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b. 18 September 1905, Stockholm, Sweden
d. 15 April 1990, New York City, U.S.

“What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.” This often-quoted musing by Kenneth Tynan, published in the April 1954 issue of Sight and Sound, is famous for good reason. At once alluding to the intoxicating physical beauty of Greta Garbo, which was somehow both natural and beyond all reason, it also suggests the inscrutable presence of this legendary star, a manifestation that was profound and indefinite. Such an insightful and yet essentially imprecise observation befit perfectly an actress who was herself something of an enigma. 

However artless this persona appeared, however, on screen or in the public sphere of relentless scrutiny and adulation, Garbo had been working toward such a stature since childhood. Born to a poor Stockholm family, young Greta Garbo (then Greta Gustafsson) found amusement where she could, taking to the streets for impromptu performances in front of queuing crowds at neighbouring soup kitchens and forming an amateur theatre troupe when she was just a teenager. A job of necessity, working for a large department store, afforded Garbo the opportunity to try her hand at modelling, figuring in catalogues and in short promotional films. She also appeared as an extra in a few now-forgotten productions and was enlisted by director Erik Arthur Petschler for his short, 1922 comedy, Peter the Tramp (Luffar-Petter). Intent on the ultimate goal of a stage career, Garbo studied at the Royal Dramatic Training Academy, performing admirably until word of more substantial film opportunities came her way. 

Finnish director Mauritz Stiller was in search of a new actress and Garbo’s determination yielded an audience with the famed filmmaker, which, in turn, tendered a role in his latest offering, The Saga of Gösta Berling (Gösta Berlings saga). Based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf and co-starring Lars Hanson, this 1924 feature, Garbo’s proper screen debut, was a simple, sweet, and generally inauspicious introduction to someone who would soon captivate the world. Though her character is the reason for celebration at one point and the subject of fascination and adoration, Garbo is a relatively minor player. As Robert Gottlieb notes, the movie itself is “so elaborate, so stuffed with characters and dramatic scenes, that although her role is central, it isn’t determining.”1 Still, perhaps foreshadowing Garbo’s later behaviour in Hollywood, her character is described in the film as “headstrong” and “willful,” and the accompanying themes of romantic entanglement and social torment would persist throughout her career. 

The Saga of Gösta Berling

By this point christened with a new surname, largely believed to be the invention of Stiller, who had ardently taken the young actress under his domineering wing and told his assistant there was “something quite extraordinary about that girl,” adding, “I must discover what it is,”2 Garbo again signed on for another feature spearheaded by her newfound Svengali. But that picture, The Odalisque from Smolna, to be shot in Constantinople, fell through when funds dissipated. Nevertheless, Garbo found another opening thanks to Stiller’s connections and a fortuitous encounter with German director G. W. Pabst. Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925, Die freudlose Gasse), just his second film, co-starred Asta Nielsen and was set in a seedy post-war Vienna, where crime and corruption are rampant and poverty and starvation plague the populace. Garbo took on a decidedly unglamorous role as the daughter of a humble civil servant, and she aptly coveys the corresponding despair and desperation of her station. Yet she also yields an innate pride, and when her Greta Rumfort becomes smitten with an American lodger, her timid smile and giddy flirtations are astonishingly magnetic, almost as if she is shocked by the prospect of joy, however fleeting, even existing. 

