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The Single Standard: Garbo Ahead of Her (& Our) Time

The Single Standard Greta Garbo Johnny Mack BrownThe Single Standard movie with Greta Garbo and Johnny Mack Brown. For a while, Garbo’s fellow MGM star Joan Crawford was supposed to have played the free-thinking heroine somewhat akin to Garbo’s character in the 1928 melo A Woman of Affairs.
  • The Single Standard (1929) movie review: In modern dress – and with modern views about sex and relationships – Greta Garbo does a memorable star turn in John S. Robertson’s late silent era romantic melodrama.

The Single Standard movie review: Greta Garbo suffers the emotional travails of a woman who must choose between passion & stability

Johnny Mack Brown or Nils Asther?

Nils Asther or Johnny Mack Brown?

Conventional love or hot sex?

These are the questions Greta Garbo agonizes over in John S. Robertson’s romantic drama The Single Standard, her beautifully conceived penultimate silent film.

One single moral standard for men & women

It all starts at one of those late night parties that all the idle rich attended in the 1920s. One of those present is Arden Stuart (Greta Garbo), a modern dilettante who believes in a “single standard”: A woman should have the same rights as a man to enjoy sexual pleasures.

It should be noted that Arden is likable and respectable – she’s not “slutty” at all. As one of her male admirers tells her, “You’re a good sport, Arden. A man would never have to lie to you.”

Yet Arden has hormones and they are raging. At the party, she throws her cloche hat into the air and asks the family’s cute chauffeur (Fred Solm) to go off on a moonlight drive with her. Later on, her “double standard” brother (Lane Chandler) fires the driver, which leads to tragedy.

That’s just the first chapter in Arden’s life.

Virile Nils Asther vs. stodgy Johnny Mack Brown

When Arden meets a hot, virile sculptor (played by Garbo’s fellow Swede Nils Asther) one rainy night, it’s lust at first sight. Having the curious name of Packy Cannon, he not only sculpts but also happens to be a prizefighter and a sailor.

And looks like he’s just as talented in bed from the way Arden succumbs and falls in love on one of their romantic boat rides.

However, she is soon (figuratively) thrown overboard once Packy gets restless. On the rebound, she ends up marrying stodgy but stable Tommy Hewlett (Johnny Mack Brown), and they have a child (Wally Albright).

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

‘Thoroughly enjoyable’ melodrama

With a scenario credited to Josephine Lovett (John S. Robertson’s wife) – from an Adela Rogers St. Johns story first serialized in Cosmopolitan in 1928 – The Single Standard is a thoroughly enjoyable experience that convinces its audience that Arden’s choice is actually a hard one to make when you’re young and adventurous.

Besides, it’s nice to see Greta Garbo play a modern role instead of one of those ethereal characters seen in her costume extravaganzas, while William Axt’s soundtrack – a beautiful patchwork of romantic melodies that complement the theme – is one of my favorites.

Lastly, the look on Johnny Mack Brown’s face when he learns of Arden’s decision is unforgettable. For the first time, I was looking at his face instead of hers, as Mack Brown, a former college football player turned actor, registers a combination of emotions and then starts to cry.

And I, a sucker for sensitive men, wept right along with him.

The Single Standard (1929)

Director: John S. Robertson.

Screenplay: Josephine Lovett.
Titles: Marian Ainslee.
From an Adela Rogers St. Johns story serialized in Cosmopolitan in 1928 and later that year turned into a novel.

Cast: Greta Garbo. Nils Asther. Johnny Mack Brown. Dorothy Sebastian. Lane Chandler. Mahlon Hamilton. Kathlyn Williams. Wally Albright. Joel McCrea.

The Single Standard: Garbo Ahead of Her (& Our) Time” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and endnotes © Alt Film Guide.


The Single Standard Movie (1929) Review” endnotes

Several sources list future MGM star Robert Montgomery (Private Lives, Night Must Fall) and actor/playwright and future film director Elliott Nugent (The Male Animal, The Great Gatsby) as uncredited bit players.

Johnny Mack Brown and Greta Garbo The Single Standard movie image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The Single Standard: Garbo Ahead of Her (& Our) Time” last updated in October 2021.

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