Greta Garbo (born September 18, 1905 in Stockholm, died April 15, 1990 in New York) is a Swedish-American film and theater actress, considered one of the greatest and most prominent film stars in cinematic history and one of the legends and icons of the “Golden Era of Hollywood” period. Sex symbol of the 1920s and 1930s. In 1951 Garbo became an American citizen. In 1999 the American Film Institute put her name on the 5th place in the ranking of “the greatest actresses of all time”. (The 50 Greatest American Screen Legends).
She debuted on the big screen as an extra in the Swedish productions En lyckoriddare (1921) and Kärlekens ögon (1922). She began her career with a part in the melodrama When the Senses Play (1924), which earned her the status of a rising star. Her performance drew the attention of Louis B. Mayer, the head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, who brought the actress to Hollywood a year later. She made her overseas debut in the silent drama The Spanish Nightingale (1926). Her third film, the melodrama Symphony of the Senses (1926), made her an international star. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Garbo was one of MGM”s most profitable actresses. Her first sound film was the drama Anna Christie (1930). That same year she starred in Romance. Having gained wider fame and international star status, the actress became increasingly active in selecting her choice of film roles. Her participation in such productions as Mata Hari (1931), People at the Hotel (1932) and Queen Christina (1933) helped to establish her position. After appearing in the romantic comedy Two-Faced Woman (1941), she ended her career in the film industry. Despite receiving further offers of roles over the years, she never returned to the big screen. Over the course of her career, Garbo was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Leading Actress. In 1955 she was honored with an Oscar for lifetime achievement.
Other notable titles in Garbo”s body of work include: The Temptress (1926), The Lord of Love (1928), Anna Karenina (1935), The Lady of the Camellias (1936), and Ninotchka (1939). She appeared in 29 feature films.
Family and youth
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born on 18 September 1905 at half past eight in the evening at Gamla Södra BB hospital in Södermalm, a district south of central Stockholm. The future actress was baptized in the Lutheran rite (the only official religion in Sweden at that time), with Pastor Hildebrand presiding over the ceremony. Her father, Karl Alfred Gustafsson (1871-1920), came from the farming town of Frinnaryd in the south of the country. He had various odd jobs, including working as a helper at the local slaughterhouse. Mother Anna Lovisa (born in the village of Högsby. She worked most of the week as a cleaner in houses in the wealthy part of town. Greta Lovisa Gustafsson had two older siblings: brother Sven Alfred (1898-1967) and sister Alva Maria (1903-1926). Her parents were married on May 8, 1898.
Due to the family”s difficult economic situation, Gustafsson”s employer offered him to adopt the youngest daughter, but his offer was turned down. The family of five lived in a poor district of Södermalm in a tenement house at Blekingegatan 32 (according to various sources on the third or fourth floor) in a three- or four-room apartment. The future actress”s father had a fruit and vegetable garden by Lake Årsta in the outskirts of Stockholm, where the family rode the trolleybus every week to weed the beds and fertilize the soil. Gustafsson grew and tended strawberries and then sold them at a nearby market.
In her later years, the actress rarely spoke of her early youth, but she admitted that she took great joy in her childhood dreams. She enjoyed the sympathy of her neighbors and all the children living in the tenement house at Blekingegatan 32, and she often visited the bookstore run by her friend and neighbor Agnes Lind, where she saw photographs of the then stars of the Scandinavian theater – actor Kalle Pedersen (known as Carl Brisson from 1923) and operetta singer Naima Wifstrand. She was involved with the Salvation Army. She sold copies of the magazine “Stridsropet” on the streets of Stockholm. Until the age of 10 everyone called her Katha (Kata), which is how she pronounced her name.
In August 1912, a month before her seventh birthday, Gustafsson was enrolled in Katarina Elementary School. Among her favorite subjects was history, through which, she claimed, she “filled her head with all sorts of dreams.” According to biographer David Bret, Gustafsson was “a capable, though sometimes lazy, student. She was graded well above average in most subjects. Despite this, she hated school and the restrictions it placed on her.
In her spare time Gustafsson played with her brother Sven”s lead soldiers and played marbles. Because of her tomboyish disposition, she led the courtyard gang of children with whom she wandered the streets of Södermalm. Because of her difficult financial situation, she wore her brother”s clothes and took advantage of the local soup kitchen. She was very shy when it came to strangers visiting her home (she often hid behind curtains or under the table). When she was 6 or 7 years old, she became interested in acting. She used to visit two theaters, the Södra and the Mosebacke, which were located on opposite sides of the same street. Not having money for a ticket, she would sometimes take advantage of the inattention of security guards and sneak inside to watch the performances from backstage. Gustafsson was well acquainted with the lives of American movie stars, which she read about in articles in local magazines. In 1913 her father took her to Bromma Airport, where she saw Mary Pickford (whom she admired) live for the first time.
When World War I broke out – even though Sweden took a neutral stance – the financial situation of the future actress”s family deteriorated. The daily menu was filled with potatoes and bread, which, as Bret emphasized, did not adversely affect Gustafsson”s health, unlike other members of her family. Together with her friend Elizabeth Malcolm, she visited local soup kitchens where, in order to enrich people”s time spent in line, they staged a “street cabaret” in protest against the war (thanks to which they received free meals). For these performances she often skipped school, so that her brother and father had to look for her. Once she was severely punished for this by her teacher in front of the whole class, which had a significant impact on Gustafsson”s shyness. “The humiliation associated with this public flogging hurt her more than anything else. From that day on, she closed herself off more and more. That was the end of her childhood,” a friend of Kaj Gynt recalled.
On July 26, 1920, calling on her older sister Alva, Gustafsson began an apprenticeship at the PUB department store (after the founder”s initials) located at Hötorget market square. She worked in the packaging department for 125 kroner a month. At the end of November she was promoted to sales assistant in the women”s coats and hats department. Her salary also increased, which she shared with her mother. This enabled her to go regularly to the cinema and theater. In January 1921, Gustafsson participated as a model in the PUB”s spring catalog, advertising five hat designs. In the summer, she again presented hats, this time at a higher price point. Some customers asked her to present a particular hat model on herself, and then bought it without trying it on. Despite her fascination with the stage, she did not sign up for the PUB”s drama club.
In July 1922, Erik A. Petschler, a director of slapstick comedies, offered Gustafsson a film contract and invited her to test shoot a short production of Petter the Tramp. According to Paris, the actress, having obtained Petschler”s number, telephoned him to ask for a meeting. After reciting a few texts, she received the engagement. Because she refused to take time off, she handed in her notice to the PUB on 22 July (even though her salary had risen to 180 kroner a month, while she received 50 kroner for five days of shooting). The shooting for the comedy Petter the Tramp was recorded in Dalarö. Unlike most actors, Gustafsson was willing to participate in scenes shot in water. During a sudden downpour, she and Tyra Ryman improvised an Indian dance in the pouring rain. Alexander Walker compared her creation of the bathing “beauty” to Mack Sennett”s Bathing Beauties. The film, directed by Petschler, received mixed reviews. The only sarcastic review was given by Swing magazine, writing: “Greta Gustafsson may become a Swedish movie star, but only because of her Anglo-Saxon appeal”. Others pointed out that she did not have the opportunity to showcase her skills.
According to the director, Gustafsson, despite being shy and anxious, showed great talent for acting in films. Petschler encouraged the budding actress to study at the prestigious Royal Dramatic Theatre. According to Bret, Gustafsson at the time had a clumsy posture, spoke with an unsophisticated low-class accent, hardly ever combed her hair, and dressed sloppily. In addition, her protruding teeth bothered her. Former theater director Fran Enwall taught her the basics of acting, and when he died in 1923, his daughter Signe took over the role. In preparation for her exam, she mastered within a month the monologue from the third act of Selma Lagerlöf”s The Chicks, the scene from the first act of Victorien Sardou”s Madame Sans-Gêne, and the monologue of Elida from Henrik Ibsen”s The Bride of the Sea. Having delivered three excerpts from the aforementioned plays at the examination, she was accepted.
Within her first few months of teaching, Gustafsson became a forerunner of the Stanislavsky method. She enjoyed declamation classes and those aspects of stage movement that required the reflection of emotion. During her first year, she played the role of a prostitute in Arthur Schnitzler”s staging of Abschiedssouper, a lady”s maid in J.M. Barrie”s play The Incomparable Crichton, and Hermione in William Shakespeare”s The Winter”s Tale, among other roles. She earned the nickname “Gurra” (which is a diminutive of the name Gustav) from one of her friends.
