This week we go way back in Hollywood history to the days of the silent screen, exploring the life and career of this film era's most enigmatic figure. Right from the start, Greta Garbo was unique in Hollywood. Intensely private, somewhat neurotic, with a troubled youth and a reputation as a complex and mysterious figure, no one had ever seen anything like Greta before she came on the scene during the swan song of the silent era. In many respects, it still hasn't to this day. Unwilling to bend to the demands of others, she successfully bucked the trends, changed the rules and did the impossible while always living her life on her terms - even when it meant leaving her career as an actress behind forever.
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1905, to poor parents working menial jobs. Growing up in a cold water flat in the middle of a Stockholm slum, Greta's memories of her childhood were ripped right out of an Ingmar Bergman film, which is fitting as they were countrymen. As Greta herself described it:
It was eternally gray those long winter's nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room my mother is repairing ragged old clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We were filled with anxiety, as if there were danger in the air. Such evenings are unforgettable for a sensitive girl. Where we lived, all the houses and apartments looked alike, their ugliness matched by everything surrounding us.
It wasn't the happiest upbringing, but it did contribute quite a lot to the woman Greta became. Aloof, daydreaming, dissatisfied with school and the company of fellow children, she preferred to disappear into worlds of her own imagination. So while Greta was never concerned with becoming the most popular kid in school, her frequent flights of fancy made her a perfect fit for the theater. She had a few brief flirtations with acting at her local amateur theater before quitting her education at 13. Yet like many Swedish women at that time, her first foray into the world was that of a menial worker, like her parents, doing the kinds of jobs women could get at that time. She was the lather girl in a barbershop, then later ran errands for the PUB department store, where she eventually began to work as a model for hats in the store catalog. By 1920, she was doing commercial ads for women's clothing that ran before features in Swedish cinemas. Two years later, Greta was studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre's Acting School in Stockholm. From lowly beginnings, Greta was laying the groundwork for much bigger things to come.
By 1924, Greta was recruited by famous Swedish director Mauritz Stiller in THE SAGA OF GOSTA BERLING. Working alongside well known Swedish actors and film makers right from the beginning, she held her own. Stiller soon became her mentor and manager and Greta appeared in more films both in Sweden and Germany, bringing her to the attention of the man with the best eye for talent in classic Hollywood, Louis B. Mayer. Accounts vary about how Greta made her way west to Tinseltown. Some say she was only accepted as part of a package deal with director Stiller. Others say Greta was the main focus of Mayer's desire and that Stiller was the tag along. Whatever the initial draw, it was soon clear to all that Greta's ability to virtually consume the screen with her smouldering passion was the bigger draw. By 1925, Greta and Stiller had themselves a contract with MGM and were setting sail for New York.
Greta arrived on American soil a wet behind the ears 20-year-old who didn't speak a word of English. Expecting a big reception and work from her new studio bosses, she received just the opposite, hearing very little for weeks. She and Stiller eventually moved to Los Angeles on their own accord, unaware of the studio's strategy to make some adjustments to their new Swedish phenom. The studio arranged to straighten Greta's teeth and demanded she take off a few pounds before appearing in films. Once this slight adjustment was completed, Greta was cast in her first picture, TORRENT, in 1926, playing what became her standard role as the vampish, seductress - a role she was born to play. Being a silent film, her less than fluent English made little difference and the film did well. Though critic reviews were harsh toward the film itself, there was generally nothing but praise for Greta's performance. Greta then went on to similar roles in THE TEMPTRESS and FLESH AND THE DEVIL, burning up the screen with her intensity. Audiences soon became enraptured in the Swedish sex goddess, unable to take their eyes off her and flocking to every film she made. There would be 8 more films with her name on them during what remained of the silent era, all but one of them commercial successes. While many of these films were lambasted by critics for various reasons, those same critics never had anything but love and praise for Greta's skills as an actress - skills that could transcend any mediocrities in a script or production.
As the 1920's came to a close, the rise of the "talkies" was looming and MGM knew it. This was a concern to the bigwigs behind the scene, who were unsure of how their Swedish cash cow was going to come across to American audiences with her thick accent. This so concerned the studio that MGM was literally the last studio to switch over to talkies, with their last silent movie being another Garbo picture, THE KISS, in 1929. During her silent era, Greta became perhaps the first true cinema actor. Rather than just another transplanted theater performer, Greta was able to use the up close and personal setting of a camera to its fullest effect, exploring subtleties of expression and emotion that were never so convincingly portrayed on screen before that time. To accomplish these convincing portrayals, Greta often resorted to strange demands. She refused all visits to the set, even from studio heads. She required black screens be erected around her so that the crew couldn't watch her during her performances. When asked about these strange requests, her reply was "If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise."
