Mr. Rathbone, I presume…
Basil Rathbone had the forceful act down pat. If he wanted to, he could take or throw a punch, hold his own with a sword, or bore a hole in his opponent with his eyes. In the 1935 film, Anna Karenina, where Rathbone played Alexei Alexandrovitch Karenin, the rejected husband of the title character, Rathbone was known as the one actor who wasn’t overshadowed by Garbo, even though his role was fairly tiny for an actor of his stature.
Count Vronsky (Frederick March) is an officer in the Russian Army, and his life is pretty sweet. He spends his days shooting the breeze with his fellow soldiers, crawling under tables in drinking games and taking care of his horse, who has the very distiguished name of Froo Froo. He’s on leave in Moscow, where his fellow soldiers are showing him a good time, with giant bowls of caviar and various assorted jellies and aspics. “These hors d’oeurves are making me hungry!” one declares (thanks for the major Seinfeld moment, MGM), and ushers Vronsky to an expansive table covered with candles and silver.
Later on, the group goes to a pub, where they try to drink each other under a table. Literally. Vronsky is having a rollicking good time when he meets an old friend, Stiva (Reginald Owen). He’s at the bar because he likes the ladies, which, understandably, doesn’t make his wife too happy.
Vronsky and Stiva sober up at a sauna the next morning because they’ve got things to do. Vronsky’s mother is coming in from St. Petersburg. Stiva’s sister, Anna Karenina is coming in on the same train. She happens to be riding in the same car as Vronsky’s mother, and the steam reveals her very dramatically, like she’s a Russian goddess. Vronsky is immediately smitten. In a supreme bit of foreshadowing, Anna shrinks in horror when she sees one of the station workers get run over by a train.
Anna and Vronsky meet again at a ball, where Vronsky asks her to dance. He’s very flirty, but Anna fends him off. Her sister-in-law, Dolly (Phoebe Foster) has a young sister, Kitty (Maureen O’Sullivan) who would gladly stand in for her, but Vronsky has eyes only for Anna. Anna is gracious but firm, and leaves early because she’s got to catch the train back to St. Petersburg. Vronsky isn’t to be deterred, though, and meets her during a quick stopover.
When Anna gets home, she’s welcomed back by her husband, Alexei (Basil Rathbone) and her son, (Sergei), and while everyone is very excited, Alexei has business. He leaves Anna and Sergei opening the presents Anna brought to attend a state function. Their quiet domesticity doesn’t stay tranquil for long, though, because Vronsky is present. A lot. And people are gossiping about it. A lot.
At first Alexei shrugs it off, because Anna is a beautiful woman and this kind of thing is common. However, this is not just a passing flirtation. Anna succumbs to Vronsky’s charm; she stays behind at a garden party for an “hour or two more,” which turns into her getting home after midnight.
It all effectively comes to a head when Vronsky races Froo Froo, who trips and falls. Vronsky is all right, but Froo Froo has to be shot. Anna is visibly shaken and Alexei takes her home. He doesn’t have time to really comfort her, though, because he’s got yet another function to rush off to.
Alexei soon gets tired of Anna’s dalliances and reminds Anna that as a state official, it behooves him to project a stable home life to the country and St. Petersburg. He won’t give Anna a divorce. She won’t be able to see Sergei again. She’ll have to wander the world in eternal limbo, sustained only by her illicit love. Vronsky has to make his own sacrifice; as an Army officer, he can’t be having affairs with married women. He thinks it’s worthless, though, as long as he can be with Anna.
Anna and Vronsky move in together and try to start a new life even though they’re doing it under false pretenses. Like many folks with roving eyes, Vronsky is restless again even though he’s supposedly gotten what he wants. Meanwhile, Anna misses Sergei. She wants to see him on his birthday, but Alexei refuses. He’d rather Sergei think his mother is dead. How this all ends up is not exactly a secret, as most people know how Anna Karenina ends.
Anna Karenina looks sumptuous and Garbo is beautiful. Her chemistry with Basil Rathbone as her husband is polite but cool, with Rathbone starting out as stern but fair and then becoming stern but unmoving. Garbo biographer Barry Paris called him weak and miscast; however, I disagree because Rathbone’s part was so small he doesn’t really have time to be anything but the cold government official laying down the law. I kept wishing we could have seen Alexei and Anna’s backstory a little more, and that maybe this could have been woven into his character trying to remind Anna of why their relationship worked in the first place.
The media tried its best to play up the movie, of course. Photoplay even predicted that the clothes might bring Victorian fashions back into favor, which seemed to be rather optimistic in the decade following the Roaring Twenties. However, the movie got mixed reviews, with the general consensus being that the film was rather weak. Garbo was loved, of course, but Fredric March fared the worst. However, Rathbone was called “magnificently irritating” by The Hollywood Reporter.
Quite honestly, the whole thing felt rather rushed to me. I also got curious about the rest of the story–as soon as I finished the movie yesterday, I drove to Barnes and Noble and bought the book. I’ve only read a few chapters, but so far it’s sublime.
It appears that this movie could have been done differently, especially in terms of character development. For one thing, it needed to be much longer, which wasn’t often done in the studio era due to most movies being part of a double feature. For another, I wish it could have focused more on the inner thoughts of the major characters, although the camera effectively demonstrates the distance between Anna and Alexei. While it’s not easy to adapt an eight-hundred page book into an hour-and-a-half feature, the sum total feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of Tolstoy’s story. It’s not bad, but it could have been better.
For more of the great Basil Rathbone, please check in with Gabriela at Pale Writer. Thanks for hosting this, Gabriela–it was a great idea. Thanks for reading, everyone, and see you on Tuesday with June’s Reading Rarity…
Anna Karenina is available on DVD from Amazon.
Paris, Barry. Garbo. New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1994.