Saturday, January 22, 2011

Greta Garbo

Greta Lovisa Gustafsson (18 September 1905 – 15 April 1990), later known as Greta Garbo, was a Swedish actress primarily known for her work in the United States during Hollywood's silent film period and part of its subsequent Golden Age. Born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, she moved to Los Angeles, California in 1925 to develop her film career. She appeared in only 27 movies, yet she remains one of the most popular and recognizable Hollywood stars. The MGM marketing ploy "Garbo talks" became a catch-phrase of the 1930s. Her popularity with the Depression-era audiences allowed her to dictate the terms of her contract in 1932, and she became increasingly choosy about her roles. After 1941, she accepted no more roles, and retired to an apartment in New York City.
Regarded as one of the greatest and most inscrutable movie stars ever produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Hollywood studio system, Garbo appeared in both the silent and the talkies era of film-making. She was one of the few silent movie actresses to successfully negotiate the transition to sound, which she achieved in Anna Christie (1930), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. She appeared twice as the fabled Anna Karenina, once in silent film, Love (1927), and again with Anna Karenina (1935), for which she received the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. She considered her 1936 performance as the courtesan Marguerite Gautier as her best performance and her role in Camille (1936) earned her a second Academy Award nomination. During the World War II era, MGM attempted to recast the somber and melancholy Garbo into a comic actress with Ninotchka (1939) and Two-Faced Woman (1941), both of which featured her unusually loud, comical, and singing. For Ninotchka, Garbo was again nominated for an Academy Award; Two-Faced Woman did well at the box office, but was a critical failure. Garbo received a 1954 Honorary Academy Award.
In her retirement, during which she became increasingly reclusive, she lived in New York City. A 1986 Sidney Lumet film, Garbo Talks, reflected the continuing popular obsession with the star. Until the end of her life, Garbo-watching became a sport among the paparazzi and the media, but she remained elusive. She died in 1990 at the age of 84 from pneumonia and renal failure.
In 1999, the AFI ranked Greta Garbo 5th on their list of All Time Female Screen Legends, after the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, and Ingrid Bergman.

1905–1920: Childhood and youth

Garbo was the third and youngest child of Anna Lovisa (née Karlsson) (1872–1944) – a homemaker and later employed at a jam factory – and Karl Alfred Gustafsson (1871–1920), an unskilled worker.Garbo's parents met in Stockholm, where her father made occasional trips from his home in the neighboring but much smaller Frinnaryd to the mainland. He decided he wished to be independent and made the decision to move to the city, eventually worked various odd jobs and married Garbo's mother, who had recently relocated from Högsby. Her siblings were Sven Alfred (1898–1967) and Alva Maria (1903–1926). The family lived at Blekingegatan No. 32 in Södermalm, a working-class district of Stockholm regarded as the city's slum, in a small, cold-water tenement apartment. She would later recall:
It was eternally gray — those long winter's nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room my mother is repairing ragged old clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We are filled with anxiety, as if there is danger in the air. Such evenings are unforgettable for a sensitive girl. Where we lived, all the houses and apartments looked alike, their ugliness matched by everything surrounding us.
As a child, Garbo was daydreaming and shy. She hated school and did not play much, but was interested in theater from an early age and dreamt about becoming an actress In June 1919 she left school, and never returned.}}  and typical for a Swedish working-class girl at that time, did not pursue further education; she would later express an inferiority complex about this fact. Some private letters describe her as narcissistic, possessive, and supposedly ashamed of her father, a latrine cleaner, and suggest that Garbo suffered from periods of depression.
Despite living in near poverty, Garbo maintained her moonstruck attitude toward the stage: she played amateur theatre with her friends and frequented the Mosebacke Theater. Additionally, she later admitted to a childhood crush on Carl Brisson and would cite Naima Wifstrand as a role model.
Alva, Garbo's sister, worked in an insurance office as a stenographer, and Sven, Garbo's brother, eventually married and brought his wife and their only child, a daughter who would later be known as Gray. The family of seven continued to remain in a three-bedroom apartment. The mood at home became further strained when Garbo's father, to whom she was extremely close, began missing work — he had worked odd jobs as street cleaner, grocer, factory worker and a butcher's assistant — and when in winter 1919 the Spanish flu had spread throughout Stockholm and Karl Alfred fell ill and lost his job, Garbo stayed at home looking after her father and brought him to the hospital for weekly treatments. In 1920, when she was 14 years old, her father died.

