No prizes for guessing what it's adapted from. Anna Karenina (Garbo) is stuck in an unhappy, loveless marriage with the cold, forbidding Karenin (Basil Rathbone). She travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow to help patch up her goofy brother Stiva's marriage, and as she gets off the train she meets the dashing Count Vronsky (March), a cavalry officer. Vronsky is captivated by the exotically beautiful Anna, and love-starved Anna soon gives in. Karenin, who cares far more about his position and social standing, makes little attempt to repair his marriage, but also refuses to give Anna a divorce, instead banishing her from their home.
Freddie Bartholemew, the 1930s' Spear Counterpart to Shirley Temple, plays Anna and Karenin's little son Sergei. Cora Sue Collins, one of the child actresses offered up as Temple's competitors, plays Tania.
This was the second time Garbo played Anna Karenina, having previously starred with John Gilbert in a 1927 adaptation with the terrible title of Love.
- Adaptation Distillation: An 800-page Doorstopper novel adapted down to a brisk 95-minute movie.
- At the Opera Tonight: Anna insists that she and Vronsky go out publicly, instead of hiding away from the world, so they go to the opera. It turns out ot be a mistake.
- Beta Couple: Anna's cheerful friend Kitty marries Levin, a nobleman from the country. In Leo Tolstoy's novel the Levin story is the second main plot but in this movie (as with most adaptations) Anna's story is in the forefront.
- Book-Ends: In the first scene, Anna sees a railroad worker hammering ice away from the undercarriage of a train, and she is horrified when he's promptly caught between the cars and killed. At the end, when she's alone at the train station, she sees another worker hammering ice away from the undercarriage. She throws herself onto the tracks and dies.
- Cavalry Officer: Vronsky is straight from central casting as the handsome, dashing cavalier. When the pressures of living in sin with Anna start to grow tiresome, Vronsky leaps at the chance to volunteer to fight in the Serbian war.
- Costume Porn: Lots and lots of fancy dresses and ornate cavalry uniforms.
- Dances and Balls: Vronsky and Anna first see each other at the train station, but when they meet again at a fancy Moscow dress ball, he's already declaring his love.
- Driven to Suicide: Having lost her son, and then lost Vronsky too, Anna flings herself in front of a train.
- Epic Tracking Shot: The first scene of the movie is Vronsky and his cavalry comrades having a party. The camera starts at one end of the table and for a full minute goes on a long, slow tracking shot, straight through all the plates and wine glasses and candles, to the other end of the very very very long table.
- Gossipy Hens: All the society ladies who raise a stink when Anna and Vronsky show up together at the opera.
- Have a Gay Old Time: When Anna is trying to get Stiva's wife to forgive him, she tells Stiva to dress more modestly, saying "You look much too gay."
- Sympathetic Adulterer: Given how Karenin is the way he is, it's surprising Anna was able to hold out as long as she did.
- That Russian Squat Dance: Done by the performers at the opera that Anna and Vronsky attend.
- Vodka Drunkenski: Vronsky and his buddies engage in a drinking game in which each soldier has to take three shots and then crawl under the table from one end to another. And then again, and again, and again. After he wins by virtue of being the last person not passed out on the floor, Vronsky staggers over to his buddy Stiva and says "Now we can settle down and do some drinking."