Star of the Month: Greta Garbo

Star of the Month: Greta Garbo

April 17, 2019   |  by Shannon  |   Star of the Month

As you know if you read my post last week on Ms Garbo in The Mysterious Lady (1928), TCM’s Star of the Month schedule is pretty unique this month!  But today I am finally posting my mini biography on Ms Garbo.  And what a fascinating life!  There is so much to write, so much about her I want to highlight, it will be really difficult for me to keep this post from becoming waaay too long.  But I will do my best, here we go!

Early Life

She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 18, 1905, the youngest of three children.  The Gustafssons were an impoverished family, and Greta was born—and grew up in—the slums of Stockholm, Sweden.  Her father, always of poor health, passed away when Greta was only fourteen.  That was also about the time that Greta’s formal education ended, something she would remain self-conscious about for life.

A very young Greta Gustafsson.

With the death of her father, Greta took a job as a tvalflicka, or lather girl, in a local barbershop, before becoming a salesgirl at the Swedish Department store, PUB.  While working at PUB, Greta appeared in some promotional films for PUB products.  These advertising shorts seemed to Greta a realization of her dream to be an actress.

Something that may surprise you about the future silver screen goddess is that, at this time in her life, she was considered an average looking, plump girl.  In fact, the Swedish “name” actor in the film shorts she appeared in for PUB  complained to the director:  

“You’re not intending to have that fat girl in the film?  She won’t fit on the screen!”

CAN YOU BELIEVE it?  These words were said about GRETA GARBO, who in just a few years would be considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, and who would be so sought after as a film star, she would earn $300,000 for a single picture!

And this was not the only time in her nascent career that Greta’s weight was cruelly commented on.  From Sweden’s film director, Mauritz Stiller, who became her mentor and virtually shaped the Garbo mystique:

“My dear Miss Gustafsson, you are a little too fat, I believe!…You’ll have to lose twenty pounds if you’re going to play the role I contemplate for you!”

Greta in Stiller's production of The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924).

YEAH.  He said that.  Luckily, Greta didn’t take it personally, and for the most part was able to sort out Stiller’s usually good advice from the cruel way it was often delivered.  And she got the part!  That of the female lead in Stiller’s Swedish film production of The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924). The film jumpstarted her career, and suddenly Greta garnered the attention of prestigious filmmakers and studios in Germany and America.  One of those studios was MGM.  It was also at this time that Greta Gustafsson became Greta Garbo, a name choice that Greta most likely came up with on her own because it had a nice ring to it. (No, “Garbo” does not mean anything in Swedish.)

You probably thought the newly christened Greta Garbo’s weight wouldn’t be called into question again, right?  WRONG.  When head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer—who was interested enough in Garbo and Stiller to come all the way to Berlin to negotiate contracts with them—first met Garbo, he shouted this little endearment to Garbo and Stiller after getting her signature on an MGM studio contract:

 “Tell Miss Garbo that in America, people don’t like fat women!”

CRIMINY.  Thank heavens Greta didn’t let any of this cruelty stop her from pursuing her dreams.  We would have been deprived one of film’s greatest actresses.

Garbo and Stiller arrive in New York City to very little fanfare, July 1925.

From Stockholm to Hollywood and Super Stardom

So Greta and Stiller traveled to America, stopping in New York on the way to Hollywood.  They were greeted with such little fanfare from the press that the sweet kid  from MGM assigned to see them off the boat actually hired, on his own, a photographer to come take pictures.  The photographer was such a last minute addition that he reportedly had only four plates in his camera. But he didn’t tell Greta, who continued to pose for “pictures” as Stiller directed her on how to pose. What a way for the soon to be biggest star in Hollywood to make her American debut!

It wasn’t until a breathtaking photo of Greta appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair that Mayer finally decided to utilize this Swedish beauty he had under contract.  And her first film, Torrent (1926), was a HUGE success. The public wanted more of the fascinating, foreign, and beautiful Greta Garbo.

Garbo and John Gilbert in A Woman of Affairs (1928).

She was a new type of star, one who underplayed her roles, and in so doing, left her costars and contemporaries in the dust.  Her acting was REAL, and audiences and critics alike took immediate notice.  And of course, she was absolutely, drop dead, GORGEOUS. So that didn’t hurt.  No one would ever call Greta Garbo chubby again.