In 1923, Gustafsson was hired by Mauritz Stiller for the melodrama When the Senses Play, a screen adaptation of the best-selling novel Gösta Berling (1891) by Nobel Prize winner for literature Selma Lagerlöf. Most of the crew (including the screenwriter, cinematographer and art director) were unhappy about hiring an up-and-coming actress, but in her defense was Stiller, who became Gustafsson”s mentor; he taught her how to act and maintain her figure and managed all aspects of her budding career. Gustafsson received an honorarium of 3,000 kroner (because the actress was a minor, the contract was countersigned by her mother). During the shooting, she came close to withdrawing several times (she was held back by the interest the press showed in the film and in herself). The male lead was played by Lars Hanson. Having finished work on the film, she returned to the Royal Dramatic Theatre, where she gained student star status. She was paid 150 crowns a month and was given more freedom in her choice of roles. She also decided to change her name from Gustafsson to Garbo. She submitted an application (signed by her mother) to the Ministry of the Interior on 9 November 1923, and her new name was formally adopted on 4 December.
In 1924 Garbo was scheduled to play the lead in Die Odaliske von Smolny, directed by Stiller, but the production was canceled due to the bankruptcy of the Trianon studio, with which the actress was bound by a contract that amounted to 500 marks per month. While the film crew was in Berlin, the head of the American studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Louis B. came to the city. Mayer came to Rome to inspect the outdoor shooting of Ben-Hur (1925, directed by Fred Niblo). Having seen the film When the Senses Play, Mayer spoke favorably of Garbo. During a dinner meeting at the Maiden Room restaurant in the Adlon Hotel on November 25, the actress, at Stiller”s urging, signed a preliminary three-year contract with MGM, guaranteeing her earnings of $100 a week for forty weeks in the first year, $600 in the second, and $750 in the third.
In 1925 Garbo appeared in the German drama The Lost Street (dir. Georg Wilhelm Pabst). Impressed by her performance in When the Senses Play, the director cast her as Greta Rumfort, with Maria Lechner played by Asta Nielsen. Initially, Garbo demanded that Stiller be hired as a technical advisor, but Pabst refused. As a result of the consensus reached, it was agreed that the actress and Einar Hanson would be paid salaries of $4,000 (the same amount was given to Nielsen and Valeska Gert). In the absence of the director, Stiller instructed Garbo on how she should play. When Pabst arrived on set, her mentor was escorted out, causing the actress to have an attack of hysteria. In protest, she left the set on the first day of shooting. In the evenings, Stiller discussed with Garbo the scenes she was to shoot the next day. At his special request, Kodak film was imported from Stockholm (or Paris) and used only for the scenes with Garbo (for the others, Agfa film was used). The premiere of The Lost Street took place on May 18 at Berlin”s Mozartsaal and Paris” Studio des Ursulines. The weekly Variety wrote: “These Viennese Daughters of Happiness are a pretty mediocre bunch . The only advantage of the film from the point of view of its profitability is that it stars Greta Garbo.” Bret recalled a scene of fainting by the actress, who then falls into the arms of Marlene Dietrich (playing an extra).
On June 30 Garbo and Stiller sailed aboard the SS Drottningholm from Gothenburg to New York. The director delayed the departure until the last moments, hoping that other attractive offers from Europe would appear. As in the case of her father”s death in 1920, Garbo did not want to show her emotions in public, and as a result she refused to let her mother, brother and sister drive her to the ferry, but only escorted her to the train station in Stockholm. “My departure pleased neither my mother nor me,” she – she recalled.
Garbo and Stiller arrived in New York on July 6. Major Bowes, vice president of MGM, arranged for the actress to be photographed for a test shoot, which turned out unfavorably. She was criticized for her scruffy appearance and told to go to a hair and fashion salon, but Garbo refused, much to the outrage of the studio”s executives. Despite not knowing English, she regularly attended the cinema, where she met many screen stars through Hubert Voight: Beatrice Lillie, Katharine Cornell, Libby Holman and Humphrey Bogart. On August 26, accompanied by her friend Kaj Gynt, Garbo signed a three-year contract with MGM at the Broadway office. Because she was under 21 when she signed – a fact that had not been verified – the studio”s legal department forced her to include her mother”s consent. Having complied with the studio”s request, she signed the contract again on September 18. A chance meeting with retired actress Martha Hedman resulted in a photo shoot with Arnold Genthe. One of her photos appeared in the November issue of Vanity Fair. Stiller, at Genthe”s urging, sent the prints to Mayer, who recommended bringing Garbo to Hollywood and increasing her salary by $50.
On September 10, the actress arrived with Stiller in Los Angeles, California, having received no offers of engagement from the studio at the time. She spent her free time walking on the beach in Santa Monica, which, in Paris”s estimation, was “a solitary and picturesque way of waiting, harmonizing with her melancholy.” Despite opposition from MGM executives, Mayer brought Garbo to Hollywood, paying her $400 a week, a large emolument for an unknown actress. He assigned production manager Irving Thalberg to oversee Garbo”s adherence to her diet, to take care of her appearance, and to select her new closet. As part of MGM”s promotional campaign, the actress posed for photographs in front of the University of Southern California athletic team and in the company of Slats, a six-year-old lion with the MGM logo.
Thanks to Lillian Gish (who worked on the set of The Scarlet Letter, dir. Victor Sjöström), Garbo was offered a photo shoot by Hendrik Sartov, which Thalberg approved. The latter cast the actress in the role of singer Leonora Moreno (aka La Brunna) in the drama The Spanish Nightingale (1926, dir. Monta Bell), a screen adaptation of the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. Ricardo Cortez appeared in the main male role – the actress did not like him or the director. Garbo”s personal translator was Swedish actor Sven Hugo Borg, who also served as her bodyguard and confidant. The premiere took place on February 21, 1926 at New York”s Capitol Theatre. The Spanish Nightingale was a success, and Garbo”s performance received favorable reviews from American critics; Laurence Reid of “Motion Picture” described her as “the most important person in the film, combining the qualities of a dozen of our most famous stars,” “Pictures” called her the discovery of the year, comparing her to Pola Negri, and “Variety” praised her acting ability and personality. Garbo remained reserved in her assessment of her own performance.
After appearances in The Spanish Nightingale and The Temptress, the actress began to embody a new type of woman in cinema. MGM executives saw her as the new Eleanor Duse or Sarah Bernhardt, recognizing in Garbo the qualities of a warm seductress, strong and sensitive at the same time. Her reserve in her private life and reluctance to reveal details about herself created a vision of an alienated and mysterious figure.
Garbo”s third film for MGM was based on a short story by Hermann Sudermann, the melodrama Symphony of the Senses (dir. Clarence Brown). The actress initially rejected participation in the production, expressing the belief that Thalberg was trying to perpetuate her image as a femme fatale. The male lead, John Gilbert, also turned down the offer to participate, but was persuaded by Thalberg to do so on the condition that Garbo appear with him. On August 4 Mayer sent a letter to the actress in which he ordered her to come immediately to Thalberg”s office. If she refused, he threatened to break the contract. Garbo ignored the MGM cabinet”s order and did not appear on set until four days later. After the premiere, which took place in New York on January 9, 1927, the film met with an enthusiastic reception; the New York Herald Tribune wrote that “never before has a woman appeared on the screen so alluring, so endowed with a seductive charm far more powerful than her beauty. Greta Garbo is the epitome of beauty, the personification of passion. One Variety reviewer, on the other hand, emphasized that if Garbo is led in the right way and given good scripts, “she will become as valuable an asset as Theda Bara once was to Fox. According to Mark A. Vieira, participating in Symphony of the Senses made Garbo an international star. “The National Board of Review Magazine hailed her as “a symbol of allure and sex.”
Despite her third success in a row, the actress refused to give interviews and avoided the press, although her contract required her to maintain relations with the media. After the premiere, admirers of Garbo”s talent sent 5,000 letters a week to the MGM office, demanding that the actress and Gilbert appear on the big screen together again.
Garbo”s relationship with MGM deteriorated after she turned down the lead role in the melodrama Women Love Diamonds (1927, dir. Edmund Goulding). Mayer, irritated by the actress”s arrogance, threatened her with withholding her salary and deportation. Garbo left and her whereabouts were kept strictly secret, giving rise to much speculation in the press. She was suspended by the studio authorities, and her salary was also withheld. On March 6, 1927 the actress sent a telegram to the legal department of MGM, in which she accused Mayer of victimization of her person, accused studio representatives of unfavorable portrayal of her in the press and of too rigorous work, which involved playing in three films a year, without any breaks. The several-month dispute with MGM ended on June 1, when Garbo signed a new five-year contract.
