Greta Garbo was a star from the ‘silver screen’ era of American cinema. She translated her unconventional beauty from silent films to talkies, and entranced the public with a quiet intensity that transcended the strict gender roles of the era.
Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafson in Stockholm, Sweden in 1905. Her father died when she was 14, leaving her family destitute. She quit school to work in a local department store, and was later asked to model for the store's print advertisements and its promotional movie, How Not To Dress.
Garbo was uncomfortable with the attention she received almost immediately. The Swedish moral code jantelagen rests upon humility and self-restraint. Any behaviour indicating vanity is deemed dangerous and uncaring towards others. This ethical code conflicted with Garbo's eventual profession and caused her emotional angst throughout her career.
The Silver Screen
She was only brought to Hollywood because her director in Gösta Berlings Saga, Mauritz Stiller, insisted on it. It's ironic to think that he died in poverty while Garbo went on to greater glory. In any case, Max Factor1 pronounced Garbo's eyes and eyelashes 'better than anything I can supply'. Garbo aced her screen test and went on to appear in Swedish and American films from 1920 to 1941.
In her silent screen days, Garbo was classed as a mysterious European and was adopted by MGM studios, which was noted for its glamour. Her nickname among Hollywood executives was ‘The Face’. She was partnered by the screen idol of the time, John Gilbert, and rumours of an affair were rife. In 1927 they starred in a film called Love. This gave the publicists the chance to say:
Garbo and Gilbert in 'Love'.
In fact, Gilbert eventually proposed to Garbo behind the scenes - three times - before giving up and marrying someone else. Garbo later said:
There are some who want to get married and others who don't. I have never had an impulse to go to the altar. I am a difficult person to lead.
With the advent of sound, MGM was nervous. With her heavy accent it was feared that she wouldn't make the transition very easily. Gilbert had already had his career destroyed because his voice was too high-pitched, and this didn't sit comfortably with his manly image.
The cinema-going world waited with bated breath. Garbo was to make her speaking debut in Anna Christie (1930). The public was kept in suspense for the first 20 minutes of the film and then Garbo uttered the immortal words:
Gimme a whisky with ginger ale and don't be stingy, baby.
The public loved her and the studio breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Throughout the 1930s, Garbo played heroic, historical women such as Camille, Mata Hari and Anna Karenina. She was notable for wearing trousers2 when they were still controversial for women, and for wearing hats that shadowed her famous eyes. She was notoriously press-shy. Over time, these factors combined to create what is still known today as the 'Garbo Mystique'.
Garbo and Gilbert did team up for one talkie - Queen Christina (1933). This tells the story of the Swedish queen who renounced her throne for love. She chose Gilbert as her love interest over Laurence Olivier. Gilbert died shortly afterwards.
Garbo also headed the cast in one of the first ever all-star cast productions. Grand Hotel (1932) starred, among others, Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery. The stars would not join up to have a group photo and even Crawford stated that she only saw Garbo once on set.
The End of an Era
With the advent of the Second World War, Garbo's popularity went into steep decline and she then decided to do comedy. In Ninotchka she plays a diplomat who has to prevent the sale of some jewels. The scene where Garbo gets drunk is a classic. Her only other comedy, and also her last film, Two Faced Woman, was condemned by the decency board. Garbo retired after the film's debut in 1941 - she said that the spirit of the 1930s had gone for good.
Though Garbo's contract with MGM Studios required her to remain in America starting in 1925, she did not become a US citizen until 1951. After her official retirement, she visited Sweden periodically. She was always rumoured to be starring in new films, but these never materialised.
Garbo became a recluse and the dinner guest of the exceptionally rich and famous - Aristotle Onassis, Winston Churchill, and the Swedish nobility were among her friends. She was awarded an Oscar for her collected performances in 1955. In 1980, Sweden released a stamp to honour her.
Greta Garbo died in New York, New York, USA in 1990 of natural causes. She was 84. Her remains are located at Skogskyrkogarden Cemetery in Stockholm, Sweden.
The Mystique Lives On
The Garbo legacy continues. Several of her movies are available in VHS or DVD format. Some feminists still hail Garbo as a notable role model. Her emotional independence and financial success were well documented at a time when women were still largely expected to remain within the home.
Garbo is also a popular subject for drag queens3. Her gender-bending mysteriousness, glamorous and sometimes androgynous fashions, and sultry accented voice make her easier to imitate than most other silver screen stars. Her memorable quotations and rumours about her sexuality only add to Garbo's campy appeal.
There is even a drink named after her - the Garbo Gargle. The recipe is among many other Cocktails Named For the Stars.
Garbo is attributed the famous line, 'I want to be alone'. She grew increasingly annoyed after it was reported that she uttered the words while filming an early movie. According to Garbo:
I never said, 'I want to be alone'. I only said, 'I want to be left alone.' There is a world of difference.
However, the movie script for Grand Hotel was carefully written to force her to repeat the misquote.
Garbo's features in the gossip journals were not solely concerned with the rumours about her co-star, John Gilbert. Mercedes de Acosta, an American writer famous for her tricorn hats, was also a close friend and rumoured lover starting as early as 1931. Some reporters speculated that Garbo carefully balanced the rumours to enhance the Garbo Mystique.
When de Acosta published her autobiography in 1960, Garbo stopped speaking to her. The book, entitled Here Lies the Heart, included a topless picture of Garbo from the women's six-week vacation together in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
De Acosta kept numerous letters from Garbo. She told reporters they would confirm the affair when they were released after both of the women's deaths. When the letters were finally unveiled in April 2000, they contained no proof whatsoever.
- Herr och fru; Stockholm (1920)
- En Lyckoriddare (1921)
- Konsum Stockholm Promo (1921)
- Luffarpetter; aka Peter the Tramp (1922)
- Gösta Berlings Saga (1924)
- Die Freudlose Gasse; aka Joyless Street (1925)
- The Torrent (1926)
- The Temptress (1926)
- Flesh and the Devil (1926)
- Love (1927)
- The Divine Woman (1928)
- The Mysterious Lady (1928)
- A Woman of Affairs (1928)
- Wild Orchids (1929)
- A Man's Man (1929)
- Single Standard, The (1929)
- The Kiss (1929)
- Anna Christie (1930)
- Romance (1930)
- Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931)
- Mata Hari (1931)
- Inspiration (1931)
- As You Desire Me (1932)
- Grand Hotel (1932)
- Queen Christina (1933)
- The Painted Veil (1934)
- Anna Karenina (1935)
- Camille (1937)
- Conquest (1937)
- Ninotchka (1939)
- Two-Faced Woman (1941)
Although Garbo never made any more films, her image and famous clips appeared in the following films:
- Garabatos Greta Garbo (1944)
- Herrliche Zeiten (1950)
- MGM's Big Parade of Comedy (1964)
- The Love Goddesses (1965)