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Ramon Novarro and Greta Garbo: MATA HARI vs. Puritanical Censors

Ramon Novarro Greta Garbo Mata HariRamon Novarro and Greta Garbo in 'Mata Hari': The wrath of the censors

(See previous post: “Ramon Novarro in One of the Best Silent Movies.”) George Fitzmaurice's romantic spy melodrama Mata Hari (1931) was well received by critics and enthusiastically embraced by moviegoers. The Greta Garbo / Ramon Novarro combo – the first time Novarro took second billing since becoming a star – turned Mata Hari into a major worldwide blockbuster, with $2.22 million in worldwide rentals. The film became Garbo's biggest international success to date, and Novarro's highest-grossing picture after Ben-Hur. (Image: Ramon Novarro and Greta Garbo in Mata Hari.)

Among MGM's 1932 releases – Mata Hari opened on December 31, 1931 – only W.S. Van Dyke's Tarzan, the Ape Man, featuring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, and Edmund Goulding's all-star Best Picture Academy Award winner Grand Hotel (also with Garbo, in addition to Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore) surpassed Mata Hari's worldwide earnings.

'Mata Hari' and 'The Night Is Young' vs. The Censors

“When Mata Hari danced – brave men forgot honor, loyalty and country!” Prudish men and women, however, remembered their scissors. As mentioned in Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro, several state and local censors in the U.S. ordered cuts to the film, “including the elimination of a sequence that clearly implied a sexual relationship between the two unmarried leads. Upon giving Mata Hari a 'not recommended' rating, the representative of the Atlanta Better Film Committee stated, 'I wish this picture could be destroyed. It is not fit to be shown anywhere.'"

By 1935, the moralistic Production Code had been placed into full effect. That's one key reason Ramon Novarro's last MGM release, The Night Is Young, failed to live up to its potential; what could have been a cleverly risque romantic melodrama was bowdlerized to appease the censors' sensibilities. Compounding matters, the inexperienced Dudley Murphy was brought in to direct this Central European-set tale clearly inspired by Erik Charrell's superior Congress Dances and made to order for someone like Ernst Lubitsch. A box office flop, The Night Is Young marked the official end of Ramon Novarro's movie stardom.

Ramon Novarro's MGM comeback

Turner Classic Movies' last Ramon Novarro offering is the 1950 release Crisis, Richard Brooks' overwrought political melodrama starring a badly miscast Cary Grant as a doctor forced into attempting to save the life of a ruthless Latin American dictator. Paula Raymond, in a role coveted by Nancy Davis (later Nancy Reagan), and an absurdly over-the-top José Ferrer co-star.

Looking much older than his years, probably a result of his alcoholism, Novarro is featured in a small but effective supporting role in this MGM release: the vicious Colonel Adragon, displaying none of the gentleness intrinsic to his characters during his heyday at that studio. There were other changes as well, for instead of the red-carpet treatment, Novarro suffered indignities courtesy of the, at the time, widely despised Richard Brooks.

Following Crisis, Ramon Novarro would make only one more movie, the George Cukor-directed 1960 Paramount release Heller in Pink Tights, starring Sophia Loren, Anthony Quinn, and Steve Forrest. Throughout the '60s, he was featured as a guest star in about a dozen television shows, most notably in a brilliant performance as Luise Rainer's frail husband in Combat!.

A frequent patron of sex workers, Ramon Novarro was killed at his Hollywood Hills home on October 30, 1968; his mysterious death became front-page news the world over. The following two paragraphs are from Beyond Paradise:

Had Novarro died of natural causes, his death would have been relegated to the obituary pages of most newspapers, but the mysterious, bloody slaying of a once-internationally renowned film star became front-page news the world over. That same day, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner blazoned in huge letters, STAR RAMON NOVARRO MURDERED. The following morning, the New York Times announced on its front page, “Ramon Navarro [sic] Slain on Coast; Starred in Silent Film Ben-Hur.” Other newspapers across the country and overseas devoted lengthy articles to the brutal passing of the former MGM star at the hands of an unknown killer.

Those news reports recalled Novarro's past achievements as Judah Ben-Hur and as Greta Garbo's co-star. They remembered his profound [Roman Catholic] faith, his desire to become a priest, and his devotion to his family, as well as his frequent arrests for drunken driving – the Los Angeles Times quipped that two handicaps the star had failed to cure were “an unshakable accent and an unshakable thirst.” Some friends expressed horror and disbelief that so kind and distinguished a gentleman could have met such an appalling death. Others expressed positive memories of Novarro. “He never considered himself a 'has-been' because he had enough money to choose his roles,” [Ramon Novarro's literary executor] Leonard Shannon told the [Hollywood] Citizen News. “He worked when he wanted and enjoyed his garden the rest of the time.”

Two brothers, Paul Ferguson, 22, and Tom Ferguson, 17, were later charged and convicted of his murder.