1920–1924: Early career

Her first job was as a soap-lather girl in a barbershop. One day a young man by the name of Kristian Bergström, son of the founder of PUB department store, Paul U. Bergström, entered the barbershop for a shave. He eventually offered her a job as a clerk at PUB. She accepted the offer and started to work for PUB in July 1920, where she also modeled for newspaper advertisements. She appeared in two short film advertisements, the first for PUB, and they were eventually seen by comedy director Erik Arthur Petschler. He gave her a part in his upcoming film Peter the Tramp (1922).
From 1922 to 1924, Greta Gustafsson studied at The Royal Dramatic Theatre's Acting School in Stockholm. There, she met director Mauritz Stiller who worked as a teacher. He trained her in cinema acting technique, gave her the stage name Greta Garbo, and cast her in a major role in the silent film The Saga of Gosta Berling in 1924, a dramatization of the famous novel by Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf, where she played opposite Swedish film actor Lars Hanson. She followed this appearance with a part in the 1925 German film Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street or The Street of Sorrow) directed by G. W. Pabst and co-starring Asta Nielsen.
She and Stiller were brought to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer by Louis B. Mayer when The Saga of Gosta Berling caught his attention. On viewing the film during a visit to Berlin, Mayer was impressed with Stiller's direction, but was more taken with Garbo's acting and screen presence.[According to Mayer's daughter, Irene Mayer Selznick, with whom he screened the film, he was impressed by the gentleness and expression that emanated from her eyes.

1925–1929: Silent films

Garbo with Ricardo Cortez in Torrent (1926)
Stiller and Garbo arrived in Hollywood in September 1925, and although expecting to work with Stiller on her first film, Garbo within a month was cast for The Torrent, displacing her senior by 10 years, Aileen Pringle, in the role of Leonora opposite Ricardo Cortez under the direction of Monta Bell. The Torrent did well at the box office despite the fact that it was rather coolly received by the trade press, and Garbo received good reviews. The success led Irving Thalberg, who at first had pronounced Garbo as "absolutely unusable" to cast her in a similar vamp role in another Ibáñez adaption, The Temptress, this time getting top billing opposite Antonio Moreno, and now having her mentor Stiller, who persuaded her to take the part, as the director. For Garbo, who didn't like the script any more than she had the first one, and for Stiller, The Temptress was a harrowing experience; Garbo remembered it as a picture associated with doom: on the fourth day of production she received a telegram from Stockholm informing her of the death of her sister Alva at age 23 (MGM did not permit Garbo to return to Sweden for the funeral), and shortly thereafter Stiller, who spoke little English, had difficulties with adapting to the studio system,and did not get on with Moreno, was replaced with Fred Niblo. Reshooting The Temptress was an expensive proposition and even though it became one of the top-grossing films of the 1926–27 season, with nearly $1 million in receipts, it became the only Garbo film of the period to lose money. But Garbo herself got very good reviews, and it gave MGM another star.
During filming of Die freudlose Gasse (1925)
The most well-received of Garbo's silent movies were Flesh and the Devil (1926), Love (1927) and The Mysterious Lady (1928). She starred in the first two with the popular leading man John Gilbert. Garbo played the role of Iris Storm in "The Green Hat," a role made famous by stage actress Katharine Cornell.[54][relevant? ] Having achieved enormous success as a silent movie star, Garbo feared that her Swedish accent might impair her work in sound, and delayed the shift for as long as possible. MGM on their part made a slow changeover to sound, thus her last silent movie, The Kiss (1929), was the last film MGM made without dialogue, although it used a soundtrack with music and sound effects only. There was some speculation that Garbo was bisexual, that she had intimate relationships with women as well as with such men as John Gilbert. She and Gilbert starred together for the first time in the classic Flesh and the Devil (1926). Their on-screen erotic intensity soon translated into an off-camera romance, and by the end of production Garbo had moved in with Gilbert. Gilbert allegedly proposed to her three times before she accepted. When a marriage was finally arranged in 1926, she failed to show up at the ceremony.
Garbo was introduced to stage and screen actress Lilyan Tashman at a tennis party in 1927 and allegedly had an affair with her. The two became inseparable companions who went shopping, swimming, and to Tashman's garden cottage.