By 1930, it was time to introduce a speaking Greta to movie screens via her film ANNA CHRISTIE. Publicized with the slogan "Garbo talks!" it was an adaptation of an Eugene O'Neill play about events in the life of a former prostitute attempting to hide the facts of her life from her family. Studio execs were nervous, but Greta's new dynamic was a phenomenon right from her first line "Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby." Her portrayal of the fallen woman was yet another huge hit and despite even more critical hate of the film, it was the biggest earner of the year. Greta had spent months working with a voice coach before production on the film began. Ironically enough, her coaching had given her such a convincing American accent that she had to tone it down so she could play her Swedish character convincingly. Greta received her first Academy Award nomination for her performance in CHRISTIE. Her big debut was followed up with a few modest successes in films like ROMANCE, INSPIRATION and SUSAN LENOX. Her biggest films were yet to follow, however, with a pair of huge hits in the way of 1931's MATA HARI and 1932's GRAND HOTEL, the later winning the award for Best Picture that year. By 1932, Greta was getting 6-figures for her acting work, which was virtually unknown at this time. Her films were earning millions and had become a major Hollywood industry in and of themselves.
A new contract in 1932 gave Greta more control over her career. As the 1930s carried on, she began to use her new powers to select the best co-stars and chose the best roles. Her performance in films like QUEEN CHRISTINA, ANNA KARENINA and CAMILLE earned her yet more success, as well as a third Academy Award nom. Having grown used to the love of critics, even when her films were not, things started to go south by the late 1930s when a series of flops and a general malaise in the quality of many Hollywood films lead to her being labelled "box office poison" by the National Theater Distributors of America, alongside other distinguished names like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn. Greta made her comeback after this unfortunate and unfair labeling in the 1939 comedy NINOTCHKA. Her first strictly comedic role helped to raise her out of her traditionally moody and somber image, earning her a 4th Academy nomination in the process. This film also proved to be Greta's final high note in Hollywood.
Encouraged by the critical and box office response to NINOTCHKA, MGM wanted to keep riding that positive wave with 1941's TWO-FACED WOMAN, a romantic comedy that saw her playing the unusual role of the regular girl, doing such uncharacteristic things as dancing and various sporting activities as part of her performance. This didn't exactly wow audiences who had grown to expect a certain intensity from a Garbo movie and the film subsequently flopped as a result. Greta later labeled the film "my grave." While not the plan at the time, the critical and financial failure that was TWO-FACED WOMAN became the end of the road as far as Greta's film career went. A few aborted attempts at comebacks followed, yet all either suffered from budget failures or cancellations before they could enter production. At 36, she had made 28 films in 16 years. Now she was out of a job.
Away from the screen, Greta proved to be just as elusive and mysterious as the women she portrayed, though this was always her way. Unabashedly defiant of studio insistence, Greta never once did any publicity for her movies and rarely did interviews with the press. This persistent, reclusive nature eventually became a cornerstone of her fame as the elusive screen vixen. Suffering from repeated bouts of depression and anxiety, she may have been bipolar and could sometimes descend into dark periods of moodiness and melancholy. Never marrying and having no children, Greta mostly lived alone throughout her life. She had relatively few lovers, among them various costars and other influential people, though none lasted for very long. It is also alleged that she was bisexual and enjoyed the company of various stage and screen actresses in the 1920s and 30s, keeping regular correspondence with many of these women years after their affairs ended. Holding up in a plush Manhattan apartment during most of her time as a retired actress, it became a pastime among many New Yorker's to go "Garbo-watching" during her regular long walks with close friends or by herself. These walks were the extent of her public profile after the end of her acting career and one of the few chances anyone in the public had to get even slightly close to the legendary screen star.
Out of the business by the early 1940s, Greta lived another 50 years as a very private citizen, still doing things on her own terms. It was a way of life that worked well for her. By the time she passed in 1990 of pneumonia and renal failure, her many wise investments had earned her a multi-million dollar fortune and a collection of priceless paintings worth even more millions. Where many other stars' fame would have languished from such a prolonged retirement, Greta's absence proved to be a positive boon to her legacy. Much like any screen icon who achieves legend status thanks to premature death, Greta's premature retirement only made her more beloved by film buffs the world over. Almost a century after her start, Greta still inspires as perhaps the greatest screen siren of them all.