Greta Garbo - April 1-5
In celebration of TCM's 25th anniversary, we return to our first-ever Star of the Month: Greta Garbo, who was originally given that designation in 1994. She was not only our premier Star of the Month but, in the minds of many, is the No. 1 film legend of all time.
No less an authority than Marlene Dietrich called Garbo "the greatest star in the world." Kenneth Tynan famously wrote that "What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees sober in Garbo." Life magazine described her as "the dream princess of eternity - the knockout of the ages." She was an actress of great depth and mystery, earning three Academy Award nominations and an honorary Oscar.
She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm, Sweden, on September 18, 1905, the youngest of three children. Her father was a street cleaner and butcher's assistant who would die when Greta was 14; her mother became a factory worker. Garbo recalled the neighborhood of her childhood as an "eternally grey" slum.
Greta became enthralled with theater at an early age and participated in amateur theatrics. She left school at age 13 and worked for a time as a "lather girl" in a barber shop before accepting a position at a department store, where she eventually began modeling hats and clothing. This led to filmed commercials for the store and then to a comedy short, Luffar-Petter (1922), in which she cavorted in a swimsuit.
For two years beginning in 1922, Greta studied at the Royal Stockholm Theatre School. There she met noted Finnish director Mauritz Stiller, who cast her in his film The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924, TCM premiere). Swedish actor Lars Hanson plays the title character, a defrocked priest, and Garbo is the supposedly married countess with whom he enters a new life.
The ambitious 184-minute film, although not a major success, marked the beginning of a close partnership between Garbo and Stiller, who served as her mentor, acting coach and manager. When MGM's Louis B. Mayer offered Stiller a contract with his studio, the director insisted that his protégée be included as part of the deal. She was given a three-year contract that would stretch into 15 years at MGM.
In a role considered not worthy of studio queen Norma Shearer, Garbo was cast in Torrent (1926) as a Spanish peasant who becomes a prima donna and avenges herself upon a former sweetheart. The film, directed to Stiller's displeasure by Monta Bell, was a success that brought major attention to MGM's new star. Variety proclaimed that she had "everything, with looks, acting ability, and personality."
Stiller started work with Garbo on her next project, The Temptress (1926), in which she plays a Parisienne femme fatale who wrecks the lives of several men, including her lover Antonio Moreno. But Stiller couldn't adapt to the studio structure at MGM and was replaced as director by Fred Niblo. Stiller made three films for Paramount Pictures before returning to Sweden in 1927. A year later he died of pleurisy; he was only 45.
Under the supervision of MGM producer Irving Thalberg, Garbo continued to appear in silent films in which she played young and romantically adventurous women of the world. All were successful and helped turn her into a major star. They included Flesh and the Devil (1926), with John Gilbert; Love (1927, an adaptation of Anna Karenina), again with Gilbert; The Mysterious Lady (1928) with Conrad Nagel; A Woman of Affairs (1928), her third film with Gilbert; Wild Orchids (1929), with Nils Asther; The Single Standard (1929), again with Asther; and The Kiss (1929), with Nagel.
Garbo and Gilbert had a love affair during their costarring days, although alleged plans for a wedding never materialized. Other romantic involvements were reported or rumored, but Garbo would remain single all her life.
By 1928 Garbo had surpassed Lillian Gish as MGM's top box office attraction. In 1929 New York critic Pierre de Rohan wrote that "She has a glamour and fascination for both sexes which have never been equaled on the screen." But, after other Continental stars with foreign accents had fallen victim to the sound era, MGM executives were nervous about introducing their prized performer to the "talkies."
The vehicle chosen as Garbo's introduction to sound was a film version of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie (1930), with Garbo as the Swedish prostitute running away from her past. The advertising tagline famously proclaimed, "Garbo Talks!" Her Swedish accent (actually quickly fading) was perfect for the role, her voice was throaty and expressive, and her career in sound films was off and running. TCM is also showing Garbo's German version of Annie Christie (1931), shot simultaneously and considered by the actress herself to be the superior film.
Garbo's sound follow-ups included Romance (1930), with Lewis Stone; and Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931), opposite MGM's new male heart-throb, Clark Gable. (Studio gossip had it that they did not get along.) Then came three of her most celebrated vehicles: the glamorous Dutch spy Mata-Hari (1931), the fading Russian ballerina of the all-star Grand Hotel (1932) and the iconic title role of Swedish ruler Queen Christina (1933).
Garbo also starred in film versions of Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil (1934) and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1935). Many consider her finest performance to be in the title role of Camille (1937), playing Alexandre Dumas' tragic courtesan under the sensitive direction of George Cukor. The New York Times described the performance as "eloquent, tragic, yet restrained. She is as incomparable in the role as legend tells us that Bernhardt was."
After playing Countess Marie Walewska to Charles Boyer's Napoleon in the lavish yet unsuccessful production Conquest (1937), Garbo had another hit in the comedy Ninotchka (1939), which was promoted with the slogan "Garbo Laughs!" Her final film was another comedy, albeit a failed one, called Two-Faced Woman (1941).
As part of its tribute, TCM is screening the documentary The Divine Greta Garbo (1990), written by Newsweek critic David Ansen and produced, directed and edited by Susan F. Walker. The film, narrated by Glenn Close, includes many clips from Garbo films and emphasizes the importance of costumer Adrian, art director Cedric Gibbons and cinematographer William Daniels in creating the Garbo image at MGM.
In retirement, Garbo maintained a quiet and extremely private life. She eventually settled into a seven-room apartment in Manhattan where she lived until her death on April 15, 1990. It was said that fellow New Yorkers would dine out for months for a chance sighting of the elusive star.
Garbo's reclusive ways seemed a reflection of her character's assertion in Grand Hotel that "I want to be alone" - a quote often attributed to her personally. She later clarified that, in private life, "I never said 'I want to be alone.' I said, 'I want to be let alone.' There is all the difference."
by Roger Fristoe