"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
Greta Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson (some sources cite her original surname as Gustafson) in Stockholm, Sweden September 18, 1905. Greta was the youngest of three children and had a remarkably close relationship with her father until she was fourteen when he took ill and died. Because of her father's sudden death she was forced to leave school and go to work. Her first job was as a lather girl in a barbershop and later she would become a clerk in the department store PUB in Stockholm, where she would also model for newspaper advertisements.
Her first motion picture aspirations came when she appeared in a group of advertising short films for the department store. These shorts were eventually seen by comedy director Eric Petscher and he cast her in a bit part for his upcoming film Peter The Tramp in 1922 (although her major motion picture debut was a year earlier in a low-budget film).
In 1922 she began studies at the prestigious Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. It was at school where she met director Mauritz Stiller. Stiller took a major hand in training her cinema acting technique, gave her the stage name "Greta Garbo", and cast her in a major role in 1924's silent film Gösta Berlings Saga (English: The Story of Gösta Berling) a dramatization of the famous novel by Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf.
Click here to watch a scene frome The Gösta Berlings Saga:
Garbo starred in two movies in Sweden in and one in Germany (Die Freudlose Gasse - The Joyless Street) before she and her mentor, Stiller were brought to Hollywood & MGM by Louis B. Mayer on the strength of Gösta Berlings Saga. On viewing the film, Mayer was impressed with Stiller's direction, but was much more taken with Garbo's acting and screen presence. According to his daughter, Irene Mayer, with whom he screened the film, it was look and emotions that emanated from her eyes that would make her a star. Unfortunately, her relationship with Stiller came to an end as her fame grew and he struggled in the studio system. He was fired by MGM and returned to Sweden in 1928, where he died soon after.
Throughout this period, Garbo was slowly emerging as a Galatea molded by a series of corporate Pygmalions. In photographs and films one can see her change from a pudgy shopgirl, through various metamorphoses as she enters the studio machinery, until she turns into the perfect Sphinx, the "face" captured in famous pictures by Edward Steichen and Clarence Bull, and other photographers of the period.
Garbo also made some of her best most interesting silent movies during this period, The Torrent (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1927) and Love (1927), the latter two with the popular leading man John Gilbert. Gilbert and Garbo had a much publiciszed romance until she was said to have left him standing at the altar when she changed her mind about getting married.
Garbo was also said to have had a few other lovers during this period; several lesbian or bisexual lovers, including Louise Brooks and the writer/socialite Mercedes de Acosta. Also an on-and-off affair with the primarily homosexual British photographer Cecil Beaton who writes about his somewhat requited passion for her in his published diaries.
Some also suggest that Garbo remained single in the United States because of an unrequited love for her drama school sweetheart, the Swedish actress Mimi Pollak. Garbo's personal letters recently released to the public indicate that she remained in love with Pollak for the rest of her life. When Pollak announced she was pregnant, Garbo wrote: "We cannot help our nature, as God has created it. But I have always thought you and I belonged together."
Garbo acheived enormous success as a silent movie star, and was one of the few who made the transition to talkies, even if she delayed the transition as long as possible. The studio worried endlessly about whether the world was ready for a talking Swedish Sphinx and asked her to make one more silent (it used a soundtrack with music and sound-effects only) film in 1929, The Kiss.
Garbo's low, husky voice was heard on screen for the first time in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie (1930), which was publicized with the slogan "Garbo Talks". The movie was a huge success, but Garbo personally hated her performance. In 1931 Garbo shot a German version of the movie, which she opinioned to be one of her best works on screen.
Unfortunately, her one-time fiancé, John Gilbert, whose popularity was waning, did not fare as well after the advent of sound, due to the high pitch and thinness of his voice, and his career faltered. His last appearance with Garbo, in Queen Christina, was not as bad as some critics have suggested: he suffered from the problem all of Garbo's leading men suffered, which was that she was inevitably stronger and more powerful than they were.
Gilbert, John Barrymore, Fredric March, Robert Taylor, and others ended up like feeble drones worshipping before the queen bee. Clark Gable was more than a match for Garbo, but she made only one early film with him, Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. This may have been because the two greatly disliked each other - Greta thought Gable was a wooden actor while Gable in turn thought Greta was a snob.
Over the next few years Garbo appeared in movies like Mata Hari in 1931, Grand Hotel (1932), which won the Best Picture Oscar and featured Garbo as a Russian ballerina melodramatically delivering the famous line, "I want to be alone."
A contract dispute with MGM caused a two-year absence from the silver screen and when she finally settled on a new one, it granted her almost total control over her movies. She used this control to pick her future roles and influence the casting of her co-stars. John Gilbert came out ahead on this deal replacing Laurence Olivier, Queen Christina in 1934 and replaced with Gilbert. She also chose not to appear in 1935's Dark Victory, instead she insisted on doing another screen version of a Tolstoy classic, Anna Karenina (she had made a previous silent version Love with John Gilbert in 1927) with Frederic March.
Some of her most memorable performances in sound movies come out of this period. Her performance as the doomed courtesan in 1936's Camille, directed by George Cukor, was called the finest ever recorded on film and 1939's comedy Ninotchka was one of her favourites. She was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for Anna Christie, Romance, Camille and Ninotchka.
Click here to watch a scene from Anna Christie:
Ninotchka was a successful attempt at lightening Garbo's image and making her less exotic, complete with the insertion of a scene in a restaurant which her character breaks into joyful laughter which subsequently provided the film with its famous tagline, "Garbo laughs!" A follow-up film, 1941's Two-Faced Woman, attempted to capitalize by casting Garbo in a romantic comedy, where she would play a double role that also featured her dancing, and tried to make her into "an ordinary girl." The film, directed by George Cukor, was a failure. It was Garbo's last screen appearance.
It is often reported that Garbo chose to retire from cinema after this film's failure, but already by 1935 she was becoming more choosy about her roles, and eventually years passed without her agreeing to do another film.
In 1949, Garbo filmed several screen tests as she considered reentering the movie business to shoot La Duchess de Langeais directed by Walter Wanger, but otherwise never stepped in front of a movie camera again. The plans for this film collapsed when financing failed to materialize, and these tests were lost for 40 years, then resurfaced in someone's garage. They were included in the 2005 TCM documentary Garbo, and show her still radiant at age 43. She was offered many roles over the years, but always turned them down.
Click here to watch her some screen tests shots from 1949:
Her last interview appears to have been with the celebrated entertainment writer Paul Callan of the London Daily Mail during the Cannes Film Festival. Meeting at the Hotel du Cap Eden Roc, Callan began "I wonder . . ", before Garbo cut in with "Why wonder?", and stalked off, making it one of the shortest interviews ever published. The newspaper gave it a double page spread.
She gradually withdrew from the entertainment world completely and moved to a secluded life in New York City, refusing to make any public appearances. Up until her death in 1990, Garbo sightings were considered sport for paparazzo photographers.
Despite these attempts to flee from fame, she was nevertheless voted Best Silent Actress of the Century (her compatriot Ingrid Bergman winning the Best Sound Actress) in 1950, and was also designated as the most beautiful woman who ever lived by the Guiness Book of World Records.
And as a bonus here is a Disney's Silly Symphony from 1938 Mother Goose Goes To Hollywood featuring caricatures of great stars of 1938: Katherine Hepburn, les Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, Charles Laughton, Spencer Tracy, Laurel & Hardy, Edward G. Robinson, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo... and Fats Waller and the great Cab Calloway. Due to those racist stereotypes, this cartoon has been banned.