1930–1939: Queen of MGM

Garbo is among the actors and actresses who successfully made the transition to talkies; publicized with the slogan "Garbo Talks!" her voice was first heard on screen in Anna Christie (1930), a film adaptation of the 1922 play by Eugene O'Neill. The movie was a huge success. In 1931 Garbo made a German version of the movie. Garbo next appeared as the World War I spy Mata Hari (1931); her leading man screen lover Ramon Novarro. She was subsequently part of an all-star cast in Grand Hotel (1932) in which she played a Russian ballerina.
Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka (1939)
In 1931, Garbo befriended the writer and socialite Mercedes de Acosta, introduced to her by the author Salka Viertel. According to de Acosta, the pair ultimately began a sporadic and volatile romance, punctuated by long periods during which Garbo ignored her and disregarded her many love letters. After about a year, the relationship ended, but they maintained contact. Following de Acosta's claims about her many trysts with Garbo, in her controversial autobiography Here Lies the Heart in 1960, the pair were permanently estranged.
After a contract dispute with MGM, she eventually signed a new contract with the studio in July 1932, which gave her more control over her parts and her private life. Garbo continued to demonstrate great loyalty to John Gilbert and insisted that he appear with her in 1933's Queen Christina (1933), despite the objection of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer; Laurence Olivier had originally been chosen for the role. In 1935, David O. Selznick wanted to cast her as the dying heiress in Dark Victory, but she insisted on doing Tolstoy's Anna Karenina instead. Although Anna Karenina was arguably one of her most famous roles, Garbo regarded her role as the doomed courtesan in George Cukor's Camille (1936), opposite Robert Taylor, as her finest performance.
Garbo was nominated four times for an Academy Award for Best Actress; in 1930 for Anna Christie and for Romance,[67][68] but might have been a victim of MGM's inner politics: she lost out to Irving Thalberg's wife Norma Shearer who won for The Divorcee. In 1937 Garbo was nominated for Camille but lost out to Luise Rainer who won for The Good Earth. Max Breen was among those critics indignant that Greta Garbo's performance in Camille had been overlooked in favor of Rainer. Finally in 1939 Garbo was nominated for Ninotchka but again came away empty-handed: Gone With the Wind swept the major awards, including Best Actress, which went to Vivien Leigh.
The Swedish royal medal, Litteris et Artibus, awarded to people who have made important contributions to culture, especially music, dramatic art or literature, was presented to Garbo in January 1937. She then starred opposite Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka (1939), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Ninotchka attempted to lighten Garbo's somber and melancholy image. The comedy, Garbo's first, was marketed with the tagline, "Garbo laughs!", playing off the tagline for Anna Christie, "Garbo talks!"

1940–1948: Last films and retirement

The follow-up film, George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman (1941), attempted to capitalize on Garbo's restyled war-time image by casting Garbo in a romantic comedy, where she played a double role that featured her dancing, and tried to portray her as an ordinary girl. The film, Garbo's last, was a critical, although not a commercial, failure, and Garbo referred to the ill-fated Two-Faced Woman as "my grave". She was offered many roles over the years after that, and showed serious interest in about half a dozen—but in each case either she eventually turned the role down, or the projects failed.
During the 1940's, Garbo maintained a discreet liaison with Swedish industrialist John Hjelme-Lundberg who traveled on at least three occasions to New York to be with her. After his death, found among Hjelme-Lundberg's possessions was a box of silk scarves, evidently a gift from Garbo. Additionally, Hjelme-Lundberg kept an autographed photo of the actress with an inscription in their native Swedish: "Hjelme, with all my love, G" ("Hjelme, med all min älska, G."). According to the memoir written by dancer, model, and silent film actress Louise Brooks, she and Garbo had a brief liaison. Brooks described Garbo as masculine but a "charming and tender lover". In 1948, Garbo signed a contract for $200,000 with producer Walter Wanger, who had produced Queen Christina in 1933, to shoot a picture based on Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais which Max Ophüls was slated to adapt and direct.Garbo made several screen tests, learned the script and in the summer of 1949 arrived in Rome, where the picture was to be filmed, but the plans for this film collapsed when financing failed to materialize, and in the end the project was abandoned. These screen tests for La Duchesse de Langeais—the last time Garbo stepped in front of a movie camera—were lost for 40 years, before resurfacing in someone's garage. Parts of the screen tests were included in the 2005 TCM documentary Garbo, and show her still radiant at age 43.

