After a month of forced separation, Anna comes to Vronsky's house. "I had to come." She tells him how unpleasant it is at home, how she feels like a prisoner while Karenin watches her, cold and polite. Vronsky convinces her to come away with him. They travel to Venice and spend an apparently blissful time together. When boredom begins to set in Anna and Vronsky return to St. Petersburg.
Vronsky visits his old army friends. Many of the officers are planning to resign from the army and form their own private regiment. They invite Vronsky to join them, but he feels he cannot. Anna would be devastated if he left her. Still, he's tempted because he's bored, and restless for new adventures. The happiness that Anna and Vronsky have enjoyed is ending. Anna can see in Vronsky's eyes that he has regrets about having given up his army life. Also she is terribly upset that Karenin won't allow her to see her son Sergei. Her reputation is ruined; people make disparaging remarks about her in public. To make matters worse, she notices Vronsky flirting with Princess Sorokina at the opera.
On Sergei's birthday Anna goes to Karenin's house early in the morning and goes right to Sergei's room. The servants are reluctant to tell Karenin because Anna had always been kind to them. They let her have time with her boy. They warn her when Karenin is coming, and Sergei cries as she leaves him. Karenin says to her:
"This is insupportable. I told my son you were dead. Why do you make me out to be a tyrant? . . . You will not enter this house again. You will never see Sergei again. . . . I told you that before you went away. do you hear?"
Anna feels horrible. Vronsky complains about enforced leisure in the country. "Why did we come here?" Then he receives a letter from Yashvin inviting him to join a regiment of volunteers, to fight the Turks. Anna is upset at the idea of being left alone, and thinks that Vronsky merely wants to escape, that he no longer loves her. She makes him angry, and he blurts out that he's sick and tired of love. He does love her, but leaves in anger, giving her no words of comfort.
Later, regretting her words that angered Vronsky, Anna dashes off to the train station to see him before he leaves. At the station Anna searches the crowd for Vronsky and sees him holding hands with Princess Sorokina as he bids her farewell. Heartbroken, she sits alone at the train station until dark and then walks over to the tracks and throws herself under the wheels of a moving train. Anna's relationship with Vronsky has ended at the same place it began -- the Moscow train station.
Anytime you try to condense a 900-page novel into a 95 minute film some major elements of the book must fall to the wayside. What is missing from this film adaptation of "Anna Karenina" is the entire love story of Levin and Kitty. Levin is the hero of the novel, who is looking for the meaning of existence. In this film Levin and Kitty are minor characters. This is really the story of Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, and even that is condensed. All references to Anna's and Vronsky's illegitimate child were removed from the film by the censorship agency. In spite of its shortcomings, this 1935 adaptation of "Anna Karenina" is very well regarded, and a favorite of many. The costumes and sets are fabulous, and the cinematography impressive. The decadence of Imperial Russia is clearly visible throughout the film.
The cast was wonderful, except for Fredric March, whose portrayal of Vronsky is very stiff. Vronsky is supposed to be incredibly handsome and charming, and needs to be in order to persuade a married woman to give up everything for him. Fredric March just doesn't have that appeal. If Vronsky had been played by Errol Flynn, most of the women in St. Petersburg would have left their husbands for him!
Greta Garbo was stunning and magnificent. She's totally believable in the role, and earned the first NYC Film Critics Best Actress Award for this performance. Garbo had played the role once before, in the 1927 silent film "Love," with John Gilbert. Fredric March's Vronsky seemed rather shallow and uninteresting.
Rathbone's portrayal of Karenin was perfect: realistically cold and yet also sympathetic. Basil credited Garbo with inspiring him to give one of the best performances of his life. In his autobiography Rathbone has quite a bit to say about "Anna Karenina" and the character of Karenin:
"Here, in the making of this picture, is the almost perfect example of a loss of integrity that becomes inevitable when a single label is tabbed to a character of many dimensions. Karenin is not a heavy, a motion picture term that Tolstoy would have shuddered to hear defined. Anna had married Karenin of her own free will: they have a son, a boy of about ten years old. She falls in love with a very attractive young man, Vronsky, who is more of her age, Karenin being somewhat older than Anna. That she had fallen out of love with Karenin might be held much to Karenin's account. But he had not been cruel or unkind, rather he had been insensitive and possessive, and without much imagination. His faults are quite evident and Tolstoi does not spare him. That Anna should have fallen in love with Vronsky was quite understandable to all except of course Karenin. But surely this does not make him a villain."
"There is one scene in Tolstoi's novel that had to be eliminated from the picture script for reasons of censorship. ... This scene is vital to any appreciation and understanding of the character of Karenin. It is that scene where Anna is about to give birth to her lover's child. Karenin sends for Vronsky, and quietly in his study he tells Anna's love that his mistress is about to become the mother of his child. This is no time or place for Karenin and he leaves Vronsky alone to face the hour of his making. There is bitterness in Karenin at this moment, and who shall blame him? But there is also a pride and integrity born of his conservative and unchangeable background, and maybe a degree of compassion for the bastard child about to be born to his Anna and her lover. To eliminate this scene is to present Karenin unjustly -- a dimension--several dimensions of his being are eliminated from the estimate we are asked to make of him." (In and Out of Character, page 139)
In an interview in a fan magazine Rathbone said, "Karenin is a human being--a man whose point of view you can see even though you don't wholly sympathize with it. To me he's an even more tragic figure than Anna--for there's no greater tragedy than that of the person who feels, but is so bound by convention that he can't give expression to his feeling. I can understand him. I can put myself into his shoes as I couldn't into Murdstone's, and I've never been so happy or at ease in any picture." ("It's Cheers for Basil Rathbone Now," Motion Picture, August 1935, p. 76)
Rathbone relates how he helped little Freddie Bartholomew prepare for the scene in which he, as Karenin, tells his son that his mother is dead. Basil suggested to Freddie that he imagine that he's being told that his cherished guardian Cissie is dead. Basil felt that the technique worked, and Freddie's performance was deeply touching. (In and Out of Character, pages 93-94) I personally felt that the scene in which Anna visited her son for the last time was much more emotional. Freddie certainly did a fine job in all his scenes.
Rathbone had met Greta Garbo about 6 years before filming "Anna Karenina," at a luncheon at John Gilbert's house. She was very friendly and seemed completely at ease; they had played tennis together and swam in the pool together. Yet, when they met on the set of "Anna Karenina," she was very formal, and gave no indication that she remembered ever meeting Rathbone before. Basil asked her for an autograph and she refused! He was confused and hurt by this, found Garbo a mystery. (In and Out of Character, pages 141-142)
Legend has it (rumor?) that Greta Garbo actually hated Fredric March, so she deliberately ate raw garlic before her love scenes with him!
Photos on this page and pages 2 and 3 are from the film "Anna Karenina" 1935 by MGM.