If you’ve ever wanted to watch a rigidly square peg try to slink into a round hole, then Two-Faced Woman is the film for you! It’s not that Greta Garbo couldn’t do comedy, she’s a sensation in Ninotchka, but that film built humor around her dour, serious iconography and found a sly way to subvert that image. Two-Faced Woman asks Garbo to become Irene Dunne or Carole Lombard, and that’s just not the type of actress she was. Screwball comedy was a genre that eluded her, and I love Garbo for her tragic romances.
Garbo was best suffering, as if she were perpetually being punished for some cosmic infraction at birth that necessitated her proverbial cutting down to size. Even her previous comedy had her paying a price for falling in love. Sure, there was an eventual happy ending, but first Garbo had to suffer, become isolated, and revert to a humorless presence. It’s what makes her acting so potent and poetic. No one suffered as romantically or gorgeously as Garbo.
It’s also one of the myriads of reasons that this film is an inevitable failure. It asks Garbo to play events light, flirty, and frivolous. She’s clearly throwing herself into it with relish and a game face, but it’s not working as efforts to minimize her glamorous exoticism into an Americanized society girl reveal Garbo as a pre-modern screen presence. Hers was an ornate foreign elegance that was attuned to Anna Karenina and Camille, and not a ski instructor trying to play a saucy trick on their husband by posing as her twin sister to test his fidelity.
Of course, there’s eternally a changeover in the old guard of Hollywood and few rarely survive the changing tides. For instance, several stars failed to transition from silence to talking, while many never recovered once the Hays Code came into being, and still more fell away as World War II approached and the lyrical romanticism of films gave way to paranoia, candy-coated musicals, and the first reverberations of Method acting. Garbo and Two-Faced Woman are one such example of this upheaval. By mutual decision, Garbo and MGM terminated her contract after the failure of this film and her eventual comeback vehicles never materialized. This is better known as a piece of historical trivia than it is widely seen, and maybe it should stay that way.