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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Greta Garbo

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“Life would be so wonderful if we only knew what to do with it.” – Greta Garbo

“Garbo still 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

1920's Greta Garbo 5x7 Fan Photo

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 era.

But 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 1930's Greta Garbo A. Batschari Mercedes Tobacco CardUnited 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 and appeal.

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.

Work-wise, things couldn’t be better. She was a huge star, and this was after only a few films made in Hollywood, including The 1931 Greta Garbo & Lionel Barrymore Still PhotoDivine 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 1936 R95 Greta Garbo 8x10 Linen Premiumproliferated 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!”

After 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 The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Greta Garbo Pages:

A Centennial Tribute to Greta Garbo -- Probably no other star in the history of Hollywood has been wrapped in so much mystery as Greta Garbo.
Denny Jackson's Greta Garbo Page -- The Actress with Beauty, Charisma, Glamour,-- and Very Mysterious!