Be warned: this review features spoilers.
Wild Orchids is never going to be listed as one of the finest films of the silent era, but for those who adore uninhibited kitsch, then this Garbo vehicle is perfect. Unashamedly melodramatic with its tried and true melodramatic love triangle stock plot set in an orientalist never-never land, it is great campy fun.
Rather than a temptress out to seduce and destroy men or a free-spirited modern woman punished by society, Garbo plays Lillie Sterling, a wealthy young woman married to a much older man. John Sterling (played by the always solid Lewis Stone) is a nice enough fellow, though he is neglectful of his wife. Of course, this being a Hollywood film, the penalty for ignoring your attractive, much younger wife, and thus leaving her romantically and sexually unsatisfied, is for the script to introduce a roguish rival. Cue Prince De Gace (Nils Asther), whom Garbo first encounters in the hallway of a ship en course to the Indonesian island of Java, where John plans on doing business. Lillie is not terribly impressed upon their first meeting as De Gace is mercilessly beating one of his servants. Realizing how awkward this is, he smiles and nods, attempting to put on the charm, but Lillie makes sure to pass on by. It’s not the best first impression, but if there’s one concept foreign to De Gace, it’s giving up on a promising conquest.
The prince befriends John, offering to house him and Lillie in his own palace and further tempting his new pal with a tiger-hunting trip. When alone with Lillie, De Gace tries to break down her resistance toward him—by manhandling and forcing kisses upon her, of course! Lillie tells her husband she’s uncomfortable around him, but John dismisses her uneasiness as mild xenophobia. He trusts the prince completely, allowing him to be alone with his wife constantly. Of course, Lillie can only handle so much titillation and as time wears on, it’s getting harder and harder to resist the prince’s advances…
Wild Orchids is pure, unfiltered classic era MGM in terms of content and visuals. The MGM style was one of glossy, pearly black-and-white, beautiful stars in soft focus, and the highest of production values. We have our well-dressed and attractive stars in exotic palaces. We have Garbo slinking about in a (by 1929 standards) revealing dancer’s outfit. We have Asther brimming with sex appeal and passion. We have a ferocious tiger figuring into the climax. All the nine yards, that’s the MGM way.
The majority of the plot (written by John Colton, most known for penning the play Rain, which had been filmed as Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson the year before) is the stuff of 1920s orientalist fantasy, following the idea of the east as a place where sensuality is allowed to run free of all western social convention. This was a common trope of 1920s cinema, most famously exemplified in that delightfully inept classic of kitsch, The Sheik where we have a western woman whose sexual frigidity is broken down by a lusty man of the east (or in that case, a white dude masquerading as a man of the east). As you can expect of a Hollywood product of the 1920s dealing with any kind of non-western culture, Wild Orchids is content to fetishize the Javanese. It’s not as bad as the Sheik films in that area, but it’s still more than a little problematic, of course.
Wild Orchids gives Garbo a break from being the exotic seductress for once, transferring those duties to Asther. She’s a sexually frustrated “good woman,” her marital alienation rendering her vulnerable to the prince’s amorous advances. Being “good” she cannot pursue De Gace herself ; the heat between them can only manifest itself as a sexual cat and mouse game, with Lillie as the mouse. There’s a thick layer of sadomasochism in the Lillie/De Gace interactions: she dreams of him with that whip, writhing about in her sleep in an almost orgasmic manner, and finally submitting to him toward the end of the film, melting into his arms. Though Garbo is certainly the star and though she was usually presented as a sort of Other, here Lillie is meant to be a surrogate for the women in the audience, so-called decent women wishing to shake off responsibility and get some satisfaction.
Asther is one of those rare leading men able to match Garbo in charisma. One of the casualties of the cultural rift between the Jazz Age and the early years of the Great Depression, his career dwindled, though he was allowed to give a fine performance opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Here he’s an excellent antagonist, simultaneously charming and creepy.
Of course, in the end, Lillie only has room for one man in her heart and that’s good old John, though one does wonder what she sees in him. Though Stone imbues him with a great deal of likeability, he does ignore and disregard her to such a great degree that it borders on condescending. One detail which highlights the rift between them is their sleeping in separate beds (remember this is before the Hayes Code made married couples in the same bed a cinematic sin) and John’s surprised reaction to a double bed in the bedchamber given to Lillie courtesy of De Gace.
The 100 minute runtime is a bit unjustified. The story screeches to a halt so the main trio can watch a Javanese dance in a scene almost reminiscent of the banquet in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t mind a break from the action for campy dancing, but did it have to be ten minutes long? All while adding nothing to the character dynamics or the story? It just makes the picture drag, which is a shame since the rest of the film has excellent pacing. Fifteen minutes off the runtime would have worked wonders. Being a late silent film, Wild Orchids also sports a Vitaphone soundtrack. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of them with their distracting sound effects and intrusive pop songs plastered over scenes where they don’t fit, but your mileage may vary.
Overall, if you love old-school kitsch as much as I do, then Wild Orchids is worth the overlong running time. Garbo fans will relish her presence. But as for anyone else, there’s little else to recommend it.