A Look At Two Versions Of Anna Karenina (1935 and 1948)

by special guest Robert Short

General abstract:  In 1877 Russia, Anna Karenina, wife of Alexei Karenin, a senior government official, and mother of their young son Sergei, travels to Moscow from St. Petersburg to visit her brother Stepan Oblonsky, his wife Dolly, and their children.  The family is in turmoil due to Stepan’s unbridled womanizing – a circumstance that foretells Anna’s own future situation.  Upon her arrival in the Moscow train station, she meets Count Alexei Vronsky, a cavalryman.  A romantic attraction and affair ensue, despite the fact that Dolly’s eighteen-year-old sister Kitty is also attracted to Vronsky. 

Bachelor Vronsky is eager to marry Anna.  Unable to secure a divorce from her high-minded husband, Anna nonetheless leaves him, and their son, to live with Vronsky.  Initially moving to Italy, where they can be together, Anna and Vronsky return to Russia, where she is shunned by Russian society, while Vronsky is able to pursue his social life.  Becoming further isolated and anxious, Anna grows increasingly possessive and paranoid about his imagined infidelity, resulting in tragedy.

ANNA KARENINA (1935)  Director:  Clarence Brown.  Starring Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Basil Rathbone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Freddie Bartholomew, May Robson, Reginald Owen.  Screenplay by Clemence Dane and Salka Viertel.

From her stunning first appearance behind a clearing cloud of train steam, Greta Garbo set the 1935 “Anna Karenina” in motion with her extraordinary presence.  Known as “the Swedish Sphinx” among other sobriquets, Garbo’s exquisite face could seemingly express a thousand thoughts while remaining totally blank; she was the epitome of the legendary Gloria Swanson line in “Sunset Boulevard”, “We had faces then”.

Garbo’s 1935 portrayal of Anna was in fact her second on-screen portrait of the Tolstoy heroine; an earlier 1927 silent version, bearing the title “Love”, had co-starred Garbo with John Gilbert, her highly-publicized real-life romantic partner, as Count Vronsky.  Performed in more modern dress, its story reduced to the essential occurrences of the Anna – Vronsky narrative, “Love” may be considered either a clever adaptation or, to a Tolstoy purist, a complete abomination.  Supporting characters such as Stepan, Dolly and Kitty were jettisoned entirely; many other liberties were taken with the story.  Most notably a contrived happy ending filmed for American audiences replaced the original tragic conclusion; the European prints retained the more dramatic finale.  Nevertheless, despite its numerous literary transgressions, “Love” enjoyed the benefit of the almost palpable chemistry between Garbo and Gilbert; the two could transform a scene in which virtually nothing was happening into something resembling an erotic dream.


Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in ‘Love’ (1927)
Greta Garbo and Fredric March in ‘Anna Karenina’

Returning to the role was Garbo’s idea; in October 1934 the actress had requested that David O. Selznick produce a remake of “Love”, but with greater adherence to the Tolstoy tome.  Paring down the original literary source to a manageable screen adaptation required necessary deletions; Tolstoy’s massive and complex chronicle, running over 800 pages, featuring over a dozen major characters, and presented in eight parts, included more than the narrative of Anna and Vronsky, although their story was a major component of the plot.   Unlike the earlier 1927 version, the “side” stories not focused on Anna, such as Oblonsky’s marital infidelities and Kitty’s infatuation with Vronsky and eventual marriage to Konstantin Levin, were presented, albeit rather superficially.  While screenwriters Clemence Dane and Salka Viertel, the latter of whom was a close friend of Garbo’s and eventually became the mother-in-law of actress Deborah Kerr, remained reasonably loyal to the original themes addressed in the literary work, including desire, betrayal, faith, family, marriage, and Imperial Russian society, creative license was taken in their presentation.  Various incidents were re-sorted and revised from Tolstoy’s original chronicle; alterations and additions to the script were made in order to avoid censure from the prevailing Production Code.  Under great pressure to complete a finished screenplay in the shortest possible time, the screenwriters prepared an oddly unbalanced script, affecting the rhythm of the scenes.