Note: TCM's Ramon Novarro Day also features nine minutes from the mostly lost 1928 Greta Garbo star vehicle The Divine Woman (9:20 p.m PT).

Ramon Novarro movies: TCM schedule (PT) on August 8

3:00 AM THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1922). Dir.: Rex Ingram. Cast: Lewis Stone, Alice Terry, Robert Edeson, Stuart Holmes, Ramon Novarro, Barbara La Marr, Malcolm McGregor, Edward Connelly, Lois Lee, Snitz Edwards. Black and white. 113 min.

5:00 AM SCARAMOUCHE (1923). Dir.: Rex Ingram. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Alice Terry, Lewis Stone, Lloyd Ingraham, Julia Swayne Gordon, Edith Allen, William Humphrey, Otto Matieson, George Siegmann, James A. Marcus, Bowditch M. Turner, John George, Rose Dione, Willard Lee Hall, Edward Connelly, Snitz Edwards, Howard Gaye, Lydia Yeamans Titus, Slavko Vorkapich. Black and white. 124 min.

7:00 AM THE RED LILY (1924). Dir.: Fred Niblo. Cast: Enid Bennett, Ramon Novarro, Wallace Beery, Frank Currier, Mitchell Lewis, Rosita Marstini, Sidney Franklin, Emily Fitzroy, George Nichols, Rosemary Theby, Gibson Gowland, Dick Sutherland, Milla Davenport, George Periolat. Black and white. 81 min.

8:30 AM ACROSS TO SINGAPORE (1928). Dir.: William Nigh. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Joan Crawford, Ernest Torrence, Frank Currier, Dan Wolheim, Duke Martin, Edward Connelly, Jim Mason, Anna May Wong, Chris-Pin Martin. Black and white. 85 min.

10:15 AM THE PAGAN (1929). Dir.: W.S. Van Dyke. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Dorothy Janis, Renée Adorée, Donald Crisp. Black and white. 78 min.

11:45 AM DEVIL-MAY-CARE (1929). Dir.: Sidney Franklin. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Dorothy Jordan, Marion Harris, John Miljan, William Humphrey, George Davis, Clifford Bruce, Lionel Belmore, George Chandler, John Carroll, Ann Dvorak. Color. 97 min.

1:30 PM THE SON-DAUGHTER (1932). Dir.: Clarence Brown. Cast: Helen Hayes, Ramon Novarro, Lewis Stone, Warner Oland, Ralph Morgan, Louise Closser Hale, H.B. Warner, Dell Henderson. Black and white. 79 min.

3:15 PM THE CAT AND THE FIDDLE (1934). Dir.: William K. Howard. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Jeanette MacDonald, Frank Morgan, Jean Hersholt, Charles Butterworth, Vivienne Segal, Frank Conroy, Henry Armetta, Adrienne D'Ambricourt, Joseph Cawthorn, Herman Bing, Yola d'Avril, Max Davidson, Sterling Holloway, Arthur Hoyt, Leonid Kinskey, Henry Kolker, Paul Porcasi, Rolfe Sedan. Black and white. 89 min.

5:00 PM BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1925). Dir.: Fred Niblo. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy, Betty Bronson, Carmel Myers, Nigel De Brulier, Claire McDowell, Kathleen Key, Mitchell Lewis, Frank Currier, Leo White, Charles Belcher, Dale Fuller, Hunter Hall. Black and white. 143 min.

7:30 PM THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG (1927). Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer, Jean Hersholt, Philippe De Lacy, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Edgar Norton, Bobby Mack, Edward Connelly, Otis Harlan, Hans Joby a.k.a. John S. Peters, George K. Arthur, Lionel Belmore, Edythe Chapman, André Mattoni, Lincoln Stedman. Black and white. 106 min.

9:30 PM MATA HARI (1931). Dir.: George Fitzmaurice. Cast: Greta Garbo, Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, C. Henry Gordon, Alec B. Francis, Karen Morley, Blanche Friderici, Edmund Breese, Helen Jerome Eddy, Frank Reicher, Mischa Auer, Cecil Cunningham, Maude Turner Gordon, Lennox Pawle. Black and white. 89 min.

11:15 PM THE NIGHT IS YOUNG (1935). Dir.: Dudley Murphy. Cast: Ramon Novarro, Evelyn Laye, Charles Butterworth, Rosalind Russell, Edward Everett Horton, Una Merkel, Donald Cook, Henry Stephenson, Herman Bing, Mitzi, Albert Conti, Elspeth Dudgeon, Snub Pollard, Gustav von Seyffertitz. Black and white. 81 min.

1:00 AM CRISIS (1950). Dir.: Richard Brooks. Cast: Cary Grant, José Ferrer, Paula Raymond, Signe Hasso, Gilbert Roland, Ramon Novarro, Leon Ames, Antonio Moreno, Teresa Celli, Orlando Beltran, Pedro de Cordoba, Martin Garralaga. Black and white. 96 min.

Ramon Novarro and Greta Garbo Mata Hari photo: Matias Bombal Collection.

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