Garbo was one of the few silent film stars who made a smooth transition into “talkies.”  In fact, talking pictures catapulted Greta into super stardom.

But she was worried about the transition nonetheless.  Such was her clout at MGM though, that she was able to choose what would be her first talking role.  She chose that of the title character in Eugene O’Neil’s Anna Christie.

Garbo as the title character in her first talking picture, Anna Christie (1930).

Anna Christie premiered in 1930 and, you probably guessed, was a huge success! So the German language version of Anna Christie that Garbo stipulated be filmed and released at the same time as the English language version—her astute line of thinking being that if English audiences didn’t go for her speaking voice, then she would have the German audiences and box office to fall back on—was truly an unnecessary back up plan.  But how incredibly cool that 1. MGM was dependant on her enough to meet these demands, and 2. Garbo spoke German fluently in addition to Swedish and English!

It was also at this time that Garbo received her first of three academy award nominations, and she was able to be even more selective in her film roles.  Her popularity and success continued with such films at Mata Hari (1931) and Grand Hotel (1932), both of which were the highest grossing films of their respective years.  (Grand Hotel, considered to be one of her greatest performances but in my book the movie is just a tad overrated, is the film from which the famously parodied Garbo line “I want to be alone!!!!” comes from.)

With Robert Taylor in Camille (1936).

1936 brought about one of her most iconic roles (and what I think may be her best performance), that of Marguerite Gathier in George Cukor’s tragic masterpiece, Camille.  For this Garbo garnered her second Academy Award nomination.  She would get a third and final Oscar nomination a few years later for her first comedy turn in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939).  Garbo plays the title role to PERFECTION!  This was the first Hollywood film to openly criticize Russia’s communist regime, and it is totally awesome.  The film also proved Garbo was as adept at comedy as she was at drama.  (Don’t miss Ninotchka next time it plays on TCM!  I will put it on the schedule as soon as I see it!)

With Melvin Douglas in the hilarious Ninotchka (1939). In the film, Garbo proved she was also a brilliant comedienne.

Goodbye to Hollywood

And then came 1941’s Two Faced Woman, which truly spelled the end of Garbo’s meteoric career.  World War II led MGM to believe that they needed to “Americanize” Garbo to up her appeal with American audiences, for during the war, there would be no foreign distribution of films, something Garbo’s huge success had always relied on. She was truly an international star. 

Garbo in one of her not-so-cute get-ups in Two Faced Woman (1941). Thanks Constance Bennett! Bennett was the the title of the film personified.

In Two Faced Woman, MGM tried to make an American sweater girl out of the “Swedish Sphinx,” and it just didn’t work out.  Also, the catty Constance Bennett, the second female lead in the film, acted like Garbo’s friend to her face, gained her trust, and then convinced her to wear truly heinous outfits in the film, against the advice of the film’s legendary costume designer, Adrian.  (Sometimes women are truly the worst, seriously, what an awful awful thing to do to a fellow female. Shame on you Constance!)

The film, contrary to popular belief, was not a flop, and actually made MGM money, if for the wrong reasons: people wanted to see Garbo in this role that was totally unsuited for her.  And that was it for Garbo, the damage had been done, she was embarrassed. And she was sick of Hollywood besides.  Greta Garbo was ready for the next chapter in her life.  So at age 35, she left Hollywood for good, and never made another film.

Garbo, ready for the next phase of her life.

And though she did famously enjoy her solitude, Garbo was not really the recluse the media made her out to be. In 1953, she bought the seven room Manhattan apartment that would be her home for the rest of her life.  She spent most of the 1950s, 60s, and part of the 70s jet setting around the world with friends.  She collected art, and despite her intense frugality, put up the big bucks for pieces by such renown artists as Renoir. 

Garbo, out on one of her infamous NYC walks. This picture is probably from the 1970s.

When age began slowing her down in the 1980s, Garbo still took her infamous New York City walks daily, and increasingly socialized with her walking buddies and her family.  Garbo never married or had children, but her older brother Sven’s daughter, Gray Reisfield, was a loyal and trusted companion.