Fredric March was Garbo’s selection for the role of Vronsky.   Producer Selznick’s own first choice was Clark Gable, who was not interested.  Ronald Colman was another consideration; cannily aware that the film would belong to co-star Garbo, Colman purportedly doubled his asking price, effectively taking himself out of the running.  March, an Academy Award winning actor for his 1931 dual portrayal of “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde”, was no stranger to Tolstoy’s work; in 1934 he had starred in “We Live Again”, based on Tolstoy’s 1899 work “Resurrection”, with Anna Sten.  Undeniably beautiful but ultimately unsuccessful in her career, Sten was, rather ironically, producer Samuel Goldwyn’s hoped-for answer to Garbo.  Having had his fill of period pieces, March did not want to play Vronsky, accepting the role on the order from his studio.  Nor did he, by his own admission, generate the same level of passion with Garbo as had Gilbert in the earlier 1927 version.  Describing the love scenes in the 1935 presentation, March was quoted as saying that they were “nothing so tempestuous as in the silent film”.

Directed by Garbo’s favourite director, Clarence Brown, with cinematography by William Daniels, Garbo’s favourite photographer, “Anna Karenina” emerged a financial and critical success.  Andre Sennwald of The New York Times noted “Miss Garbo, always superbly the apex of the drama, suggests the inevitability of her doom from the beginning, streaking her first happiness with undertones of anguish, later trying futilely to mend the broken pieces, and at last standing regally alone as she approaches the end. Bouncing with less determination than is his custom, Mr. March gets by handsomely as Vronsky.”  For her efforts, Garbo won the New York Film Critics Circle Award as Best Actress; the film itself was named one of the top ten films of 1935 by the National Board of Review, USA.

ANNA KARENINA (1948) Director:  Julien Duvivier.  Starring Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson, Kieron Moore, Hugh Dempster, Mary Kerridge, Sally Ann Howes, Niall MacGinnis.  Screenplay by Jean Anouilh, Guy Morgan, Julien Duvivier.

After her Oscar-winning tour de force performance as the wilful Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind”, British actress Vivien Leigh had returned to the movie screen only three times, in 1940’s “Waterloo Bridge”, in 1941 as the eponymous “Lady Hamilton”, also known as “That Hamilton Woman”, co-starring husband Laurence Olivier as Admiral Horatio Nelson, and as Cleopatra in George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” in 1945.  During the intervening years, Leigh had performed on stage, and endured sieges of illness and depression; the opportunity of portraying Tolstoy’s tragic heroine lured Leigh back to the silver screen for a fourth post-”Wind” appearance.  Interestingly, critical elements of her character’s life mirrored Leigh’s own; similar to Anna, who left her husband and child to pursue a new love, Leigh ended her seven-year marriage with husband Herbert Leigh Holman in 1940 in order to marry Laurence Olivier, her co-star in the 1937 British productions “Fire over England” and “21 Days Together”.  Holman ultimately gained custody of his and Leigh’s six-year-old daughter Suzanne.  During the production of “Anna Karenina” Oliver received his investiture as Knight Bachelor; Leigh was thereafter styled as “Lady Olivier”.

Unfolding at a more leisurely 139 minutes, as opposed to the 95-minute running time of the earlier Garbo version, the 1948 “Anna Karenina” was a truer, and more encompassing, adaptation of its classic literary source.  The original screenplay prepared by director Julien Duvivier, in collaboration with French dramatist Jean Anouilh, had been an experiment in angst-ridden existentialism, a relentlessly downbeat chronicle transplanted to a French setting; British writer Guy Morgan came on board for script alterations and revisions.

Unlike the 1935 film, which began with an invented scene showing Vronsky in various stages of revelry, the 1948 edition began with the novel’s famous introductory line “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” superimposed over a scene revealing the turmoil in the Oblonsky home.  More screen time was devoted to the characters of Stepan and Dolly, Anna’s brother and sister-in-law, and Dolly’s sister Kitty.  Most importantly, major segments of the story were not featured in the Garbo adaptation at all, including Karenin’s initial decision to divorce Anna, his change of heart after Anna’s near death after giving birth to Vronsky’s child, stillborn in this version, contrary to the novel, and his re-acceptance of Anna in his home.  These scenes, possibly omitted in 1935 due to Production Code restrictions, were particularly critical in Karenin’s character development; as portrayed by Basil Rathbone in the earlier presentation, Karenin was a tyrant, whereas Ralph Richardson’s Karenin, while still a cold, emotionally sterile man, displayed a glimmer of humanity.

