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Greta Garbo: The Star Who Upheld Her Image as Hollywood’s Most Mysterious Figure for Six Decades

Greta Garbo Mata Hari
Courtesy Everett Collection

On Nov. 27, 1929, three years after Greta Garbo’s American film debut, Variety described her as “the most mysterious of Hollywood stars.” More than 50 years later, in 1981, a Variety story began “Given that Greta Garbo still remains the most elusive, mysterious and speculated about film personality on the planet…”

It’s rare for any star to maintain public interest for so long. And it’s especially notable that she maintained interest, even decades after her final film, by trying to avoid attention.

In a career of only 15 years, Garbo gave fans her acting talent but nothing of herself — no details of her life, never addressing rumors or speculation. In a brief 1929 item, Variety said “Practically nothing has ever been known personally about Miss Garbo, she  being a publicity-shunner and the toughest of all stars to interview.” In her heyday, she had as much impact on fashion and daydreams as Lady Gaga and Beyonce, but she was their polar opposite: She never courted publicity. And her aloof attitude made her even more fascinating.

Garbo films are rarely revived in the 21st century, because they are period pieces that seem clunky and melodramatic to the modern eye; their principal attraction is Garbo’s beauty and screen presence.

In the early days of Hollywood, most actors came from the stage, so they “acted” in a big style. Garbo had an instinct for performing on camera, and could express emotions with her eyes, or a slight shift of her face. There was something other-worldly about her.

Born in Sweden on Sept. 18, 1905, as Greta Gustafsson, she worked as a “lather girl in a Swedish barber shop,” according to an early Variety, and she was studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre Acting School when discovered in 1924 by director Mauritz Stiller. He cast her in the film “The Saga of Gosta Berling” and guided her career for the next two years; she appeared in three European movies before Hollywood took over.

Louis B. Mayer of MGM expressed interest in 1925 and her Hollywood career was put into motion by the studio’s “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg. He got her to learn English, lose weight, straighten her hair and get her teeth fixed. And that is how a star was born.

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Variety

Thalberg also created her onscreen image of a world-weary, sophisticated woman, though she was only 21 when she made her first three Hollywood films, all released in 1926: “Torrent,” “The Temptress” and “Flesh and the Devil.” The latter paired her for the first time with John Gilbert, who starred opposite her in several more films, including “Love” (a silent adaptation of “Anna Karenina”) and “A Woman of Affairs.” She made 11 silents for MGM, ending with “The Kiss” (1929), before moving into talkies.

On Dec. 25, 1929, Variety wrote Metro-Goldwyn was “reluctant at first to give a talker to Greta Garbo on account of her accent, but is now sold on her work in ‘Anna Christie.’” The studio filmed two versions of the Eugene O’Neill adaptation, in English and in German, with Garbo starring in both. MGM’s selling point was clear, with the slogan “Garbo talks!”

Her stardom was cemented when she starred in America’s biggest box-office hits in two consecutive years, “Mata Hari” (1931) and “Grand Hotel” (1932).

 

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Variety
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Variety

In 1990, London Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker wrote a book, “Garbo,” after he gained access to her contracts and memos at MGM. Chief revelation was that in 1933, after 17 films at the studio, she got an unprecedented deal to start her own company, Canyon Prods. She received $250,000 per picture (after starting seven years earlier at the studio with $400 a week), making her MGM’s highest paid star by far. She also got approval of directors, scripts, costars and shooting schedules.

The Variety review of Walker’s book referred to “the studio’s unvarying devotion to its star,” adding that her films weren’t always as popular as one imagined, “but MGM jealously held onto her for the prestige she lent the company.”

As America sank deeper into the Depression, her lofty period dramas were less successful in the U.S., but the films were socko overseas. On April 8, 1939, Variety published dozens of Hollywood salaries from 1937, based on the U.S. Treasury Dept.’s report to Congress. Garbo scored $472,602, the equivalent of about $8.5 million today. (By comparison, Marlene Dietrich at Paramount was at $370,000.)

Garbo’s final film was “Two-Faced Woman” (1941), directed by Cukor and co-starring Melvyn Douglas. In its review Variety shrugged “MGM presents the one-time queen of mystery in a wild and occasionally risque slapstick farce.” The review concluded the experiment was “not entirely successful,” blaming the script. Conventional wisdom says the film’s failure led to her exit from Hollywood, but there were more factors, including her shrinking audience — even her overseas following dwindled thanks to the war — and her exasperation with Hollywood.

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Variety

Rumors of a comeback never materialized. She was working on a Balzac adaptation with Max Ophuls in 1949, but it didn’t happen. Billy Wilder approached her for “Sunset Blvd.” but she wasn’t interested.

She was given an Honorary Oscar in 1955 “for her unforgettable performances,” after four nominations.

Even in her seclusion, fans remained faithful. As early as 1930, Variety mentioned “Garbo maniacs.” After her retirement, some people in Manhattan — including photographers — participated in “Garbo-watching,” hoping to spot her as she took long walks, in casual clothes and with large sunglasses. One woman told Variety she had followed Garbo for an hour. “I didn’t need to talk with her; it was enough just to be in her presence, to breathe the same air.”

Ironically, her private walks led to her final (unauthorized) screen appearance. The 1974 adult film “Adam and Yves” features establishing shots of Manhattan, where Garbo is glimpsed walking down the street.

Sidney Lumet directed the 1984 comedy-drama “Garbo Talks,” about a dying fan who wants to meet her, starring Anne Bancroft and Carrie Fisher.

Garbo died April 15, 1990, at age 84. She never married, had no children, and lived alone.

Though she was engaged to Gilbert, they didn’t marry; long after her retirement, there were rumors of affairs with various men and women (including designer-photographer Cecil Beaton, conductor Leopold Stokowski, and friends Mercedes de Acosta and Salka Viertel). What’s the truth? Nobody really knows.

In death, Garbo remained as she was in life: Mysterious.