the other actors, but it's kind of creepy here), ulrich with his sister, hertha. despite what her name might suggest, hertha is not a bulky bierfrau but a cute little old 15-year-old with mary pickford-style curls. hertha has an obvious crush on leo (and who wouldn't?), to which he responds by giving her hell and ignoring her. mean! (we love hertha! hertha is a cutie! hertha looks about 12 and says things like "you may kiss my hand, herr baron." hertha rules.)
after he returns home, he meets felicitas von rhaden (greta garbo). she's beautiful! she's sophisticated! she's enigmatic! of course, leo falls madly in love with her and moons over her, until they meet at a ball and he succeeds in kissing her in a moonlit grove. (actually, a very lovely scene, everything's all glowy and intense.) he spends the rest of his furlough in her lap (interperet that however you want), but on the day before he has to leave, he's caught with her by... her husband!
in real life, leo and von rhaden would probably just throw a few punches or whatever, but, seeing as it's a silent melodrama, there's only one way to settle it: a pistol duel! of course, leo vanquishes his enemy, but the army sends him off to africa for five years as punishment for murder, and poor felicitas is left all alone.
well, felicitas wastes no time in... getting married! to ulrich! okay, call me old-fashioned, but you do not get someone exiled for love of you, and then marry their best friend. ulrich didn't know anything about why leo fought the duel in the first place, so you can't really blame him... it was all that bitch!
however, while felicitas has been shagging ulrich, guess who has been pining faithfully for leo? hertha, who has since grown up into a very pretty young woman with a really cute wardrobe. do we see a happy ending emerging?
well, kind of. the last hour of the movie features: tortured love! teenage temper tantrums! scheming! elopement! attempted strangulation! almost another duel! ranting preachers! flirtation at the communion rail! and so much more! i won't give away the ending, i'll just say: it's good. it's really good. except for what happens to hertha.
this movie gets four stars. yeah, baby!