Stiller tried to have his say on the Joyless Street, ever possessive of his prized discovery, but Pabst quickly put an end to the interference and the film is a distinctly Pabst production (though years later, a truncated version of Joyless Street, with almost everything except Garbo’s scenes omitted, made it an overt, if altered, showcase for Garbo and Garbo alone). But Stiller was instrumental in what happened next. Louis B. Mayer, the powerful co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios (MGM), was in Europe on the hunt for new talent and was keen to lure Stiller and his attractive fosterling to Hollywood, despite the fact both men, rather cruelly, objected to Garbo’s weight, which would most certainly have to reduce in America. While there remains some debate about what actually sealed the deal—obtaining Stiller in order to get Garbo, accepting Garbo in order to get Stiller, or a true package fulfillment—Mayer got what he wanted, as he often did. And so too did Garbo. For as much as been made about Stiller’s influence on Garbo, and there’s no denying he was the formative figure in her life, even after his failings in Hollywood and death soon after, and notwithstanding his obsessive management of her seeming every move, Garbo would not have become who she did were it not for her own perseverance and far-sighted resolve. She may not have shown much as blossoming star just yet, but she made sure she was well on her way. As Robert Dance observes, giving credit where it has seldom been provided, “If she hadn’t shown any particular distinction as an actress, as a strategist she was brilliant.”3 

“In a few years, Greta Garbo will be known and admired all over the world. For hers is the gift of beauty, a rare personal and characteristic beauty!”4 Thus was it noted in a program accompanying the premiere of The Saga of Gösta Berling, written, covertly, by Stiller. And to achieve this, a career in Hollywood was all but essential, though Garbo’s lacklustre reception in America was hardly the harbinger of instant fame. After arriving in New York City in the summer of 1925, Garbo and Stiller toiled away in the brutal heat and suffocating tedium, waiting for what came next. They remained in the city for six months, anxious to get to Hollywood and move forward with their respective—ideally allied—futures. But when that time finally came, the two were dealt a considerable blow. Garbo’s American debut was also supposed to be Stiller’s, but Torrent (1926), an adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s novel, was assigned to director Monta Bell. Though disheartened by the wrench in their conjoined plans, Garbo went on with the production and made quite the impression. Her Leonora is religious, sensitive, and lovelorn, conveying an earthy purity suited to a farmer’s daughter. But after she overcomes her impoverished upbringing and assumes the soon-to-be-familiar posture of a glitzy prima donna, having become an opera star in Paris, she shocks the would-be suitor she left behind, who denied her earlier pleas for romance, and now appears cold, assured, and cynical, thwarting the love that might have been. 

Torrent was a success and MGM producer Irving Thalberg swiftly cast Garbo in another Ibáñez adaptation, The Temptress (1926). This time, Stiller was assigned to direct, and although her role wasn’t terribly far removed from that of Torrent, much to her dismay, it seemed Garbo and her compatriot were on the right track. But this, too, was summarily diverted when Stiller was fired from the picture, due to his difficulty with the English language and his quarrels with star Antonio Moreno. He was replaced by Fred Niblo and the entire film was reshot. First appearing in silhouette, filmed from behind, Garbo strikes a commanding and impressive posture. The object of irresistible alure, relentless fawning, and inevitable chaos, her Elena flourishes in an enchanted fantasy of unbridled romance, perversely delighting in what she hath wrought and living up to the name of the film until her heedlessness crashes down to reality. 

While her experiences on Torrent and The Temptress were less than idyllic, and she promptly grew weary of the “vamp” typecasting and struggled to get along with her apprehensive co-stars, these early films did introduce Garbo to one of the seminal figures of her career. William H. Daniels, who photographed Torrent and stepped in to replace Tony Gaudio on The Temptress, became vital to Garbo’s filmic presentation. They would work together on 19 films, and if Garbo was embittered by the frivolous promotional photographs MGM thrust upon her (posing with the University of Southern California track and field team and appearing rather uneasily with the studio’s iconic lion), before Daniels’ camera she was simply effervescent. Daniels praised her understanding of camera technique as “remarkable,” noting she “makes every effort to cooperate with the camerman and she really appreciates the difficulties and different requirements of photographing scenes from various angles. She is the most patient and sympathetic player with whom I have ever been associated in pictures.”5