Personal life

A veiled Garbo in dark coat and hat writes at a counter.
Garbo filling out U.S. citizenship paperwork in 1950
Except for the very early days of her career, Garbo was reclusive; she seldom signed autographs,rarely attended social functions, answered no fan mail, and she gave few interviews. Her refusal to give interviews gave rise to the press reporter jargon "pulling a Garbo" or "going Garbo" referring to any such actions. In her 1928 Photoplay interview she said:
I have always been moody. When I was just a little child, as early as I can remember, I have wanted to be alone. I detest crowds, don’t like many people. I used to crawl into a corner and sit and think, think things over.
Her last interview was with the entertainment writer Paul Callan of the British newspaper Daily Mail during the Cannes Film Festival.[when?] Meeting at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc, Callan began his line of questioning with, "I wonder..." Garbo cut in with "Why wonder?" and stalked off,[citation needed] making it one of the shortest interviews ever published.
With her mother Anna Gustafsson, she returns to Sweden in December 1939 for the first time since her arrival in Hollywood in 1925.
Garbo gradually withdrew from the entertainment world and moved to a secluded life in New York City, refusing to make any public appearances. She is often associated with her famous line, a line the American Film Institute in 2005 voted the 30th most memorable movie quote of all time, as the Russian ballerina Grusinskaya in Grand Hotel (1932):
I want to be alone (...) I just want to be alone
a theme echoed in several of her other roles, e.g. in The Single Standard (1929) where her character Arden Stuart 'spoke' the line: "I am walking alone because I want to be alone" and in Love (1927) where a title card read "I like to be alone". By the early 1930s the phrase was indelibly linked with Garbo's persona, but Garbo later commented:
I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be let alone.' There is all the difference.
In a surprise interview granted to the press on board the liner Kungsholm in October 1938 in New York after Garbo had returned from her summer vacation in Europe partly spent in Ravello with conductor Leopold Stokowski, she was asked if she had enjoyed her vacation. Sighing huskily, Garbo replied, "You cannot have a vacation without peace and you cannot have peace unless left alone." Garbo neither married nor had children and she lived alone.
In his 1995 book Garbo: a biography Barry Paris relates Garbo's relationships—which were often just close friendships—with actor George Brent, conductor Leopold Stokowski, nutritionist Gayelord Hauser, photographer Cecil Beaton, and her manager George Schlee, husband of designer Valentina.

Final years and death

Gravestone of Greta Garbo
On 9 February 1951, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1953, she bought a seven-room apartment in New York City at 450 East 52nd Street, where she lived for the rest of her life. Although she occasionally jet-setted with some of the world's best known personalities—Aristotle Onassis and Cecil Beaton—she elected to live a private life. She was known for taking long walks through the city's streets dressed casually and wearing large sunglasses, always avoiding prying eyes, the paparazzi, and media attention. Garbo did, however, receive one last flurry of publicity when topless photos, taken with a long-range lens during her vacation in Antigua with her niece, Gray Reisfield, were published in People in 1976.
Despite Garbo's obvious wish for privacy, elements of the public remained obsessed with her, and until her death, Garbo sightings were considered sport for paparazzi. In 1974, pornographic filmmaker Peter De Rome tracked Garbo across New York and shot unauthorized footage of her for inclusion in his X-rated feature Adam & Yves. In the 1984 film, Garbo Talks, directed by Sidney Lumet, a son (Ron Silver)'s attempt to fulfill his dying mother's (Anne Bancroft) request by arranging for her to meet the Great Garbo reflected popular obsession with the star.
Garbo lived the last years of her life in relative seclusion. On 15 April 1990, aged 84, she died in New York Hospital as a result of pneumonia and renal failure. She had been successfully treated for breast cancer in 1984.
Garbo was cremated, and after a long legal battle, her ashes were finally interred in 1999 at Skogskyrkogården Cemetery just south of her native Stockholm. She invested very wisely, particularly in commercial property along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. She left her entire estate, estimated at $20,000,000 USD, to her niece, Gray Reisfield.