Vivien Leigh and Kieron Moore as Anna and Vronksy
Ralph Richardson and Vivien Leigh as Karenin and Anna

Filmed in 1947, and released in the United Kingdom in early January 1948, the making of “Anna Karenina” would appear to have been an unhappy affair; director Duvivier, reportedly autocratically inflexible, was disliked by cast and crew.  The role of Vronsky had originally been offered to Michael Redgrave, who chose to appear in two American projects; handsome Irish-born actor Kieron Moore undertook the part.  Out of his acting depth, Moore had requested a release after only a few weeks of filming.  Producer Sir Alexander Korda refused to grant it; Moore’s ensuing performance, described by fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, a friend of Garbo’s, as a “disaster”, suggested none of Vronsky’s animal magnetism.

Expensive and well-appointed, Leigh’s “Anna Karenina” was ultimately unsuccessful, both commercially and critically.  British reviewers were a little kinder to the film; opening in the United States in April 1947, its American print shortened by twenty minutes, the movie prompted New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to comment in his review “With all due respect for an actress who would willingly undertake a role that has twice been rendered immortal by Greta Garbo within the past twenty years, it must be confessed by this observer that the ‘Anna Karenina’ of Vivien Leigh is a pretty sad disappointment, by comparison or not.”

These harsh words notwithstanding, the 1948 “Anna Karenina” offered much to admire – the first image of Leigh’s beautiful face looking though the frosted window of a train, the sumptuous costumes and settings, cinematographer Henri Alekan’s moody, light-and-shadow photography displaying every shade possible in monochrome.  Crowther’s review did contain, nonetheless, an element of validity.  The 1948 film was a more faithful, albeit still imperfect, screen adaptation of Tolstoy’s chef-d’oeuvre.  Benefiting from an additional forty-five minutes in running time over its 1935 counterpoint, the British presentation explored motifs and situations to a fuller extent; from a literary standpoint it emerged the victor over the earlier Hollywood version.  However, all its physical adornment and homage to literature could not compete with the jewel in Hollywood’s crown, namely Garbo.  For all its faults as a cinematic translation of a major work of literature, 1935’s “Anna Karenina” was clearly the most entertaining; as described by critic Pauline Kael, “God knows it isn’t all it might be, and Garbo isn’t even at her best, but she’s there to be gazed upon.”

It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have Robert Short as a guest writer for the 2020 Classic Literature On Film Blogathon. 

11 thoughts on “A Look At Two Versions Of Anna Karenina (1935 and 1948)

  1. Very nice look at both versions of Anna Karenina. I actually haven’t seen the Leigh version, but saw Garbo’s. The movie stands and falls with her. I’m not the biggest Frederic March fan and there’s really not much chemistry here between the two which hurts the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t seen these yet, but I can see why Garbo makes more sense. She captures so much mystery and nuance in her characterizations, and Anna is such a mystifying character. But I’m wondering if Leigh is able to convey more of Anna’s sweetness & warmth. Perhaps it’s good to have both!

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  3. Insightful! I know Garbo’s version well and have it on DVD. I love the scene where she looks longingly out of the train window. In fact, I love pretty much every scene. Vivien’s version I don’t know at all and must watch it pronto!

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  4. Great comparative essay. I love both films. Truth be told, I do prefer the 1948 version. Vivien Leigh is my favorite Anna, and I’m a huge fan of Richardson! That said, I’m also a big Garbo fan. And who doesn’t love Rathbone! PS I liked Love (1927) too.

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  5. I’m a huge fan of the book and have seen most of the English-language adaptations of it, and I enjoyed both of these films tremendously — but I would have liked either for Garbo’s version to include some redemption for Karenin (poor Basil Rathbone is reduced to a one-note villain) or for him to have appeared in the Vivien Leigh version, since that was more sympathetic to him. But that’s a personal preference, since I’m a Rathbone fan and also like Karenin as one of literature’s most memorable ‘turn-about’ lessons in forgiveness.

    Nice comparison. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I just finished reading the book (it was fantastic!) and am now looking for some film versions to compare so I enjoyed reading this!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I adored the version with Knightly and Aaron Taylor Johnson …Joe Wright captures her obsession with this man…incredible chemistry. Stunning…and Jude Law is perfect…

    Liked by 1 person

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