Other crucial individuals entered Garbo’s life with her next film, 1926’s Flesh and the Devil. One was her co-star, the first-billed John Gilbert. Together, they were not only an ideal on-screen pairing, radiating sex appeal and easy seduction, but their off-camera relationship became instant grist for the gossip column mill. The second key figure was director Clarence Brown, who would go on to work with Garbo more than any other director. The fruitful effect of this dual accompaniment is felt throughout Flesh and the Devil, from Gilbert’s awestruck first impression of Garbo as she disembarks a train, to their smouldering chemistry, lit by matchlight, and the precarious balance of ensuing ecstasy and fickle desire. “Nothing this erotic had ever been seen on the screen,” comments Gottlieb,6 and the film, for these reasons and more, was a resounding triumph. Garbo had irrevocably whetted the public’s appetite for her scandalous indiscretions, audacious moral plasticity, and her potent manner—head tilted down in a way that was enticing, defiant, and guarded at the same time. It seemed inevitable, then, that another Garbo-Gilbert pairing should follow, and indeed, banking on the marquee value of “Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Love,” a spectacularly loose adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” (exhibitors were offered a “happy” ending if they so chose) was next on the agenda. With some significant variations from its source, mostly done to appease the censors of the time and better accommodate a commercial runtime, Love, released in 1927, is a condensed retelling of the tragic romance between Garbo’s Anna and Gilbert’s Count Vronsky. Lifting her veil to reveal that stunningly composed face, Garbo is instantly engaging, and the course of her reserved and proper character, conflicted when she does her best to resist her impulses, is punctuated by moments of maternal gentleness and a multiplicity of emotions as she ardently breaks through the neglect and community chatter caused by her heartfelt improprieties. 

Flesh and the Devil

The year 1928 was a busy one for Garbo. Following Love, she reappeared with former co-star Lars Hanson in a film directed by fellow Swede, Victor Sjöström. Unfortunately, the end result, The Divine Woman, is all but lost, with a scant reel of the picture remaining. From these few minutes, though, one can nevertheless see a more buoyant Garbo than had so far been witnessed, playing a delicate young lover about to see off her soldier sweetheart. Gottlieb goes so far as to declare, “With the exception of Ernst Lubitsch, she would never again have a director of Sjöström’s quality,”7 which only make the loss that much more disheartening.

Head in her palms, looking utterly listless, Garbo in The Mysterious Lady is cast against a black curtain backdrop to start the picture, before she is summarily mesmerized by Conrad Nagel. But all is not as it seems; she is a Russian spy and he an Austrian officer, her mark. Their seduction is effortless and genuine, though before long, the guilt, sadness, and panic of their untenable situation sets in, and Garbo’s face betrays a latent innocence now marred by terror. Affirming a view that could reasonably be applied to several Garbo films, Gottlieb notes the “porous” logic of The Mysterious Lady’s script, but, he adds, with an appropriate aside, “who cares?”8 It’s true that when looking back in hindsight, several Garbo efforts, especially early on, are not of the highest quality, owing mostly to the shoddy scripts and trite, repetitive scenarios. And yet, time and again, Garbo overcame these deficiencies as if she alone pardoned any extraneous faults. Alluding to her later habit of inaccessibility and the increasing public enthusiasm that nonetheless endured, Gottlieb states, “Yes, her beauty was incomparable, but that wasn’t it. The mystery of her self-imposed seclusion was irresistible to the industry and to the world, but that was almost a distraction. Certainly it wasn’t her vehicles, so many of them cliched or worse.”9 This is indeed a curious facet of the Garbo story. Were her films really that good? Or was it all about Garbo? Critic Paul Rotha, writing for Cinema Quarterly in 1934, adjusts his article and states, “But I must write instead of Garbo, who contrives, through Heaven knows how, to surpass all the badness they thrust upon her. Of her many American pictures, all without exception have been trash; yet this astonishing woman surmounts the very crudity with which they choose to surround her.”10 Likewise, Robert Sherwood, writing in Life magazine, argued that while Garbo “may not be the best actress on the screen … there can be no argument as to the efficacy of her allure.”11 Put another way by Gottlieb: “Was she even an actress, or was she merely a glorious presence?”12 