Garbo's beautiful, accomplished, and loyal niece, Gray. On her death in 2017, Gray's sons shared that despite her care and friendship with her famous aunt, Gray did not have a single picture of the two of them together: Gray knew Greta despised taking pictures, and was respectful enough of her aunt never to ask for one.

It was in the company of Gray and her family that Greta passed on April 15, 1990 of complications relating to pheumonia and renal failure.  She had been a shrewd investor, property owner, and wise saver throughout her life, and left her $32 million estate to Gray.  (About $62 million by today’s rates.)  WOW!  Go Greta!  The impoverished little girl from Stockholm died a multi-millionaire.

A Few Fascinating Garbo Facts

Garbo and Gilbert in Queen Christina (1933).

1.  For 1933’s Queen Christina, Garbo helped out her old flame and co-star John Gilbert by giving him the male lead opposite her.  This was cool because Garbo had reportedly left Gilbert at the alter back in the late 20s.  She just didn’t show up for her own wedding.  A fight between Gilbert and L.B. Mayer ensued—Gilbert reportedly defending Garbo against some unsavory comments made by Mayor—and Gilbert punched Mayer so hard he fell on his face.  Mayor then told Gilbert his career was over

Reportedly, to get back at him, before Gilbert’s crucial first talkie was released, Mayer ordered Gilbert’s voice be changed from its real tenor to a feminine, high-pitched voice that left audiences laughing.  This spelled the end of Gilbert’s career, and he was nearly broke when Garbo gave him a chance at a fresh start with Queen Christina.  No way anyone at the studio would have given him the role without Garbo’s insistence.  Pretty neat!

2.  Whenever L.B. Mayer or the powers-that-be at MGM demanded something of Garbo that she didn’t like, she would simply reply “I think I go home to Sweden now.”  This struck fear into their hearts, and Garbo would get her way—they needed her more than she needed them.  Talk about negotiating power!

3.  Once she was a Hollywood name, Garbo would insist that her sets be closed, that no one, and I mean no one would watch her perform.  Black screens were literally put up to guard her from curious eyes.  But Garbo insisted,

“During these scenes I allow only the cameraman and lighting man on the set…when people are watching, I’m just a woman making faces for the camera. It destroys the illusion. If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise.” 

Oh, and she would not rehearse with anyone, not even her leading men.  Well, she must have been on to something, for these extreme working conditions led to consistently amazing performances from Garbo, and whoever co-stared with her!

Garbo and her do-it-yourself, no fuss, hairstyle.

4.  Garbo was so no-fuss about her appearance that she never did a thing to her naturally straight hair.  And then every woman alive wanted to copy her.  At the time of Ninotchka’s release in 1939, this led to an official complaint to MGM by the Coiffure Guild.  The guild complained that Garbo’s do-it-yourself hairdo was “depriving the hairdressing trade of a living…should such a style ever by popularized, this would have the effect of working vast injury to the hair-stylists of the United States.”  WOW!  Can you believe it?!!!!  Such was Garbo’s popularity that she could influence the living of a whole profession simply by the way she did—or didn’t do—her hair!

5.  Last, Garbo was often criticized for not doing enough for the war effort, although she did participate in a few public events to raise money/war bonds…which she disliked because they were public events, and she was Greta Garbo, the notorious publicity-hater.  However, recent evidence shows that Garbo was in fact a spy for the Allies during WWII!  Her position as the elusive film star everyone wanted to hang out with, coupled with her Swedish nationality and ability to keep a secret, made her the ideal candidate. 

Garbo was recruited by the Allies to observe and report back the names of those using the neutrality of Sweden during WWII to transport information or weaponry to the Nazis. And by all accounts, the information she provided the Allies was extremely helpful in bringing down Nazi supporters.  And she didn’t breath a word to anyone about it.  Ok, how cool it that?  How many times did Garbo play a spy in her films?  Turns out she was one in real life too!  A very capable one at that.

I will wrap it up by reminding you to catch Camille (1936) on TCM on April 30th!

Do any of you find Ms Garbo as fascinating as I do?  What particularly stands out to you about her life or her films?

I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my little girl, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

Stay Updated

Recipes and Red Carpet, Directly to Your Inbox

Suggested Star Posts

You Might Also Enjoy...

Leave a Reply