At the end of June, the actress began working on the set of the melodrama Anna Karenina (directed by Edmund Goulding), which is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoy. For the main male role Thalberg engaged Gilbert. Three scenes featuring the actress and Philippe De Lacy were subjected to far-reaching censorship (including shots of them kissing on the mouth). After the premiere the picture received moderate box-office results and Mordaunt Hall noted in “The New York Times” that “Miss Garbo can lift her head a fraction of an inch and that gesture means more than John Gilbert”s fake smile”.
Taking advantage of a provision in her contract with MGM stipulating her right to choose scripts, directors, and screen partners, Garbo expressed her desire to make a film version of Gladys Buchanan Unger”s play Starlight, which tells the story of French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Garbo independently selected Victor Sjöström to direct and Lars Hanson to play the male lead. According to her, the film was to be “an entirely Swedish production”. The melodrama The Divine Woman (1928) received mixed reviews in the press, and Garbo again avoided pre-release screenings.
The plot of the same year”s spy melodrama The Heat of Love (dir. Fred Niblo) depicted an Austrian intelligence officer (Conrad Nagel) in love with a Russian woman engaged in espionage (Garbo). Garbo refused to let Gilbert partner her in the lead role. Reviews of the film were mixed, with the prevailing opinion being that Garbo and Nagel were not a good fit as a screen duo. Betty Colfax wrote via the New York Graphic: “Miss Garbo poses for close-ups like no other of the Hollywood stars. She overcomes the obstacle of a terrible closet, big feet and wide hips with deft acting that still creates a distinct class for herself.”
At Garbo”s urging, MGM purchased the screen rights to Michael J. Arlen”s 1924 novel The Green Hat. Because of comments made by the office of Will H. Hays, Thalberg changed the title to The Lord of Love and removed references to Arlen and The Green Hat from the credits and publicity materials. The actress chose Gilbert for the lead role, and both were partnered by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The film, directed by Brown, received favorable reviews; Pare Lorentz wrote in “Judge” that ” she met the long, melancholy, and sometimes beautiful scenes with more grace and sincerity than ever before.” “Variety said it was “her best film in a long time. It would have fallen apart, however, without her eloquent acting.” The financial gains of The Lord of Love helped to qualify the actress as one of MGM”s highest-grossing stars of the 1928-1929 box-office season.
In the drama Wild Orchids (directed by Sidney Franklin), Garbo played an American woman for the first time. She was partnered by Lewis Stone and Nils Asther. Some viewers were outraged by a scene in which the 49-year-old Stone kisses and comforts the 23-year-old Garbo. Critics” opinions on the film were divided; most felt that the actress played a character inconsistent with her performance. Garbo finished the year 1929 with appearances in two productions: the melodrama Temptation (dir. John S. Robertson), which despite mixed reviews was a box-office success, and The Kiss (dir. Jacques Feyder), where she was partnered by Conrad Nagel and Lew Ayres. Feyder”s picture, despite the fact that its premiere took place seventeen days after the stock market crash, brought profits of 448 thousand dollars, becoming the third most profitable film in Garbo”s career to date. Screenland wrote: “The charming Swede carries this mediocre story on her gorgeous shoulders and makes The Kiss a film worth watching.
At the end of 1929 Garbo started working on the first sound film in her career (initially MGM wanted her to play Joan of Arc, but problems with acquiring the rights to the film caused this idea to be abandoned) – a drama Anna Christie (directed by Clarence Brown), made in the Pre-Code era. The actress expressed great concern about the new technology – she was convinced that she would share the fate of other stars of the silent era: Clara Bow and Nita Naldi, whose careers collapsed with the introduction of sound technology. Unsure of how her English lines would sound, she asked MGM to make a German-language version of the film in case the Americans did not like the English version. The film, which was (according to Bret) a milestone in MGM history, was advertised with the slogan “Garbo speaks!”.
The actress plays Anna, who, raped by her cousin, is forced into prostitution. Having returned to her father (George F. Marion), she finds temporary peace and meets a sailor Matt (Charles Bickford), with whom she starts to develop feelings. At the official premiere in Hollywood on January 22, 1930, all the crew members showed up, except for the actress. Reviews were moderate, with critics focusing on Garbo”s voice. Richard Watts Jr. admitted via the New York Herald Tribune: “Her voice revealed itself as a low, husky, throaty contralto, possessing fully that poetic charm which has made this aloof Swedish lady an outstanding film actress.” Anna Christie proved to be the highest grossing film of 1930 in the American box-office.
Next, the actress began working on the melodrama Romance (dir. Clarence Brown). Initially, Garbo chose Gary Cooper for the leading male role, but Paramount Pictures studio did not agree to his participation in the production, as a result, Gavin Gordon was engaged. The premiere took place on April 25. The actress received favorable reviews for her role as Italian soprano Rita Cavallini: Mordaunt Hall praised her facial expressions and “graceful movements,” and Norbert Lusk admitted on Picture Play that Garbo”s performance was “pure beauty, an inspiring combination of clear mind and emotion.” For her roles in Anna Christie and Romance, Garbo earned her first Academy Award nomination for Best Leading Actress, losing her competition to Norma Shearer (dir. Robert Z. Leonard).
In mid-October Garbo began working on the set for the film Inspiration (directed by Clarence Brown). On the screen she was partnered by Robert Montgomery, who initially praised her cooperation with the actress, but Garbo did not want to play with him more, due to the constant spoiling of love scenes. The film received mixed reviews from critics, although the actress”s role was viewed favorably. Paris considered Inspiration a “shameless carbon copy” of what should have been called Romance II: “Rarely has the sex appeal been so synthetic, the drama so dull, and the dialogue so wooden,” he argued. After the premiere, Garbo considered moving permanently to Sweden for fear that she might be pushed into Marlene Dietrich”s shadow.
In 1931 the actress was engaged by MGM for a role in the melodrama Susanna Lenox (directed by Robert Z. Leonard). Initially, Garbo wanted to hire Brown to direct, but the filmmaker refused, due to conflicting relations with the actress on the set of Inspiration over script changes. The leading male role was played by Clark Gable, who was skeptical about working with Garbo, fearing that critics would remember him only as a screen partner. Making the film was problematic: a total of twenty-two writers worked on the script, and the actress left the set six times. As with Inspiration, press reviews as to the film were mixed. Garbo also received mixed reviews: Mordaunt Hall criticized her performance, writing that she “came off as the worst possible actor in the film adaptation of David Graham Phillips” novel.” “Variety,” comparing her role in Anna Christie with Susanna Lenox, wrote that ” once again she achieves the effect of acting, provoking audiences and causing them consternation.”
The positive collaboration of the Garbo-Gable duo led to Mayer and Thalberg again wanting to cast the two actors in the romantic comedy The Caprice of the Platinum Blonde (1932, dir. Victor Fleming), but Gable once again refused to agree to put his name second in the credits. The role of Vantina Jefferson, intended for a Swedish woman, was given to Jean Harlow, and Garbo went to work on the spy melodrama Mata Hari (dir. George Fitzmaurice). She was partnered on screen by Ramón Novarro and Lionel Barrymore. The former expressed excitement at the opportunity to work with the actress, agreeing to a reduced fee. In Bret”s opinion, it was “the most kitschy production Garbo had starred in,” and the resemblance to the real story of Mata Hari was negligible. Upon its release, the film was the biggest box office success of the actress” career to date, grossing $879,000. One of the reviewers of the magazine “Screen Book” considered the creation of Mata Hari as the best in Garbo”s career.