In any case, The Mysterious Lady was also the first film in which Garbo appeared under the influence of brilliant costume designer Adrian (Adrian Adolph Greenburg), one of her steadfast and most invaluable collaborators. “The great success of the Adrian-Garbo collaboration,” Gottlieb writes, “is that she inspired him to extravagant fantasies of clothes and then wore them as if they were things she just happened to have pulled out of her closet and flung on.”13 Rounding out the year was A Woman of Affairs, based on the scandalous 1924 Michael Arlen novel, “The Green Hat” (the film doesn’t even come close to evoking the salacious details of the book), and again with Brown directing and Gilbert starring, as well as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Described in the film as a “gallant lady,” the ostensibly innocuous flirtations of Garbo’s Diana Merrick wreak havoc for her competing suitors, yet Garbo serenely balances expressions of good humoured, easy going pleasantness with the distraught results of a tragic love life; her at times underrated range is once more on full display. 

The next year was also significant for Garbo, who first appeared as an unhappily married American women tempted by a Java prince in Wild Orchids (1929). Though living a life of wealth and renown, her Lillie Sterling is torn between the safe, if bland, almost negligent Lewis Stone and the tempting Nils Asther. Her initial disgust toward the audacious prince—he points out her “cold enchantment,” a characteristic Garbo attribute if ever there was one—is swayed by the exotic possibilities and she can scarcely contain her compulsion. Sadly, Wild Orchids was also the film on which Garbo learned of Stiller’s passing, a blow to her poise that did nothing to alleviate her increasing alienation from Hollywood culture, her steady deviations from the norms of stardom, and, perhaps most intensely, her homesickness. After completing The Single Standard, also in 1929, a witty social critique of the sexes and the hypocrisies of contemporary social mores, where Garbo’s savvy, knowing Arden Stuart seeks out freedom and happiness on her own terms, she made The Kiss. In this, her and MGM’s last silent picture, she is again seeking liberation from a hopeless marriage, but this time with murderous consequences.

“Garbo Talks!” There was no better way to market the coming of sound for MGM and its most famous female star, and with Brown directing, working from Eugene O’Neill’s acclaimed 1922 play, Anna Christie (1930) became all anyone could hope for. There was, to be a sure, a good deal riding on this talking inauguration (among the many prospects Thalberg considered for Garbo’s first sound feature, the most intriguing has to be a Carl Theodor Dreyer remake of the Danish director’s monumental 1928 silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc), and Brown even managed to coax Garbo to rehearsals for Anna Christie, something she was otherwise loathe to do. But Garbo eased the minds of those concerned with how her deep, husky, accented voice would translate to the talkies and she gave one of her most assured, naturalistic performances. The setting was hardly a fashionable one, but the picture revelled in its gritty exposition and Garbo’s celebrated introduction, sixteen minutes into the film—weary, downtrodden, asking the barkeep for a “whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby”—unveiled a captivatingly downplayed and hardened side of the star. Her mannerisms and physical flow capture the attention perhaps even more than her distinguished voice; her roughhewn femininity was such that Charles Bickford’s Matt, the sailor who attempts to woo this caustic stranger, says she has, quite rightly, the “face of an angel” and the “sting of a wasp.” Also appearing alongside George F. Marion and Marie Dressler, Garbo gives an impassioned, fierce performance, and for her efforts she received her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, in this case shared with her follow-up feature, 1930’s Romance, directed by Brown and co-starring Stone, her most frequent on-screen companion. Here, in this entertaining, flashback vehicle, Garbo is coy and teasing, a simple wink or smile sending ripples of rapture wherever she goes. The story of abandoned ardour boasts an animated Garbo with a heightened allure as she proclaims her sentimental declarations of love. 

