Greta Garbo

The Swedish-born American film star Greta Garbo (1905-1990) became one of Hollywood's legendary personalities.

Born Greta Louisa Gustafsson on Sept. 18, 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden, Greta Garbo grew up in respectable poverty—inhibited, self-conscious, and oddly mature. She was one of three children who became a legendary actress and one of the most fascinating women of all time. Garbo was a woman of remarkable beauty, intelligence, and independent spirit. Despite her beauty, Garbo was somewhat reclusive and photophobic. She once told a gossip columnist in France, "I feel like a criminal who is hunted … when photographers come, they draw crowds. I am frightened beyond control. When so many people stare, I feel almost ashamed."

She was a stagestruck girl of 14 when her job as a clerk in a department store led to photographic modeling for her employer's catalog. This in turn brought parts in two short advertising films and, at 16, a bathing beauty role in E.A. Petschler's film The Vagabond Baron. In 1923 Garbo was one of only seven students admitted to Sweden's prestigious Royal Dramatic Theatre Academy. While attending the training school, she chose her stage name and worked to develop her voice. Her studies at the academy served as both the foundation for her acting career and a source of several lifelong friendships with other actors and artists.

Within a year, one of Sweden's foremost film directors, Mauritz Stiller, recognized Garbo's unique beauty and immense talent. Stiller selected Garbo to play the role of Countess Elizabeth Dohna in the Swedish film The Atonement of Gosta Berling (1924). The film was considered a silent screen masterpiece and was a huge success throughout Europe. Garbo was soon cast in the leading role of Joyless Street, the definitive masterpiece of German realistic cinema, directed by G.W. Pabst. The film received international acclaim for its depth of feeling and technical innovations. The film and Garbo's performance were a critical success, shattering box office records.

Driving her unmercifully, Stiller molded her into an actress and insisted on bringing her with him to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio in Hollywood in the summer of 1925. Through Stiller, she won an assignment in her first American film The Torrent (1926). Garbo quickly became the reigning star of Hollywood, due to both the box office success of her films and her captivating performances. She starred in eleven silent films. Her dramatic presence on the screen redefined acting. Garbo's aura created a unique balance between femininity and independence, proving that these qualities were not mutually exclusive. While many of her silent film contemporaries failed in making the transition to sound films, Garbo found artistic expression and thrived in this breakthrough medium. Her voice added a wonderful new dimension to her characters. She then starred in The Temptress (1926) and Flesh and the Devil (1927), which not only made her famous but introduced her to John Gilbert, with whom she conducted (both on and off the screen) a flaming romance which lasted several years. On the day they were to be married, Garbo left Gilbert standing at the altar.

Garbo's first sound picture was Anna Christie (1930), based on a play by American dramatist Eugene O'Neill. The sound scene was a tour de force, the longest, continuous sound take of the time. Because of the film's extraordinary success, MGM created a German language version with Garbo and an entirely new cast. Garbo's ability to act successfully in two languages demonstrates her remarkable range and linguistic talent.

Garbo's career continued to flourish. She starred in 15 sound films including such classics as Mata Hari (1932), As You Desire Me (1932), and Queen Christina (1933), one of her first classic roles. Director Rouben Mamoulian used Garbo's mask-like visage as a canvas upon which the audience ascribed an array of intense emotions. This use of her face as an expressive conduit became Garbo's signature style, and she created magic with it in her starring roles in Susan Lennox—Her Fall and Rise (1931 with Clark Gable), Grand Hotel (1932), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), Conquest (1937), and Ninotchka (1939).

Garbo gradually withdrew into an isolated retirement in 1941 after the failure of Two-Faced Woman, a domestic comedy. Her retirement was also partly because of World War II. She was tempted by a number of very interesting acting possibilities, but, unfortunately, none of the projects came to fruition.

Her twenty years of brilliant film portrayals created a cinematic legend characterized by financial success. During the mid-1930's she was America's highest paid female. Garbo's retirement from films did not mark the end of a very busy, independent life. Without the pressures of film-making, Garbo had the opportunity to turn to other creative pursuits such as painting, poetry, creative design of clothing and furnishings, gardening, and a rigorous daily exercise routine. In 1950 Garbo was chosen the best actress of the half-century in a poll conducted by the theatrical newspaper Variety. She became a U.S. citizen in 1951, and in 1954 she received (in absentia) a special Academy Award for "her unforgettable screen performances." Garbo moved to New York city in 1953 and traveled extensively. She died at her home in New York on April 15, 1990.

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Further Reading on Greta Garbo

The most informative works about Greta Garbo are John Bainbridge, Garbo (1955); Fritiof Billquist, Garbo (trans. 1960); and Raymond Durgat and John Kobal, Greta Garbo (1965).