In 1930, Thalberg, with an actress in mind, bought the screen rights to the novel The People at Vicki Baum”s Hotel for $13,500. After successful showings of the play on Broadway, he paid an additional $35,000 and bought the full film rights. When Garbo was cast in the role of the forgotten Georgian ballerina, John Barrymore and his brother Lionel, Jean Hersholt, Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford were brought into the project. Under threat of withdrawal from the film, Garbo refused to do joint scenes with Crawford, fearing that the actress would try to overshadow her on-screen role. When Mayer and novelist Vicky Baum showed up on set, Garbo would interrupt her scenes and refuse to continue acting. The melodrama The People in the Hotel (directed by Edmund Goulding) aroused great interest on the day of its premiere, which took place at Grauman”s Chinese Theatre. According to Bret, it was the most important show business event in 1932. According to sources, more than 25,000 people gathered outside the theater to welcome the film crew. When it was announced as a joke – orchestrated by Will Rogers – that Garbo had arrived for the premiere, a riot broke out among the crowd. Hundreds of reporters and photographers made their way to the front of the stage, where it was revealed that Beery was dressed as the actress. The tone of the reviews was favorable; critic John Mosher of The New Yorker admitted that Garbo “dominates the entire film, reducing the other actors to the level of merely competent performers.” Baum also expressed a flattering opinion. Both Mata Hari and The People in the Hotel were MGM”s highest-grossing films of the 1931-1932 season, and Garbo came to be known as “the biggest money-making machine on the screen.
Having seen the play starring Judith Anderson, Garbo expressed her desire to bring it to the screen. Thalberg cast Melvyn Douglas and Owen Moore in the leading roles and, at the actress”s insistence, Rafael Ottiano and Erich von Stroheim (von Stroheim”s employment was in dispute and Garbo threatened to go on strike if he was fired). The actress played Zara, an amnesiac cabaret singer who had lost her memory due to a shock suffered during World War I. Together with an Italian count claiming to be her husband (Douglas), she travels to Florence to regain her memory there. The production of the drama What You Want Me To Be (some of the actors complained about the “convoluted script and screenplay”. According to Bret, “if you leave out Garbo and his , the actors act in an affected way, and their gestures have such a vague connection with the action that the whole thing gives the impression of a poorly edited film from the early silent period”.
On July 8, 1932, Garbo renewed her contract with MGM for two more films, guaranteeing her earnings of $250,000 per film. Under a clause dated February 4, 1933, she was also given a choice of director and male actor. The contract obliged MGM to set up a special production company for her (liquidated on 12 August 1934), thanks to which she could decide on her own work schedule. The backstage negotiations and the signing of the contract were kept in the strictest secrecy. In this way, the studio wanted to build tension before the next film with the participation of the actress and avoid a situation in which other stars would demand similar terms of the contract.
Having signed the contract, the actress took a ferry to Sweden. In her free time, she studied the script for her next film, the biographical historical drama Queen Christina (directed by Rouben Mamoulian), and visited the castles of Tistad and Uppsala, taking notes and sketching interiors. Gilbert was cast for the male lead role, replacing the originally chosen Laurence Olivier. The studio was reluctant to accept Gilbert”s nomination, fearing that his declining career would take its toll financially. The film was advertised in the trailers with the slogan “Garbo is back”. Upon its release, it received favorable reviews, with Swedish critics insisting that Garbo came off as charismatic and convincing in the role of Queen Christina. “The New Yorker wrote that “Queen Christina is the film of the season, and Garbo gave an outstanding performance,” while Photoplay praised the actress for her “stunning return to the screen” and for her “unfathomable mystery.” Despite the enthusiastic reviews, the film caused controversy; some critics objected to the Hays office, seeing a homosexual theme in one of the scenes, and the Legion of Decency unsuccessfully demanded that the actress” name be added to the Hays office”s “book of condemnation”. Queen Christina proved to be a box office success, making it the third highest grossing film (after Mata Hari and The People in the Hotel) in Garbo”s body of work to date. The film”s profits were estimated at $632,000. The title role was – according to Paris – “probably the best and certainly the closest to the heart” of the actress.
Biographers emphasized that after the roles of ladies of the underworld, femme fatale and adulteresses Garbo rose to the heights of artistry with her performance in Queen Christina and became “the undisputed queen of Hollywood”. In 1934 she starred in the melodrama The Painted Veil (dir. Ryszard Boleslawski), where she was partnered on the set by Herbert Marshall and George Brent. Garbo played the role of Katherina Koerber Fane, the unfulfilled wife of Walter Fane (Marshall), who takes her with him to China for a medical-missionary job. The film, based on the novel by William Somerset Maugham, received mixed reviews.
On October 23, 1934, Garbo signed a contract with MGM to appear in one film. Her fee was a record-breaking amount for its time, 275 thousand dollars. At the request of the actress, David O. Selznick acted as producer of the remake of Anna Karenina from 1927. Fredric March, who played the role of Count Vronsky, initially rejected participation in the film, fearing that all the interest of critics and audiences would be focused only on Garbo. In order to discourage his affections (March tried unsuccessfully to start an affair with Garbo), the actress put a piece of garlic in her mouth before each love scene. The rest of the cast was completed by Basil Rathbone, Maureen O”Sullivan and Freddie Bartholomew. Anna Karenina, directed by Clarence Brown, won Best Film at the 3rd Venice IFF, and Garbo was honored with the New York Film Critics Association Award. According to Eileen Creelman of The New York Sun, the role of Anna Karenina allowed the actress to return to “her special land of glamour and ill-fated love.” According to “Photoplay,” the film was “weak and boring,” but Garbo”s genius elevated it to the status of a work of art. The international success of Anna Karenina surprised the studio, but the income from the film (estimated at $ 320,000) was significantly reduced by the exorbitant salary of the actress. When preparations for another production starring Garbo were underway, she turned down the role of the English femme fatale Domini Enfilden (played by Dietrich) in the adventure-romance drama The Garden of Allah (1936, dir. Ryszard Bolesławski).
On May 30, 1935, the actress signed another contract with MGM for two films, guaranteeing her $250,000 for each. She then took a ferry to Sweden, where she was thinking of forming her own production company. Garbo”s next project was the melodrama The Lady of the Camellias (1936, directed by George Cukor), based on the novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas (son). According to Paris, Marguerite Gautier was the only role Garbo wanted to play and she offered it to the studio herself. She was partnered by Robert Taylor in the male lead role. During the production, Garbo was hospitalized several times due to severe menstrual pains, but despite this, she recalled working on the set of The Lady of the Camellias as a most pleasant experience. The New York premiere took place on January 22, 1937. Critics again expressed enthusiastic opinions about the actress”s performance: Howard Barnes wrote via the New York Herald Tribune that “she controls the subtleties of playing the heroine even better than in the past, and the way she modulates her voice has climbed to a new level”. The author emphasized that Garbo has made The Lady of the Camellias her heroine. According to Paris, “The Lady of the Camellias was Garbo”s first, last, and only purely classical role – her most lasting contribution to film history, a character given the chance to express an unparalleled range of emotions.”
The actress won her second consecutive New York Film Critics Association Award and was honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Lead Actress (she lost out to Luise Rainer, who was awarded for her performance in the social drama The Land of the Blessed; directed by Sidney Franklin).
In 1937 Garbo starred in the romantic historical drama Mrs. Walewska (dir. Clarence Brown), playing the title character. For the role of Napoleon Bonaparte, the actress chose Charles Boyer, a native Frenchman, although, according to Paris, the actor was highly dubious about playing Napoleon. When Garbo learned that Paramount had offered Marlene Dietrich the sum of $450,000 for her participation in the film Countess Vladimov (directed by Jacques Feyder), she took advantage of a provision in her contract guaranteeing her an additional $10,000 a week for any delays and re-filming of shots already shot. The protracted production and her absence from the set for nineteen days resulted in Garbo earning $470,000. The plot of the film depicted the fate of a Polish countess (Garbo) who, under pressure and against her will, enters into an affair with Bonaparte (Boyer). Brown”s film (his seventh and final project with the actress), MGM”s most expensive production, was a financial and critical failure, with Louella Parsons saying that Boyer overshadowed Garbo. John Mosher spoke in a similar vein in the pages of The New Yorker: “I think for the first time it is Mrs. Garbo”s partner who brings more life to the film and looks more interesting than she does. Mrs. Walewska grossed $1 million 397,000 in box-office losses. According to Karen Swenson, the film was one of the biggest failures of the decade.
Impressed by Charles Laughton in the biographical film The Lady in the Portrait (1936, dir. Alexander Korda) and Flora Robson in the role of Elizabeth I in the adventure-war film The Island in Flames (1937, dir. William K. Howard), Garbo decided to give up appearing in historical productions and focus on the comedy genre. On May 3, 1938 The Hollywood Reporter published an article titled “Box-office Poison”, in which it compiled a list of the most overpaid film stars who are not attractive to the audience, but still receive large contractual fees. Apart from Garbo, the list also included Edward Arnold, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Kay Francis, Mae West and Marlene Dietrich.