Before moving on, Garbo returned to Anna Christie, only this time it was a German-language take directed by Belgium-born Jacques Feyder (who had helmed The Kiss) with a wholly different cast and a more severe, atmospheric tone and disposition, which Garbo preferred. Whatever version, Anna Christie was a substantial turning point for Garbo. It launched, for Dance, a new identity, “a new, tougher Garbo, markedly different from any screen character she had earlier portrayed,”14 and the coming of sound suited her well. Writing in the New York Telegraph, Pierre de Rohan almost seems to give Garbo credit for the successful industry transition as a whole: “It has taken Greta Garbo, the incomparable, indescribable, inscrutable enchantress [and] turned out a good screen actress. … She has matched speech with gestures, sound with symbols.”15

During the time she was active, and especially in the years and decades that followed, Garbo was frequently referenced and further immortalized in assorted works of art, from literature to popular music to some of the most radiant photographs ever taken. In her 1931 film, Inspiration, she is similarly the muse for a trio of artists who clamour to be in her presence and in some way possess her ultimately unobtainable appeal. True to form, however, Garbo’s Yvonne remains aloof and jilted, even in the face of prospective, authentic love. Later that same year, such a subdued temperament is far from the case in Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise), in which Garbo appeared alongside MGM’s fast-rising new star, Clark Gable. Born to an unwed mother and raised by an unforgiving uncle, Helga (later Susan Lenox) is bashful and cautious as a result of her cruel, modest origins, but when charmed by the boisterous Gable, she thrives. Donning Gable’s oversized pyjamas, Garbo is saccharine, guileless, and innocently plays off her male counterpart’s enthusiasm. Twists of fate separate the two for years, sending Garbo from the carnival to high society, and while there were censorial objections to some of the film’s more mature themes (namely Garbo’s dubious path toward sophistication), and despite the extensive writing and rewriting involved (some twenty individuals had a hand in the script), the outcome works all the same. Yes, Gottlieb acknowledges, “the story is corny, and the dialogue too, but this movie is alive. And, for once, Garbo is encouraged to be likeable.”16 

Garbo’s turn as the infamous Mata Hari, stage name for German spy Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, in the 1931 film of that name, is decidedly more cinematic Garbo than it is historic Hari, but she responds well to the spirit of the ultimate enchantress with a reputation for duplicity. Nevertheless (this is Hollywood, after all), Garbo’s Hari, desirable and keenly using this draw to her advantage, finds room in her notorious shams for ill-fated affection. If Garbo was the obvious draw of Mata Hari, she was but one of several attractions in 1932’s Grand Hotel, MGM’s embodiment of its motto, “More stars than there are in heaven.” This hugely successful ensemble picture boasts the likes of Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, and Jean Hersholt, but Garbo, still arguably the star among stars, is primarily showcased with John Barrymore, whom she greatly admired. Garbo’s storyline features her downcast ballet dancer Grusinskaya as she is steadily wooed and enlivened by Barrymore’s thieving Baron von Geigern. Gorgeously lit, as usual by William Daniels, Garbo utters her famous line, “I want to be alone” (often misapplied as a real-life entreaty as well—“I want to be left alone,” she clarified), and Grusinskaya displays an exceptional degree of vulnerability and weariness. Before long, though, invigorated by the prospect of romance, she conveys, particularly well in one delightful sequence, charmingly dancing in her hotel room, a physical exuberance rarely seen in Garbo’s output. 

Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel, an Oscar-winner for Best Picture, was followed by one of Garbo’s lesser efforts, 1932’s As You Desire Me. She is moody, boozy, and sarcastic, prone to inebriated pontifications, and in a film muddled by its rather convoluted plot device concerning amnesia and a misappropriated past, Garbo’s performance gets lost in the perplexity. Still, As You Desire Me is a good example of a laudable Garbo quality off-camera. Although she could be brusque with certain co-stars (to say nothing of studio brass and the taxing media that followed her every move), Garbo could also be extraordinarily sympathetic to those who needed it. In this case, it was coming to the defence of her co-star, Erich von Stroheim, as the legendary and increasingly ostracized figure struggled with his performance and health. She was similarly integral to bringing John Gilbert back from a years-long downward spiral when she requested his casting in Queen Christina (granted, this was after Laurence Olivier left the film due to a lack of chemistry). 

