Review: George Cukor’s “Two-Faced Woman,” Starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas

Note: This review is of the recut version, released on December 31, as the original version released on December 4 was never again made available, and likely no longer exists.

For nearly two decades, Greta Garbo only starred in dramas. When her films began to struggle at the box office in the late thirties, she pivoted and made two comedies. The first, Ninotchka, was a hit that got her an Oscar nomination. The second, Two-Faced Woman, lost money and was the source of a major controversy you can read about in depth here. She never acted again.

The film itself isn’t quite as disastrous as its reputation, but it comes close. Garbo plays Karin, a skiing instructor who marries her student Larry (Melvyn Douglas, reunited with her from their work in Ninotchka). In its first scenes, it attempts a sort of Ninotchka redo—Karin is very serious, Larry is incessantly flirty, conflict ensues. But we skip past all the key romantic-comedy scenes of the two finally falling in love, and go straight to the honeymoon, one sign of many that though Ninotchka’s stars return in Two-Faced Woman, its filmmakers do not.

When Karin discovers Larry may be cheating on her, she decides to impersonate a fictional twin sister to test the limits of his infidelity. The premise—taken from an old play by Ludwig Fulda—is absurd enough on its own, but the narrative goes from silly to complete nonsense, thanks to some reshoots mandated by The Catholic Legion of Decency.

In an added scene, Larry discovers Karin is pretending to be her fictional twin sister, a development that should theoretically change the dynamics of all the following scenes. However, since this was the only scene added, the character dynamics of the film’s second half make no sense.

Director George Cukor doesn’t do much to unify this mess of a production. An early scene exemplifies everything wrong with the comedy: Larry gets hooked onto a ski lift in a gag intended be funny, but instead plays out as horrifying, with the actor shrieking as his body swings wildly from the chair. Even the costumes made by veteran MGM designer Adrian seem wrong, from a goofy-looking sombrero to an infamous bathing cap.

Costume designer Adrain felt Garbo was miscast in the film, saying that "She has created a type. If you destroy that illusion, you destroy her."

Costume designer Adrain felt Garbo was miscast in the film, saying that “She has created a type. If you destroy that illusion, you destroy her.”

While Garbo is miscast as a youthful sexpot, the rest of the actors make it out relatively unharmed. Douglas thrives, despite playing a character whose motivations were mangled by the reshoots, essentially the same one he played in Ninotchka—a somewhat sleazy but likeable guy. Ruth Gordon and Constance Bennett keep up the energy of the film, with Bennett’s character’s piercing shriek providing some of the film’s few real laughs. Two-Faced Woman is best forgotten, leaving the triumph of Ninotchka as Garbo’s swan song rather than this ill-conceived comedic flop.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on Two-Faced Woman

Our feature on the behind-the-scenes struggle

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Watch the Trailer