The penultimate production in which Garbo starred was Ninotchka (dir. Ernst Lubitsch), the first comedy in the actress”s output since her arrival in Hollywood in 1925. Due to the pinned patch “box office poison” Mayer reduced Garbo”s salary, paying a one-time fee of 250 thousand dollars. The actress agreed to appear in the film early in the development of the script. Initially, Cary Grant was to partner her in the lead role, but the actor was busy with other film commitments. In his place was engaged Melvyn Douglas, with whom Garbo worked on the set of How You Want Me. The actress often discussed with the director in German during the shooting (in her opinion Lubitsch was too dominant). The filmmaker, on the other hand, was positive about working with Garbo. The plot focused on Russian diplomat Nina Ivanovna “Ninotchka” Yakushova (Garbo), experiencing a love story in Paris. The film”s script, on which Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett collaborated, was intended to mock the Communist regime and Russia, and to debunk the myth of Garbo as a femme fatale. As with Anna Christie in 1930, the picture was advertised on billboards and cinema trailers with the slogan “Garbo laughs”. Lubitsch”s Ninotchka received enthusiastic reviews upon its release and became a box office hit. Critics emphasized Garbo”s comedic sense. Howard Barnes, for whom Ninotchka was “the most charming comedy of the year,” wrote: “For in this merry burlesque about Bolsheviks abroad, the great actress reveals a sense of comedy that fully matches the emotional depth and tragedy of her earlier triumphs.” Frank Nugent compared Garbo”s bravado and her confidence on screen to Buster Keaton. The actress did not share the enthusiasm of the trade press, acknowledging that she could have played the role better.
Ninotchka was nominated in four Academy Award categories, including Best Picture, and Garbo earned a nomination for Best Lead Actress (dir. Victor Fleming) for the last time in her career.
After the Soviet Union”s military aggression against Finland, Garbo made an anonymous donation of $5,000 to the Finnish War Orphans” Relief Fund on December 12, 1939. At the urging of director Zoltan Korda (who served as an agent of the British intelligence service MI6), she agreed to collect information on Axel Wenner-Gren, who was on an American blacklist and suspected of having fascist contacts in the United States. During the first year of World War II, receipts from films featuring the actress declined. The success of Ninotchka caused MGM to rescind its earlier permission for Garbo to leave. The studio originally wanted to cast the actress for the lead role in the noir drama The Face of a Woman (1941, directed by George Cukor), a remake of the 1938 film starring Ingrid Bergman, but Garbo turned down the offer, explaining that she did not want to appear in the role of a woman who harms a child.
The last production in Garbo”s career was the romantic comedy Two-Faced Woman (1941, dir. George Cukor), for which she received a salary of $150,000 and played for the first time without the help of an understudy, performing on her own the scenes of skiing and exotic chica-choca dance. Garbo chose Melvyn Douglas again as her screen partner, due to her positive memories of working together on Ninotchka. The plot of Two-Woman depicted the story of ambitious ski instructor Karin Borg Blake (Garbo), who invents a twin sister, Katherine, to draw her husband Larry Blake (Douglas) away from his mistress (Constance Bennett). Upon its release, the film was condemned by the Legion of Decency, which gave it a C rating. Due to numerous interventions by Catholic organizations, Two-Faced Woman was banned in Massachusetts, Missouri and New York State. The picture was also briefly screened in Australia and New Zealand. Congressman Martin J. Kennedy demanded that the film be banned from national distribution. In turn, one religious association publicly called Garbo a “Swedish hussy.” Under intense public pressure, MGM studio authorities withdrew the film from distribution on December 6. The public criticism was led by Archbishop Francis Spellman, who attacked Garbo and personally went to MGM”s offices to demand a meeting with the studio”s executives and writers. In a conversation with friends, the actress admitted: “they dug my grave”. MGM decided to reshoot some scenes and improve the script, which, according to Paris, led to “the already limp story becoming even less logical and funny.”
The revised version of Two-Faced Woman premiered on December 31, 1941, with the “PM” reviewer admitting that Two-Faced Woman destroyed Garbo”s symbol and legend: “The plot, in a feverish effort to mask her own emptiness, barrenness and lack of any subtle feelings, turns Garbo into a jester, a comedienne, a monkey on a stick.” Time wrote in a similar vein, calling the film “an absurd choice of role for Greta Garbo.” According to the New York Herald Tribune, The Two-Faced Woman was “one of the less favorably chosen roles of her career.” Despite the unfavorable reviews, the film achieved moderate box office success (the profits were returned in double figures).
According to biographers, Garbo initially did not intend to give up her acting career (her contract obliged her to appear in one more film). After reading unfavorable reviews of her last production, she decided to take a break until after the war (however, her close friend Mercedes de Acosta claimed that Garbo had decided to end her career permanently). On December 6, 1941, the actress signed a contract with Leland Hayward, who replaced Harry Edington as her agent. In January 1942 Garbo anonymously contributed $10,000 to a fund named after Carole Lombard, who died in a plane crash while on a patriotic mission, and sent a letter of condolence to Clark Gable (husband of the tragically deceased actress). According to Paris, on January 24, the actress appeared alongside Bob Hope and Ronald Colman on a radio show in support of the campaign against polio. According to Bret, there is no evidence to prove that Garbo took part in the said campaign. Various sources have reported that the actress was replaced by an understudy. In 1942 Garbo expressed her desire to play Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria, and the project was to be financed by Selznick, but it never came to fruition.
According to sources, in 1942 the actress was to perform alongside Henry Hall at the Catterick Garrison military training facility for the British Army, but Paris questioned any activity by Garbo in war bond campaigns or in performances for soldiers, explaining it by her great fear of public activity. The actress expressed interest in a role in an English-language version of The Girl from Leningrad, about a Soviet resistance fighter during the Winter War. Initially, Garbo signed the contract and received $70,000 from MGM (she was to receive an additional $80,000 after the shooting was completed), but she decided to withdraw from the project, and ordered the studio to donate the first part of her salary to a war bond fund. The Girl from Leningrad never made it past the script stage.
During her stay in New York, at the instigation of Barbara Barondess, the actress became interested in collecting paintings and antiques. At the end of September 1946, Selznick offered her a part in a crime drama with elements of noir cinema, The Act of Accusation (1947, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). According to Bret Garbo, she seriously considered accepting the offer, but eventually withdrew from the project (Alida Valli was engaged). Another role she turned down was a leading role in the drama I Remember Mama (1948, directed by George Stevens), which was given to Irene Dunne. Other proposals in the pipeline for Garbo included the role of George Sand and the dual role of Penelope and Kirke in a new version of Homer”s Odyssey, which Pabst was to direct. According to Salka Viertel, a longtime close friend of the actress, Garbo, although she expressed a desire to return to the big screen, was afraid. “Work is a habit, and she had lost it,” Viertel recalled. When she learned that Hayward was slandering her to her employees, she entrusted the role of agent to George Schlee.
In the first half of 1947, the actress went to London, where, accompanied by English Prime Minister Clement Attlee, she had lunch and then a meeting with Winston Churchill. According to biographers, it concerned reports of Garbo”s collaboration with MI6 (the minutes of the meeting are kept in the vault of the Imperial War Museum). At the end of the war, Gabriel Pascal invited her to play George Bernard Shaw in Saint Joan, but the financial flop of Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) caused the project to be abandoned.
The 1950s and 1960s.
Tennessee Williams unsuccessfully persuaded the actress to accept the role of Blanche in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, dir. Elia Kazan) and in the play The Pink Bedroom. Zoltan Korda offered her a part in the film version of The Two-Headed Eagle (the project never came to fruition) and in the play Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, but the actress did not accept the proposal due to her panicky fear of public appearances (according to Paris, the play was Chekhov”s 1903 drama The Cherry Orchard, but the actress rejected the role of Ranevskaya, believing that such a performance could degrade her). Billy Wilder wanted to make a film based on the character of The Stranger from the Seine, but Garbo rejected this offer as well. The actress expressed a desire to play Colombine in The Cobblers, but the idea was abandoned due to lack of interest. Other offers rejected by Garbo (or not realized) included: The Lost Moment and The Duchesse de Langeais by Honoré de Balzac, where she was to be partnered by James Mason (on May 5 and 25, 1949, the actress underwent test shooting by cinematographers James Wong Howe and William H. Daniels, which was found in 1990). Increasing conflicts between the producer of the planned film, Walter Wanger, and the rest of the crew, as well as trouble with investors, caused production of The Duchesse de Langeais to be abandoned. S.N. Behrman considered engaging Garbo for the historical drama Quo Vadis (1951, directed by Mervyn LeRoy). Selznick”s attempts to secure the actress for Lady Chatterley”s Lover and the roles of Eleanor Duse and Sarah Bernhardt were also unsuccessful.