A personal passion project for Garbo, who conducted her own meticulous research on the Swedish heroine (Stiller had briefly considered the subject as early as 1927), this 1933 historical romance, with its fair share of comedy, showcases a quintessential Garbo performance. She is bold and confident, bursting with geniality, and after an amusing sequence of mistaken (sexual) identity, she is ravishing as a woman happily willing to forsake it all in the name of love. The political intrigue of the picture largely falls by the wayside as a result (its historical accuracy is questionable anyway), but Queen Christina remains remarkably modern in its depiction of sexual, even homosexual undertones, exemplifying why Garbo was so attractive to both men and women. She had rarely looked better or given a more subtly redolent performance. Brown remarked that Garbo “had something behind the eyes that you couldn’t see until you photographed it in close-up. You could see thought.”17 And this reflection is echoed by that of Queen Christina’s director, Rouben Mamoulian, who noted that “what was miraculous about Garbo was her innate mystique. It is difficult to describe a face of such radiant beauty. I cannot explain a mystique that grabs hold of the viewer’s imagination.”18 

Queen Christina

The prominence of Garbo’s star stature was more than assured, and the opening of 1934’s The Painted Veil attests to her contemporary distinction: billed as simply “Garbo,” her name lingers on a backdrop curtain behind the remainder of credits. With her slight smirks, puckers, and pouts, Garbo is an immediate, captivating inducement, although the film itself, another tale of neglect and adulterous pursuit, succumbs to a standard state of affairs (a disastrous preview resulted in extensive reshooting and editing). “Her movies were almost always the same,” comments Dance, noting a common complaint, at least among critics, “and Garbo had given up trying to influence the sorts of characters she would portray.”19 By that same token, 1935’s Anna Karenina was a literal, albeit updated and far more lavish retread of the same source as her earlier Love. That said, though, Garbo herself is phenomenal. Emerging from the steam of a train, she is an ethereal vision in close-up, gradually, despite her pains to remain at a distance from Count Vronsky (Fredric March this time), swept away by her passions. Basil Rathbone, who also appeared in the film, recalled the way Garbo “made tiny movements, minute changes of expression which [he] didn’t notice at the time, but when [he] saw the scene on the screen [he] was amazed.”20 Defying social mores and remaining notably tender with her son, Garbo is stunning in what Gottlieb considers “a role she was born to play.”21

But is it her best role? “The consensus is that Garbo is at her greatest in Camille, and the consensus has it right,”22 Gottlieb again chimes in. Dance agrees, and then some: “[H]er performances has sometimes been cited as the finest acting by a woman in American cinema.”23 In this 1936 film, directed by George Cukor and co-starring Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore, Garbo’s courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, is embroiled in the romantic promises of 1847 Paris while also combating her failing health. Emerging at first as sweetly cunning in her amorous pursuits, giddy and even giggling, her youthfulness is progressively blemished by tragedy, and Garbo received her second Academy Award nomination for her multifaceted execution. 

Camille

Directed by Brown (his seventh and final film with Garbo) and with cinematography by Karl Freund, Conquest—known in Europe as Marie Walewska, deemed too hard to pronounce for America—contains several jaw-dropping visuals, starting with Garbo’s arresting establishment as she descends a staircase. And again, her Countess Marie Walewska follows a familiar Garbo trajectory, from pride and defiance to temptation and besotted passion, as she becomes the mistress of Charles Boyer’s Napoleon Bonaparte. But whether she is smiling, dancing, or embracing her happiness in the face of political upheaval, finding a mutual peace with Boyer regardless of external influences, Garbo is everything audiences wanted her to be. Or so one would think. In reality, Conquest, released in 1937, was one of the very few Garbo films to lose money and it received voluminous poor reviews. 