Robert E. Sherwood observed in 1929:
She is one of the most amazing, puzzling, most provocative characters of this extraordinary age. She definitely doesn't belong in the 20th century. She doesn't even belong in this world.
During Garbo's Hollywood career, the animated cartoons frequently caricatured her. These include from Warner Brothers:
  • I've got to Sing a Torch Song (1933)
  • Porky's Road Race (1937)
  • Speaking of the Weather (1937)
  • Porky's Five and Ten (1938)
  • Malibu Beach Party (1940)
  • Hollywood Steps Out (1941).
Among the Disney cartoons Garbo is caricatured in are:
For her contributions to cinema, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6901 Hollywood Boulevard, in a 1950 Daily Variety opinion poll Garbo was voted Best Actress of the Half Century, and she was once designated as the most beautiful woman who ever lived by the Guinness Book of World Records.[] Garbo was awarded an Academy Honorary Award "for her unforgettable screen performances" in 1954. Garbo did not show up and the statuette was mailed to her home address.
Garbo received praise from many industry colleagues:
Her instinct, her mastery over the machine, was pure witchcraft. I cannot analyse this woman's acting. I only know that no one else so effectively worked in front of a camera. —Bette Davis
She had a talent that few actresses or actors possess. In close-ups she gave the impression, the illusion of great movement. She would move her head just a little bit and the whole screen would come alive — like a strong breeze that made itself felt. —George Cukor
Italian motion picture director Luchino Visconti had actively been working on a film adaptation of Proust's colossal work Remembrance of Things Past since 1969 with a breathtaking prospective cast including Silvana Mangano, Alain Delon, Helmut Berger, Charlotte Rampling, Laurence Olivier and Garbo in the small part of Maria Sophia, Queen of Naples. Reportedly Garbo went to Rome and did a color screen test for the role in 1971, and Visconti exclaimed:
I am very pleased at the idea that this woman, with her severe and authoritarian presence, should figure in the decadent and rarefied climate of the world described by Proust.
Visconti's dream of making his Proust film came closest to realization in 1971, but with its length of almost four hours, the budget turned out to be astronomical, and the project never came to fruition.
In her 1981 song, "Bette Davis Eyes", Kim Carnes makes a reference that the girl that is the subject of the song "got Greta Garbo stand off sights".
In November 1983, Garbo, age 78, was made a Commander of the Swedish Order of the Polar Star by order of King Carl XVI Gustaf, the King of Sweden.
Madonna's hit "Vogue" paid tribute to her as the first star mentioned on the song's rap section: "Vogue, vogue / Beauty's where you find it / Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe". The song was released on March 20, 1990; less than a month before Garbo's death.
In September 2005, the United States Postal Service and Swedish Posten jointly issued two commemorative stamps bearing her likeness.


Year↓ Film↓ Role↓ Notes
1920 Mr and Mrs Stockholm Go Shopping Elder sister Swedish: Herrskapet Stockholm ute på inköp
Garbo's segment is often known as How Not to Dress
Source: The 2005 Kino Video The Saga of Gosta Berling DVD
1921 The Gay Cavalier Maidservant Uncredited
Swedish: En lyckoriddare
The film is lost
1921 Our Daily Bread Companion Swedish: Konsum Stockholm Promo
Source: The 2005 Kino Video The Saga of Gosta Berling DVD
1921 A Scarlet Angel Extra Uncredited
Swedish: Kärlekens ögon
The film is lost
1922 Peter the Tramp Greta Swedish: Luffar-Petter
Source: The 2005 Kino Video The Saga of Gosta Berling DVD
1924 The Saga of Gosta Berling Elizabeth Dohna Swedish: Gösta Berlings saga
Directed by Mauritz Stiller
1925 The Joyless Street Greta Rumfort German: Die freudlose Gasse
1926 The Torrent Leonora Moreno aka La Brunna First American movie
1926 The Temptress Elena
1926 Flesh and the Devil Felicitas Directed by Clarence Brown
1927 Love Anna Karenina Directed by Edmund Goulding
1928 The Divine Woman Marianne Only a 9 minute reel exists. Source: The Mysterious Lady DVD
1928 The Mysterious Lady Tania Fedorova
1928 A Woman of Affairs Diana Merrick Furness
1929 Wild Orchids Lillie Sterling
1929 The Single Standard Arden Stuart Hewlett
1929 The Kiss Irene Guarry
1930 Anna Christie Anna Christie Garbo's first talkie
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1930 Romance Madame Rita Cavallini Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1931 Anna Christie Anna Christie MGM's German version of Anna Christie, released early 1931
1931 Inspiration Yvonne Valbret
1931 Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) Susan Lenox
1931 Mata Hari Mata Hari
1932 Grand Hotel Grusinskaya
1932 As You Desire Me Zara aka Marie
1933 Queen Christina Queen Christina
1934 The Painted Veil Katrin Koerber Fane
1935 Anna Karenina Anna Karenina New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
1936 Camille Marguerite Gautier New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
National Board of Review Best Acting Award
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1937 Conquest Countess Marie Walewska
1939 Ninotchka Nina Ivanovna 'Ninotchka' Yakushova National Board of Review Best Acting Award
Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Nominated—New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress
1941 Two-Faced Woman Karin Borg Blake National Board of Review Best Acting Award
Nominated—New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress


  1. The most beautiful woman in the world. Thank you.

  2. The most beautiful woman of all time.

    (But check out Betty Bronson in
    Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) )