'The Single Standard' Movie: Greta Garbo Silent Era Curiosity

The Single Standard Greta Garbo Nils Asther
The Single Standard with Greta Garbo and Nils Asther.

Johnny Mack Brown or Nils Asther? Nils Asther or Johnny Mack Brown? Conventional love or hot sex? That is the question Greta Garbo agonizes over in this her penultimate – and beautifully conceived – silent film.

It all starts at one of those late night parties that all the idle rich attended in the 1920s. Garbo plays Arden Stuart, a contemporary dilettante who believes a woman should have the same right as a man to enjoy sexual pleasures. She's likable and respectable – not slutty at all. She just believes in a “single standard.” One of her male admirers even says, “You're a good sport, Arden. A man would never have to lie to you.”

But Arden has hormones and they are raging. At the party, she throws her cloche hat into the air and asks the cute chauffeur to go off on a moonlight drive with her. However, her “double” standard brother fires the driver and he ends up dying in a car crash. That's just the first chapter in Arden's life.

When she meets a hot, virile sculptor, Nils Asther, one rainy night, it's lust at first sight. He has the curious name of Packy Cannon, and he not only sculpts, but also happens to be a prizefighter and a sailor. How macho can you get? And I guess he's just as talented in bed from the way Arden succumbs and falls in love on one of their romantic boat rides.

But she is soon (figuratively) thrown overboard when Packy gets restless. On the rebound, she ends up marrying a stodgy, boring – but stable – Johnny Mack Brown, and they have a child.

A few years later, Packy returns and … oh, what's a girl to do? Choose sheer, carefree lust, or stay in a dull, but secure life with husband and child?

It's nice to see Garbo play a modern role instead of one of those ethereal characters in her costume extravaganzas. The Single Standard is a thoroughly enjoyable film that convinces the audience that hers is a hard choice to make when you're young and adventurous.

The soundtrack, composed by William Axt, is one of my favorites. It's a beautiful patchwork of romantic melodies that complement the theme.

I love the final scene. The look on Johnny Mack Brown's face when he realizes that Arden will be staying with him is sweet. For the first time, I am looking at his face instead of hers. He registers such a combination of pain and relief that he starts to cry. And I weep right along with him. I'm such a sucker for sensitive men.

© Danny Fortune

The Single Standard (1929). Dir.: John S. Robertson. Scr.: Josephine Lovett (adaptation), Marian Ainslee (titles); from a novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns. Cast: Greta Garbo, Nils Asther, Johnny Mack Brown, Dorothy Sebastian, Lane Chandler, Mahlon Hamilton, Kathlyn Williams.

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