Ninotchka

Then came Ninotchka, Garbo’s unabashedly joyous and most hilarious film. Thanks in no small part to director Ernst Lubitsch, whom Garbo had long wanted to work with, and writers like Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, this beloved 1939 comedy received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and another acting nod for Garbo. It’s a delight from start to finish; “Garbo Laughs!” read the marketing material for Ninotchka, and indeed she does. And Garbo’s transition from the stern and proper Soviet representative (established with her most self-effacing introduction) to the bubbly, rapturous darling of Melvyn Douglas’ scheming Leon, who adopts a newfound sincerity with the awkward import, is suitably marvellous. It would seem Garbo had potentially entered a new phase of her career with this romantic-comedy, but her next film, another risible rom-com, would be her last. Despite the prevailing thought at the time, and in the years that followed, Two-Faced Woman (1941) is not a bad movie, and was hardly the portent, in and of itself, of her retirement. Again with director Cukor and co-star Douglas (who took the role after Cary Grant, Garbo’s choice, dithered on the possibility), Garbo is amiably down to earth, unassuming, athletic (as she was in real life), and perfectly tailored to the picture’s screwball scenario. What undoubtably worked against the film, however, were Legion of Decency objections to some of its thematic material (suggested adulty, even though that’s part of the joke) and the unfortunate timing of its release, just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Even a revised version of the film, released at the start of 1942, failed to gain an audience. 

And with that, at the age of 35, Greta Garbo was gone. But that is not to say she instantly gave up on acting. Offers continued to come in, some progressing further than others. “Project after project was put before her,” states Gottlieb, “the profusion and variety are bewildering.”24 She signed a 1948 contract to appear in Max Ophüls’ adaptation of Balzac’s “La Duchesse de Langeais,” but financing fell apart. Orson Welles wrote a screenplay for she and Charlie Chaplin and Tennessee Williams wrote another. And she was considered for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1949). As tantalizing as all these were—and certainly are now—it was not to be. Screen tests from 1949 showed Garbo was still as luminous as ever, but the star, who had always needed the movies less than the movies needed her, was done. She became an American citizen in 1951, received her “final serious offer”25 for 1974’s Airport 75, and, also in 1974, she unknowingly appeared in her last film, the pornographic Adam & Yves, which incredulously showed candid glimpses of Garbo captured with a telephoto lens as she roamed around New York City. 

Owing at least in part to some questionable testimony, even from those who supposedly knew her best, Garbo’s life was a series of seeming contradictions and ambiguities, and the conclusive nature of her impact remains mystifying—“What are we to make of this strange creature who, without trying, compelled the attention of the world in a way no other star had done?” wonders Gottlieb.26 She had been disenchanted with Hollywood since nearly the beginning, and rumours of her possibly abandoning acting swirled as far back as 1931. Though often lauded for her performances, the only honour she seemed to care about was the prestigious Littris et Artibus medal she received from her native country, in recognition of her cultural impact. She refused to play the part imposed upon her by the media, fans, and most assuredly studio bosses. Public reprimanding, suspensions, pay cuts: so be it. Garbo lived her life by her own accord. And still, in spite of her wilful isolation and (to many) her baffling need for privacy, she remained a fixture in popular publications and her films were continually greeted with tremendous fanfare. She had an admirable work ethic and a canny ability to transform into a character when cameras rolled, but she prohibited visitors on set and demanded shields be put up when she was performing. Prone to erratic outbreaks, she would disappear, unannounced, for days and even weeks on end, and she routinely denied interviews. Many liked to promote suggested rivalries between she and fellow actresses (Marlene Dietrich in particular), but Garbo usually couldn’t be bothered by such babble. All of this said, though, she also seemed aware of her inaccessible myth, playfully represented by photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull when he superimposed her face over the Sphinx, a juxtaposition Garbo found quite amusing. 

