The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
“Life would be so wonderful if we only knew what to do with it.” – Greta Garbo
belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged
audiences into the deepest ecstasy…where the flesh gives rise to mystical
feelings of perdition.” – Roland Barthes
The tagline of
Greta Garbo’s first sound film, 1930’s Anna Christie, was “Garbo Talks!”
That was the year the world was first introduced to the sounds as well as the
sights of one of the most iconic film stars of all time, and heard the svelte,
raspy, Swedish-inflected voice that would contribute to her indelible persona in
films like Queen Christina, Ninotchka, Mata Hari, and
Anna Karenina. But this was the sound era; more forgotten is the career
Greta Garbo had before the dawning of sound, when she graced – maybe not as
famously but certainly as memorably – the silent screen.
Greta was born
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 19, 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden. She was the
baby in the family, arriving third after Alva and Sven to parents Karl Alfred
Gustafsson and Anna Lovisa Johansson. They were by all appearances a typical and
traditional family, with Mr. and Mrs. Gustafsson raising their children in the
Lutheran faith. Greta, maybe because she was the baby, quickly became Daddy’s
little girl, so that when he passed away – Greta was only 14 – she was
devastated. She and her mother didn’t get along that well, and the decision was
made that Greta would leave school and begin working.
This is the point
in the mythical film starlet’s biography that she turns to the stage to begin
her acting and performing career, but Greta’s beginnings were far less
glamorous. She began work as a lather girl in a barbershop, and held this job
for awhile before she became a clerk in a department store. It was there that
her beauty (if not talent) was discovered, and she simultaneously began doing
modeling work for advertisements in newspapers; it was her work as a model that
brought her to the attention of movie executives. While doing ads for her
department store, she was given the opportunity do a short film, which was seen
by Swedish comedy filmmaker Eric Petcher, who gave her a small role in Peter
the Tramp. This was 1922, a little later than most silent film stars entered
the business. But Greta would have a good few years to test her mettle in the
motion picture business, to say nothing of her illustrious career in the sound
first she needed some training, so between 1922 and 1924, she attended the Royal
Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, where she learned more than a few acting
techniques and also met then burgeoning if ill-fated Swedish director Mauritz
Stiller, who saw something special in her – particularly a certain magnetism –
and trained her to become an actress specifically for the motion pictures. As we
know, it takes a very different style – less gestured, more nuanced – to act for
the screen, and Greta was more than adept.
Mauritz cast Greta
shortly thereafter in her first big role, in 1924’s Gosta Berling’s Saga,
co-starring with Lars Hanson. It was also Mr. Stiller who decided to change
Greta’s name to the more catchy and glamorous Greta Garbo. This wasn’t a
tradition exclusive to the
United States, evidently, and this was the name that
would stick as she ascended to stardom, first in her native country, and then in
Hollywood. Now that she had proved herself a competent actress, she was given
the chance to star in another Gosta Berling film, and another film in Germany,
1925’s Die Freudlose Gasse (The Street of Sorrow, or Viennese
Love). Greta was quickly becoming an actress of international inclination
In 1925, as
Hollywood was beginning to search other countries for talent, Mauritz Stiller
was hired to work as a director for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, then a rapidly growing
powerhouse studio. He was adamant that they also hire Greta on contract, and as
MGM was still looking for a wide array of startlet-actresses, they decided to
give her a shot. And this is how Greta came to Hollywood.
Things didn’t turn
out so well for Mauritz. Greta was rapidly gaining attention and her fame was
growing, which put a strain on her relationship with Mauritz. He wasn’t faring
nearly as well, and was actually fired by MGM. He went back to Sweden in 1928,
and died on November 18 of that year.
But for Greta, her
career and new life were just beginning. This was the tail end of the silent era
(though no one could really know this for sure at the time), and the star system
was just becoming entrenched. Greta became a key contract for MGM, and she
starred in some classic silent films, from The Torrent (1926) to Flesh
and the Devil and Love (both 1927). She starred in these last two
opposite John Gilbert, and their relationship off-screen only helped their
movies succeed. They got engaged and were all over the press; the press were
also there when she left him at the altar and abruptly ended their relationship.
Her love life,
long a matter of debate and controversy, remains somewhat obscured.
There were rumours that she was a lesbian, and that she might have had affairs
with silent siren Louise Brooks (the highly
modernist flapper personality onscreen) as well as writer/socialite Mercedes de
Acosta. She was also, for a time, linked to Cecil Beaton, and was even engaged
to him for awhile – a British photographer, he was widely considered to be gay.
couldn’t be better. She was a huge star, and this was after only a few films
made in Hollywood, including The Divine
Woman, The Mysterious Lady
and A Woman of Affairs (all 1928), and Wild Orchids, The Single
Standard and The Kiss (all 1929).
And then came the
talkies. While other careers faltered and waned because the actors’ voices were
simply not meant to be heard, it was ironically a foreigner – replete with a
thick accent – whose career thrive in the sound era as she played exotic queens
and mysterious spies and the like. This was the era of sensual glamour and all
things over-the-top, and Greta was tailor made for this luxurious period in
movie history. It all started with her gorgeous face, haunting and captivating
eyes, and tall lithe frame, and ended in one of the best movie careers in
cinematic. She worked with some of the most talented actors and directors in the
business (from Laurence Olivier to Ernst Lubitsch), starred in award-winning
films (1932’s Grand Hotel won the Best Picture Oscar®). She was feisty,
headstrong, and always knew how to look after her own best interests. When she
famously uttered the line “I want to be alone,” in Grand Hotel, more than
a few thought this spoke volumes about her off-screen persona as well. The
mystique surrounding this amazing woman was seemingly never-ending.
This was possibly
because she avoided the press at all costs. At the beginning of her Hollywood
career, she was forced to play the gracious star, and granted interviews and
signed autographs and the like. Soon thereafter, however, this stopped entirely.
Greta Garbo became a star to adore and worship on the big screen only. She
didn’t even attend her own premieres, and rumors
proliferated about why she was
so reclusive – rumors we don’t need to get into here. But judging by her
performances (some deemed Camille to be her best, and Ninotchka is
certainly a classic most widely seen today), it was easy to see why she would be
considered depressive; her roles were always so serious, that when she finally
made a film with a less intense, aristocratic character (Ninotchka) the
tagline accompanying the film was “Garbo laughs!”
her 1941 film, Two-Faced Woman, failed, Greta retired from the business.
She was long-tired of her chosen profession, and evidently felt that the world
had changed post WWII, to an extent that she no longer wanted to pursue the
vocation that had done her well.
By 1954, Greta had
become a citizen of the United States, and won a special Oscar for her
astonishing career – though one suspects her iconic status was more than
partially responsible for this award. She purchased a large apartment in New
York, and lived there until her death, almost in complete seclusion, at age 84,
on April 15, 1990. It is said that she always thought she had done good work,
and that she believed her films would only gain in value with time. She was
right. Many of her vast collection of films, both silent and sound, remain today
to be seen and admired, several in glorious digitally-restored versions. Greta
was more than a face to remember, and a career to behold in awe, but a persona –
of a woman ahead of her time, almost out of this world – to remind us why the
movies and the stars who inhabit them hold so much mystique for us.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of
Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Tammy invites you to write her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments on her column.
Other Greta Garbo Pages:
Tribute to Greta Garbo -- Probably no other star in the history of
Hollywood has been wrapped in so much mystery as Greta Garbo.
Jackson's Greta Garbo Page -- The
Actress with Beauty, Charisma, Glamour,-- and Very Mysterious!