On February 9, 1951, Garbo received her American citizenship at the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York City. On this occasion, she exceptionally agreed to be photographed while signing the document, covering her face with a veil. In the 1950s, she turned down offers to appear on two television shows – This is Show Business on CBS and The Kate Smith Evening Hour on NBC. She was offered an honorarium of $45,000 for her participation in them.
In 1952 she agreed to participate in the thriller with elements of romance My Cousin Rachel (dir. Henry Koster), but changed her mind the next day. She also turned down the opportunity to appear for seven minutes in the CBS educational series Omnibus, for which she was offered $50,000. Orson Welles wrote a script for Garbo”s Love d”Annunzia with Charlie Chaplin as her partner, but they both turned it down. Ida Lupino and Collier Young wanted to make a drama The House of the Seven Garbo, but the actress did not respond to the letter sent to her. She also turned down Stanley Kramer to appear in the noir drama he was directing, At Any Price (1955), producer Darryl F. Zanuck to appear in the film Anastasia (1956, directed by Anatole Litvak), and to play Catherine the Great in a television film, despite the proposed fee of $100,000. Many friends were of the opinion that the actress was “idle in the best years of her life.” Roddy McDowall claimed that she could not bear the failure and humiliation she suffered after the premiere of Two-Faced Woman in 1941.
In the spring of 1955, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented the actress with an Academy Award for lifetime achievement. Nancy Kelly accepted the statuette on Garbo”s behalf. In 1960 Jean Cocteau offered her a part in one of the scenes of The Testament of Orpheus, but Garbo was not interested. On October 21, 1963, at the invitation of first lady Jackie Kennedy, Garbo visited the White House (she had previously declined three times). Since then she remained on friendly terms with the first lady. After Kennedy”s assassination, she sent her widow a letter of condolence. The same year she received an offer from Ingmar Bergman to appear in the film Silence. In 1964 she turned down an offer to participate in the comedy The Trouble with Angels (1966, directed by Ida Lupino). Garbo, whose fortune in 1964 was estimated at $15 million, invested in a collection of paintings and antiques. She also drew a profit of $20,000 a month from the rental of real estate.
Last years, death and funeral
In March 1971, the actress traveled to Rome, where she had a meeting with director Luchino Visconti, who offered her the episodic role of Queen of Naples in the French-Italian film adaptation of the novel In Search of Lost Time. “Time” described this as heralding the biggest comeback since the announcement of General Douglas MacArthur. Due to the high financial cost, production of the film was abandoned. Garbo spent most of her free time walking around, looking at store windows and visiting galleries. In 1974 producer William Frye offered her a part in the disaster film Airport 1975 (directed by Jack Smight). After a few days of hesitation Garbo rejected the offer, and her place in the cast was taken by Gloria Swanson. In the same year, the actress was filmed during one of her walks (without her knowledge) by cameraman Jack Deveau, and the images were used in the gay pornographic film Adam & Yves (dir. Peter de Rome).
In July 1975 Garbo visited Sweden for the last time, where she met with friends and attended a recital by Birgit Nilsson. The actress was photographed against her will, which led to her receiving offers to appear in films again, but she turned them all down. According to Parisa Garbo, who had come to her homeland at the invitation of Charles Jan Bernadotte and his wife Kerstin Wijkmark, she was photographed by the countess and her photos appeared in the Ladies” Home Journal in April 1976. Annoyed, the actress never returned to Sweden, feeling exploited by the royal family.
In January 1984, she successfully underwent a partial mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. In March 1987, after tripping over a vacuum cleaner, she sprained her ankle and had to limit her walking. Since then she has walked with a cane. In April 1988 King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden and Queen Silvia met Garbo during an official visit to New York City to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the founding of New Sweden (a Swedish colony in Delaware). The meeting took place in the actress”s apartment, without the presence of members of the press. In August, Garbo suffered a mild heart attack while in Switzerland. On January 5, 1989, she was admitted to a ward at New York Hospital because of severe pain. Doctors diagnosed kidney failure, but the actress refused treatment and returned to her home, where a private nurse visited her regularly for several months. When her health deteriorated (she developed diverticulitis), she went to The Rogosin Institute three times a week for dialysis. On April 11, 1990, Garbo was readmitted to New York Hospital, where she was placed in a private room. She died on April 15, Easter Sunday, at eleven thirty in the morning as a result of pneumonia.
The actress” corpse, in accordance with her wishes, was cremated and placed in storage. On April 17, a private memorial service was held at Campbell”s Funeral Home with relatives and friends in attendance. After her death, The New York Times called Garbo “the greatest screen performer of the roles of suffering women.” The actress bequeathed her entire estate (estimated at over $32 million) to her niece Gray Reisfield and her family. In 1999 (after several years of legal battles) Garbo”s ashes were buried in Skogskyrkogården forest cemetery in Stockholm.
From an early age, the actress manifested an aversion to violence and quarrels. This was influenced by a childhood incident, when her father got into a fight with a man under the influence of alcohol. After his death, Garbo became possessive, panicking about losing her mother and older sister. On more than one occasion, she distracted and pulled her mother away when she was talking to neighbors on the street. According to biographers, she was closed off from childhood and found it difficult to make friends, especially during her time as a student at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (1922-1924). Her lack of education caused complexes and shyness. Her intense anxiety meant that she often had to be accompanied on walks by a friend. According to Paris, growing up Garbo was emotionally alienated and remained so until the end of her life, although at the time of her relationship with Gilbert, according to her friends, the actress was open, sociable and often went to parties. In the early 1930s, as journalists became increasingly interested in her private life, she began to cut herself off from public life. She paid her servants, two maids and a chauffeur, extra to keep them from talking to the press about her. She was in the habit of referring to herself in the masculine gender, which, according to Paris, was on a par with her sense of humor and sexual allusions.
As her film career progressed, Garbo began to avoid the press, refusing to give interviews – as she argued: “I don”t like to see my soul lying naked on paper”. (from 1924 to 1938 she gave barely eleven of them), she disappeared from sets and locked herself in rooms. She rejected all invitations to banquets, premieres and other celebrations. She never opened fan mail (in the 1930s she received 15,000 letters a week). She gave her only autograph to a 10-year-old girl, who handed her an album with photos and press clippings (her reluctance to give autographs was explained by the fact that the actress did not like her handwriting). She often used pseudonyms (“Alice Smith”, “Harriet Brown”, “Karin Lund”, “Mary Homquist”, “Mary Jones”) and camouflage disguises to remain anonymous. She was in the habit of interrupting the shooting when someone peeped at her playing on the set. Unlike other movie stars of the time, Garbo was known for her frugal lifestyle. She hardly ever spent money on clothes and jewelry. She also never received guests in her homes (she herself often showed up uninvited and unannounced at her friends” houses). She owned one car – a used black Packard.
After retiring from film, Garbo led a solitary yet active lifestyle. She required her friends to call her Harriet Brown. She traveled extensively and socialized with a circle of friends that included only those outside the acting world, though sources say she maintained social relationships with David Niven and his wife, the Swedish Hjördis Paulina Genberg Tersmeden, as well as Deborah Kerr and Montgomery Clift. She made no public appearances and assiduously avoided the publicity she detested. Her indispensable attributes were a newspaper and a hat with which she covered her face when someone wanted to take a picture of her.
In 1971, the actress admitted in a letter to Viertel that she suffered from very deep depression. According to Paris, it may have been bipolar affective disorder. In a 1933 interview she stated: “Once I am very happy, and immediately afterwards nothing remains of me”. While still in her film career, she was diagnosed with psychological problems stemming from severe shyness, an inability to communicate with strangers, and an obsessive fear of crowds. She believed that sadness never left her and would accompany her for the rest of her life. Alastair Forbes described her as “the saddest Scandinavian since Hamlet,” and to Paris she was “the loneliest woman of all time.” Garbo”s colleagues and friends unanimously emphasized her solitary lifestyle. Some of them thought she was “incapable of love” and cited her selfish and suspicious nature, as well as her lack of skill in making friends. Her isolated lifestyle meant that untrue rumors about her life appeared regularly in the press until the late 1980s. Since her film retirement in the early 1940s, the actress had been collecting press mentions and readings about herself. According to Sam Green, she did this – unlike the often litigious Dietrich – out of curiosity and lack of anything else to do.
