A Woman of Affairs is a 1928 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer drama film directed by Clarence Brown and starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Lewis Stone. The film, released with a synchronized score and sound effects, was based on a 1924 best-selling novel by Michael Arlen, The Green Hat, which he adapted as a four-act stage play in 1925. The Green Hat was considered so daring in the United States that the movie did not allow any associations with it and was renamed A Woman of Affairs, with the characters also renamed to mollify the censors. In particular the film script eliminated all references to heroin use, homosexuality and syphilis that were at the core of the tragedies involved.
Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo), Neville (John Gilbert) and David (Johnny Mack Brown) were playmates as children, members of the rich British aristocracy. Diana and Neville are in love, but his father (Hobart Bosworth) opposes the match, disapproving the Merrick family’s lifestyle. Neville is sent to Egypt for business purposes and to become wealthy.
Diana, after waiting in vain for two years for Neville’s return, finally marries David, who is also in love with her and good friends with her brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). During their honeymoon to Paris and after the arrival of police inspectors, David commits suicide without an explanation. Diana does not explain the reasons behind her husband’s action. Jeffry, who was deeply connected to David, blames his sister for his friend’s death; he falls deeper into alcohol as his sister starts a reckless life, seducing man after man.
Years later, Neville returns to England to marry Constance (Dorothy Sebastian). Jeffry is now gravely ill, and Diana brings Dr. Trevelyan, a family friend, to his bedside and then leaves since Jeffry still refuses to see her. As she starts to drive away, she sees Neville who has followed her and Dr. Trevelyan in a cab. Diana and Neville go to his apartment, realize they are still in love, and spend that one night together. During the night Jeffry dies. Dr. Trevelyan goes to Neville’s apartment in the morning to give him the news and discovers that Diana has spent the night there. Three days later, Neville marries Constance.
About nine months go by: Diana falls ill (in the script she is supposed to have suffered a miscarriage, but because of censorship, this couldn’t be mentioned) and is visited by Neville. Diana professes her love for him before realizing Constance is in the room.
The reason for David’s suicide is revealed: he was a thief, pursued by the police. Diana, realizing that her and Neville’s love will ruin Neville, tells him that his wife is pregnant and sends him away. Diana drives her car into a tree, in front of which she and Neville had fallen in love and sworn eternal fidelity.
From Variety, January 23, 1929
A sensational array of screen names, and the intriguing nature of the story (The Green Hat) from which it was made, together with some magnificence in the acting by Greta Garbo, by long odds the best thing she has ever done, will carry through this vague and sterilized version of Michael Arlen’s exotic play…. But the kick is out of the material, and, worse yet, John Gilbert, idol of the flappers, has an utterly blah role. Most of the footage he just stands around, rather sheepishly, in fact, while others shape the events. At this performance (the second of the Saturday opening), whole groups of women customers audibly expressed their discontent with the proceedings…. Miss Garbo saves an unfortunate situation throughout by a subtle something in her playing that suggests just the exotic note that is essential to the whole theme and story. Without her eloquent acting the picture would go to pieces.
From The New York Times, January 21, 1929
Not only is the narrative translated with changes only where it was obviously necessary to circumvent censorial frowns, but Miss Garbo gives a most intelligent and fascinating impersonation of that ‘sad lady’ . . . Mr. Gilbert does nicely as the man with whom Diana is madly in love . . . Except for his penchant for flashes of symbolism, Clarence Brown has handled this production imaginatively and resourcefully. The story is never confused, and while the reason for all the trouble may at times be somewhat incredible, the scenes are invariably beautifully photographed and admirably constructed.
From Judge Magazine
The most interesting feature of A Woman of Affairs is the treatment accorded it by the censors. As is obvious, the story was adapted from Michael Arlen’s best seller, The Green Hat, and, as every reader of that Hispano-Suiza advertisement will recollect, the heroine’s white feather was borne for the proud fact that her suicide husband suffered from an ailment enjoyed by some of our most popular kings, prelates and prize-fighters. Well, sir, Bishop Hays changes that to “embezzlement.” And, for some strange reason, instead of using the word “purity” (the boy died for purity, according to Iris March) they substituted the oft-repeated word “decency.” To anyone who can show me why “purity” is a more immoral word than “decency,” I’ll gladly send an eighty-five cent Paramount ticket, to be used at your own risk. Outside of its purification, the movie is a good dramatization of the novel and for the first time I respected the performance of Greta Garbo. She shuffled through the long, melancholy and sometimes beautiful scenes with more grace and sincerity than I have ever before observed, and the fact that she rode down and practically eliminated John Gilbert’s goggling is in itself grounds for recommendation. Another indifferent performer, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., suddenly snapped to life under the guidance of Director Brown, and gave a splendid performance. Lewis Stone made his usual calm and reserved appearance and, even with its melancholy apathy, you will find A Woman of Affairs worth seeing.
The film was a hit, garnering receipts of USD 1.370.000 (USD 850.000 in the US and USD 520.000 abroad), vs. a budget of USD 383.000. It was one of the top 20 box office films of 1929.