With the upcoming adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I decided to refresh myself with the previous two classic renditions and compare them before watching the new version wearing my best critical hat.
Let’s see how this story was interpreted in 1935. It stars some of Hollywood’s best talent of the time: Greta Garbo, Freddie Bartholomew, Reginald Owen, and Fredrich March.
For a film being adapted from a book that is supposed to shed light on the unfair treatment of married women who have love affairs, this film starts off with a masculine point of view. It begins with a party attended by soldiers, gypsies, and assumed prostitutes. Drinking games ensue, and everyone has a grand old time. One particular man there, Stiva (Reginald Owen), is in the proverbial doghouse for cheating on his wife with the governess. He’s allowed to run with the dogs while his wife suffers with a heartache at home. One of his party mates is Vronsky (Fredrich March), the man who would lead his sister, Anna (Greta Garbo), to social disgrace and death.
Those who have watched the film know how the rest of the plot follows, but I noticed a big difference in Vronsky and Anna’s separation compared to the 1948 adaptation. It is war, not Princess Sorokina, that takes Vronsky away from Anna. The masculine sense of honour and duty drives him back to the military position he so impulsively quit. He is leaving her to serve his country. This is the film’s way of veiling the fact that Vronsky used Anna and is now abandoning her to a society that will no longer accept her.
The ending of the film caught me by surprise. I admit that I have never read the novel, but I have seen the 1948 adaptation many times. This 1935 film did not finish where I thought it would. There is another scene tacked on at the end to make Vronsky look like an all-round, decent, guy (you can’t fool us, Hollywood!). Upon hearing about the death of his disadvantaged lover, he talks about his “guilt” of leaving her after an argument. His guilt is supposed to make him look like a noble man!
The 1935 film tends to victimise Anna – presenting her as a woman who was seduced into this relationship and does not possess any agency of her own. We must also remember when this film was made – a year after the Production Code was enforced. Writers and directors were more or less forced to become stricter with strong female leads. From this angle in film history, Anna could not freely give in to affairs and must be punished for her wayward behaviour. This differs from Vivien Leigh’s 1948 rendition. Leigh’s Anna chooses to enter into the affair more-so than Garbo’s Anna who was pressured and pushed into it. Being a pushover does not become Garbo.
The 1948 interpretation of Tolstoy’s masterwork is definitely the more poetic, feminine version. Even though I have never read the novel, this film feels like a closer adaptation to the novel because direct quotes bookend the film.
The feminine perspective is present through the internal voice-over of Anna’s thoughts near the end of the film. Not only that, but Vivien Leigh’s Anna knew what she was getting herself into. At the ball where Anna and Vronsky make eyes at each other, there is a great difference in how Garbo’s and Leigh’s Annas behave. Garbo’s Anna repeatedly declines Vronsky’s requests to dance while Leigh’s Anna willingly monopolizes him for the entire night. That doesn’t sound like the seduced victim of 1935. Again, at the races when Anna is watching Vronsky through her binoculars, she is constantly licking and biting her lips. She is into him just as much as he is into her.
Because of the equal consent on both sides of the 1948 affair, the romance and chemistry between Vivien Leigh and Kieron Moore is more believable than Garbo and Fredrich March. While Garbo and March’s characters quickly complain about being watched by their society chums, Leigh and Moore’s characters are too busy producing a lovechild.
The 1948 film is not afraid to present Vronsky as he truly is: a coward. He is boyish, as he should be to the older Anna, and has a weaker will. When Anna returns to her husband after giving birth to their stillborn lovechild, he gains her attention back by attempting suicide. By this time in the twentieth century, people may not have believed the added ending in the 1935 film and seen Vronsky for who he is. There is no point in building up his character because there is nothing to admire about him.
One must still feel pity for both Garbo’s and Leigh’s portrayal of Anna. She is a woman bound in a marriage that is defined by “duty” and “obligation” rather than love. Whether Vronsky is presented as a decent guy or a cowardly scoundral, his treatment of Anna is unforgivable (you can almost hear Blanche Dubois say, “deliberate cruelty is unforgivable!”). No matter how filmmakers of the past or present interpret Vronksy’s intentions and character, and despite how much consent Anna Karenina gives, she will always suffer from her society’s unfair treatment between men an women in extramarital affairs.