Garbo was a very good swimmer and was active in the sport from early childhood until she was 80 years old. She also enjoyed playing tennis, showing tenacity and prowess. In the 1940s, she became interested in collecting artwork and antiques. Her collection included canvases by Auguste Renoir, Georges Rouault, Pierre Bonnard and Wassily Kandinsky, among others. She owned a chow chow dog named Flimsy, two cats, Big Pint and Half Pint, and a parrot named Polly.
She never agreed to sign the papers and delivery receipt for fear that the art dealer would sell her autograph to collectors for a large sum. She was obsessively interested in vitamins and concoctions, fearing that she would die young, as did her sister and Mauritz Stiller. Despite this, she never gave up tobacco, smoking up to two packs a day (she switched to nicotine-free cigarettes in the 1970s). She suffered from a mild form of anemia. Her favorite pastime was walking, with which she aroused the interest of photojournalists, the media and New Yorkers. Andy Warhol followed the actress for years, taking pictures of her from hiding.
The actress”s sexual orientation is debated by biographers, who describe her as bisexual or lesbian. According to Paris, most of the romances with men and women attributed to Garbo were rumors (there were hypotheses about her physical relations with her older sister Alva during adolescence). The biographer believes that the subject of sex began with Garbo at the age of 14 at the latest, as evidenced by allusions to lesbian love in letters she wrote to Eva Blomgren.
In 1922 Garbo had an affair with Max Gumpel, a Swedish water polo player. After their relationship ended, they remained friends for the rest of their lives, and the actress kept a ring given to her by Gumpel as a memento. While attending the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Garbo”s romances were lesbian in nature. Her partners included Mimi Pollak, Mona Mårtenson, and Vera Schmiterlöw, of which her deepest bond was with Pollak. During the filming of The Lost Street (1925) in Berlin, the actress had a brief affair with French singer Marianne Oswald. She was also involved with the Swedish translator Sven-Hugo Borg, who acted as her bodyguard and confidant.
On the set of Symphony of the Senses (1926), Garbo hooked up with screen partner John Gilbert, with whom she worked four times during her career. Their affair is considered one of the most famous in the 20th century. Gilbert, in contrast to the actress, had a reputation for being arrogant, explosive, struggling with alcohol addiction and abusive – during one argument drunk Gilbert allegedly aimed a revolver at Garbo. The actress moved into his residence at 1400 Tower Grove Road, which was renovated according to her suggestions. In 1926, when rumors of the couple”s supposed marriage leaked to the press, Garbo began receiving hundreds of letters from fans who expressed their opposition to Gilbert, who had a reputation as a womanizer. There was repeated speculation that the actress was pregnant and would have an abortion or miscarriage (writer S.N. Behrman claimed that Garbo had undergone several abortions, which he said would explain her “fear of sex”). Biographers have questioned the credibility of these suppositions, citing Garbo”s maternal instincts and her desire to have children as evidence. The actress rejected Gilbert”s advances a dozen times while they were together. When the couple separated and Garbo moved out of his house (she did so after the actor married Ina Claire in 1929), the actress” close circle of friends included bisexuals and gay men.
From 1927 to 1930 Garbo had an affair with actress Lilyan Tashman. She was also credited with an intimacy with Prince Siegfried, which allegedly took place during a boat trip from the United States to Sweden in December 1928. During the shooting of Temptation (1929), Garbo had a brief affair with Nils Asther, whose proposal she also rejected. In January 1930 she dated Fifi D”Orsay, but having learned that her partner was talking to the press about their relationship behind her back, she ended their relationship. A year later she met Mercedes de Acosta, with whom she had a sporadic and unstable affair (some biographers believe that their acquaintance was based only on friendship). Both Garbo and de Acosta remained friends for nearly thirty years. During this time, the actress wrote her 181 letters and telegrams (now stored at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia). Having finished work on the set of the film Queen Christina (1933), Garbo went with Robert Mamoulian on a short vacation to Arizona, which they were forced to interrupt due to too much interest from journalists and crowds of admirers. The actress was wrongly credited with having an affair with the director. From August to November 1933 Garbo dated the boxer Max Baer. In the mid-1930s she made the acquaintance of George Brent, with whom she was united by his introverted nature and his love of sports and solitude.
While shooting The Lady of the Camellias (1936), Garbo spent her free time with British conductor Leopold Stokowski. The two toured North Africa, Sweden, and Italy. Although their relationship was platonic, the press actively reported the couple”s marriage, as did the actress”s affair with Gilbert Roland in the first half of the 1940s. Erich Maria Remarque admitted in his diaries to an affair with Garbo in 1941, and Cecil Beaton described relationships with the actress in 1947 and 1948, but in reality, according to Bret, they did not have a physical relationship. In the 1950s and 1960s Garbo maintained a friendly relationship with Greek millionaire Aristotelis Onasis, whose proposal she also rejected. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the actress remained friends with her agent, George Schlee, who was married, which heightened the emerging rumors of their affair. Schlee died of a heart attack in 1964.
In a career that spanned 21 years, Garbo appeared in 29 feature films.
In 1932 she was listed among the top ten highest-grossing American actresses. Eleven films featuring her were compiled in the top ten summaries of the year in the American box-office. Six films in which Garbo took part were nominated for at least one Oscar in each category. Also, six productions featuring the actress, when adjusted for inflation, surpassed the $100 million mark in domestic ticket revenue.
Three of her films: Symphony of the Senses (1926), The People in the Hotel (1932), and Ninotchka (1939) were entered into the National Film Registry.
During her two-year training at the Royal Dramatic Theatre (1922-1924), Garbo paid particular attention in her classes to stage movement, which required the reflection of emotions. The basis for her was the DelsarteDalcroze system, according to which gestures are born of inner instincts, so that they can be analytically and scientifically dissected into individual body parts and their positions. In the silent film era, the actress often used a system of gesture symbolism, in which each movement of the body and head has its own separate meaning. Garbo attached a similar importance to her voice – her voice-over teacher Karl Nygren believed that her voice raised “high hopes” – including to the theory that laughter can have different meanings depending on the dominant vowel.
Beginning with her work on When the Senses Play (1924), the actress fully engaged with the character she was playing, experiencing her emotions and dilemmas. “I need solitude. If someone speaks to me, disturbs those moments, I lose connection with my character,” she argued. Alexander Walker believed that Garbo instinctively got into the role and every part of it before the camera started rolling. She didn”t like it when someone peeked at her acting while she was shooting a scene. Barry Paris had already remarked on Garbo”s ability to play emotions authentically in a film directed by Stiller. “From the very first moment in the film, her strange, captivating yet believable distance from herself and the world is manifest,” he admitted. Garbo”s acting style, begun in early silent productions of the 1920s, was characterized by a restraint that shocked audiences of the time, and according to her biographer, the actress herself was as vulnerable as the character she created in When the Senses Play. This style became characteristic of Garbo as she developed her career in Hollywood.
Despite her aversion to advertising, Garbo, in the estimation of her friends, had “a phobia about her photographs.” From 1926 to 1929, she worked with portraitist Ruth Harriet Louise, who was her favorite photographer. According to Paris, Louise portrayed a girlish actress, the opposite of Arnold Genthe”s “longing woman” photographs of the mid-1920s. Paris noted that in Louise Garbo”s photographs she smiled more often and behaved more alluringly and casually. In 1929 Clarence Sinclair Bull became her private portraitist at MGM. By the end of her career in 1941, Garbo had posed for nearly four thousand portraits for him. According to Paris, it was “the longest and most wonderful collaboration of its kind in Hollywood history”. The actress favored a single type of lighting, with a strong spotlight and little supplementation. Recalling their sessions together, Bull emphasized Garbo”s professionalism and her willingness to cooperate. “She was the easiest of all the actresses to photograph, she didn”t have a bad profile, she could be photographed from all sides (…) always trying to get an unusual camerawork effect and facial expressions that testified to inner feelings and dilemmas.”