Sphinx

In the end, biographer Dance finds what “might be the most extraordinary tribute ever published about Garbo” in a 1928 Margaret Reid article from Picture Play: “‘There are undoubtably in her undiscovered areas of spirit, back of the silence, the stoicism, the reserve. Some day—forgive me if I idealize—the right story, the right environment, the right director, will uncover these. And on that day, the movies can lock up their studios and call it a task completed.’”27 Thankfully for the medium at large, the movies didn’t call it quits when these qualities were in fact achieved, though achieved they surely were with Greta Garbo, who became and remains one of the most beguiling, gifted, and striking actresses to ever embellish the cinema.

Essential filmography

  • Two-Faced Woman (George Cukor, 19410
  • Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)
  • Conquest (Clarence Brown, 1937)
  • Camille (George Cukor, 1936)
  • Anna Karenina (Clarence Brown, 1935)
  • The Painted Veil (Richard Boleslawski, 1934)
  • Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)
  • As You Desire Me (George Fitzmaurice, 1932)
  • Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1931)
  • Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice, 1931)
  • Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (Robert Z. Leonard, 1931)
  • Inspiration (Clarence Brown, 1931) 
  • Anna Christie – German Language Version (Jacques Feyder, 1930)
  • Romance (Clarence Brown, 1930)
  • Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930)
  • The Kiss (Jacques Feyder, 1929)
  • The Single Standard (John S. Robertson, 1929)
  • Wild Orchids (Sidney Franklin, 1929)
  • A Woman of Affairs (Clarence Brown, 1928)
  • The Mysterious Lady (Fred Niblo, 1928)
  • The Divine Woman (Victor Sjöström, 1928)
  • Love (Edmund Goulding, 1927)
  • Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown, 1926)
  • The Temptress (Fred Niblo, 1926)
  • Torrent (Monta Bell, 1926)
  • The Joyless Street (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1925)
  • The Saga of Gösta Berling (Mauritz Stiller, 1924)

Bibliography

  • Bret, David, Greta Garbo: Divine Star (London: The Robson Press, 1988).
  • Broman, Sven, Conversations with Greta Garbo (New York: Viking, 1992).
  • Dance, Robert, The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2021).
  • Gottlieb, Robert, Garbo (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).
  • Paris, Barry, Garbo: A Biography (London: Pan Books, 1996).
  • Swenson, Karen, Greta Garbo: A Life Apart (New York: Scribner, 1997).
  • Vieira Mark A., Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005).

Endnotes

  1. Gottlieb, Robert, Garbo (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), p. 28
  2. Ibid., p. 26
  3. Dance, Robert, The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2021), p. 36
  4. Bret, David, Greta Garbo: Divine Star (London: The Robson Press, 1988), p. 42
  5. Vieira Mark A., Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005), p. 145
  6. Gottlieb, p. 61
  7. Ibid., p. 91
  8. Ibid., p. 92
  9. Ibid., p. 3
  10. Dance, p. 193
  11. Vieira, p. 29
  12. Gottlieb, p. 3
  13. Ibid., p. 298
  14. Dance, p. 121
  15. Swenson, Karen, Greta Garbo: A Life Apart (New York: Scribner, 1997), p. 225
  16. Gottlieb, p. 132
  17. Ibid., p. 383
  18. Broman, Sven, Conversations with Greta Garbo (New York: Viking, 1992), p. 123
  19. Dance, p. 145
  20. Vieira, p. 213
  21. Gottlieb, p. 185
  22. Ibid., p. 193
  23. Dance, p. 11
  24. Gottlieb, p. 230
  25. Bret, p. 354
  26. Gottlieb, p. 286
  27. Dance, p. 99-100

About The Author

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Cinema Retro, MUBI’s Notebook, Vague Visages, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image.

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