Marjorie Rosen, a book author and journalist, believed that Garbo presented both in her films and in her photographs “an autoerotic intimacy, a self-pleasuring.” In her view, the actress”s symbolic relationship with the camera and the audience was that the productions featuring her, while designed to serve others” fantasies, also concealed the pleasure of being observed. Tennessee Williams, on the other hand, judged that Garbo”s femininity was too difficult and unique to be reproduced: “She has an authentic hermaphroditism about her, a cold siren beauty.”
Greta Garbo is considered one of the biggest and most prominent movie stars in cinematic history, a legend and icon of the “Golden Era of Hollywood” period and a sex symbol of the 1920s and 1930s. For most of her career, she was MGM”s highest-earning actress, making her “the most important prestige star.” Critics and audiences, appreciative of her talent, called her “divine.” Bette Davis admitted: “There was real magic in her instinct, her mastery of the machine. I can”t analyze this woman”s game. All I know is that no one else worked so effectively in front of the camera. Journalist and writer Ephraim Katz insisted that “of all the stars who have ever fired the public imagination, none possessed a magnetism and mystique equal to Garbo. “”Divine,” ”the dream princess of eternity,” ”the Sarah Bernhardt of the movies,” are just some of the quotes from authors describing her over the years…She played heroines who were at once sensuous and pure, superficial and profound, suffering and hopeful, world-weary and life-inspiring.” Rex O”Malley, who appeared with the actress in The Lady of the Camellias (1936), recalled that “she does not act, she lives her roles”. According to David Bret, her creations, though varied, reflected a range of moods, emotions and rich facial expressions, often outshining her film partners on screen. “Garbo is a unique, irreplaceable character. No other actress has ever had the chance to surpass her, and no other will. There is such a depth of emotion in her acting that the audience sees right through her soul,” he argued. In the opinion of most historians, Garbo”s acting repeatedly overcame weaknesses in dialogue and plot. Ernest Hemingway presented an imaginary portrait of the actress in his book To the Bell Tolls (1940).
In 1937 Garbo was awarded the Litteris et Artibus medal, one of Sweden”s most prestigious honors. It was awarded to her by King Gustav V. The actress refused to attend the ceremony in public, so the medal was sent by mail. Garbo”s character appears, among others, in the cartoon Hollywood Steps Out (1941, dir. Tex Avery). Constructivist Joseph Cornell organized the exhibition Portraits of the Twentieth Century at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan in 1942, where he included a showcase dedicated to Garbo. Billy Wilder paid tribute to the actress in the noir drama he directed, Sunset Boulevard (1950). Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson) mentions Garbo in one scene as one of cinema”s greatest actresses. In 1950, a poll conducted by “Variety” named Garbo the best actress of the half-century.
On February 8, 1960, in recognition of her contributions to the film industry, Garbo received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6901 Hollywood Boulevard. In 1963, a five-week film festival featuring the actress was held at London”s Empire Theatre, which broke box office records. That same year, the Italian state television station aired five productions with Garbo for several weeks, including Anna Karenina (1935) and The Lady of the Camellias, which garnered an audience of ten million, causing Italian cinemas to suffer a drastic financial decline. In 1965, the off-Broadway play The Private Potato Patch of Greta Garbo premiered, directed by J. Roy Sullivan. Three years later, the Museum of Modern Art hosted a retrospective film festival featuring the actress, including her early productions for the PUB from the first half of the 1920s. In the 1980s, Garbo made it into the Guinness Book of Records as “the most beautiful woman who ever lived.” On November 2, 1983, King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden bestowed upon the actress one of the most prestigious titles of Commander of the Royal Order of the Polar Star. The presentation of the order took place in New York by Wilhelm Wachtmeister, Ambassador of Sweden to the United States. In 1984 Sidney Lumet made the comedy-drama Garbo Says, in which he presented the story of a woman (Anne Bancroft) suffering from cancer, who wanted to meet the actress before she died. In 1987, People magazine named Garbo and Cary Grant “the biggest movie stars”.
Autographs, photographs and letters of Garbo after her death gained at auctions sums in the range of 25 thousand dollars (1991). Many cities have restaurants named after her – including Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Stockholm, Tokyo, Westbury, and Long Island. In Sweden, chocolate named after her and bearing her signature was produced. In Stockholm, one of the cinemas there was named Garbioscope. In 1996, Entertainment Weekly listed the actress as number 25 on its “100 Greatest Movie Stars of All Time” list. Three years later, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranked Garbo as the 5th “greatest actress of all time” (The 50 Greatest American Screen Legends).
The PUB department store in Stockholm is one of the main places visited by Garbo fans. In the window of the hat department to this day are photographs of the actress with reproductions of documentation related to her work there, including her termination notice, bearing her own signature. In September 2005, in celebration of the actress”s centennial, the United States and Swedish postal services jointly issued a postage stamp featuring Garbo. In 2009, playwright Frank McGuinness wrote the hit play Greta Garbo Comes to Donegal, which premiered in January 2010 at London”s Tricycle Theatre. It starred Caroline Lagerfelt in the title role. The story was based on Garbo”s visit to Glenveagh Castle in Donegal in 1975. On 6 April 2011 the Swedish National Bank announced the introduction of a 100 kronor banknote with Garbo”s image from 2014-2015.
Greta Garbo was the subject of several documentaries depicting her person and career: Garbo (1969, hosted by Joan Crawford), The Divine Garbo (1990, directed by Susan F. Walker, screened shortly after the actress” death, hosted and narrated by Glenn Close), Garbo and Gilbert (1997, directed by Jonathan Martin, narrated by Robert Powell), Greta Garbo: A Lone Star (2001, directed by Steve Cole, narrated by Melvyn Bragg and Lauren Bacall), and produced by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) to celebrate the centennial of the actress Garbo”s birth (2005, directed by Kevin Brownlow, narrated by Julie Christie).
The Polish writer Antoni Gronowicz claimed to have met Greta Garbo while visiting Ignacy Jan Paderewski in Switzerland in 1938, Anne Strakacz Appleton, daughter of Paderewski”s personal secretary, denied knowing the three of them, and Gray Reisfield, the actress”s niece, claimed that her aunt had never been to Poland, making it quite unusual for her to attribute socialist-political statements to her.
Gronowicz, the author of, among other things, a biography of Paderewski which, in the opinion of biographers, contained “nothing but garbage”, repeatedly attributed fictional meetings with Garbo to himself. In the 1950s and 1960s there were press reports suggesting that the actress had paid him to write a play for her and expressed her willingness to make a film version of the story of Ignacy Neufeld, who committed suicide because of Helena Modrzejewska. In 1971 Gronowicz wrote a novel entitled An Orange Full of Words, which he claimed Garbo had written the foreword to. In 1976 Simon & Schuster publishing house was to publish a controversial biography of the Polish writer – Garbo: Her Story. The actress, who had never reacted to any publications about her or allegedly written by her, issued a short statement on November 7, 1978 through a lawyer hired for this purpose, Lillian Poses, denying any acquaintance with Gronowicz and expressing disapproval of the planned project. As a result of Garbo”s protest, Simon & Schuster withdrew its publication plans for some time. The biography was published in an edition of 150,000 copies forty-five days after the actress”s death. The information contained in it was disputed by all the living people mentioned in it. Garbo”s heirs took legal action to stop the publication, but eventually struck a deal with the publisher, who argued that the book used the literary device of a first-person narrative. The statement stressed that the publication was not authorized by either the actress herself or her heirs.
Biographer Barry Paris conducted a thorough analysis of the book by Gronovich, proving numerous anachronisms, factual errors, misrepresentations and fabrications. The author called the publication a “mystification”. In his biography of Garbo, written in 1994, he included a list of the most serious errors that, in his opinion, Gronovich”s book contained.
During her 21-year career, Greta Garbo was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Leading Actress. In 1935 and 1937 she was a two-time winner of the New York Film Critics Association (NYFCC) award for her performances in Anna Karenina (1935) and The Lady of the Camellias (1936). In the spring of 1955, at the 27th Academy Awards ceremony at the Pantages Theatre, Garbo received the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). She declined to attend the ceremony and to record a short video thanking her. The statuette was received by Nancy Kelly, who then gave it to Minna Wallis, sister of producer Hal B. Wallis, for safekeeping. The actress claimed the award two years later.
In 1934 Garbo received the Golden Medal Award from Picturegoer magazine for her performance in Queen Christina (1933). She was also a three-time winner of the National Board of Review”s Best Acting award (1941). In 1937, she received the Filmjournalen Cup for “most outstanding film actress.” In 1957, Garbo was honored with the George Eastman Award for her “outstanding contribution to the art of film”.