by Joanna Paxinou
“Gimme a whiskey—ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” Greta Garbo spoke those words in her first “talkie,” Anna Christie in 1930.
Garbo had been a great silent screen star and one of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s biggest assets. Her first three silent films accounted for 13% of MGM’s profits for 1925-26. But when “talkies” came on the scene, the MGM bosses were afraid that audiences wouldn’t go for her accent and throaty voice. But they were wrong! Not only was the film sensational—it was MGM’s top grossing film for 1930, and she was nominated for an Oscar.
She received four Academy Award nominations for her acting: Two in 1930 for Romance in addition to Anna Christie; Camille in 1937 (her personal favorite film); and Ninotchka in 1939. She never won, but in 1954, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Garbo an honorary Oscar for her “luminous and unforgettable screen performances.”
Called The Face and La Divina, Greta Garbo was much more than a beautiful woman. She was a fine actress. She felt her roles deeply and her acting was honest. She had charisma—and sometimes gently, sometimes powerfully, she dominated her scenes.
Clarence Brown, who directed Garbo in her box-office hits Anna Karenina, Anna Christie, Romance, and Flesh and the Devil, said of the actress: “Working [with her] was easy because she trusted me. I never directed her in anything above a whisper…without letting others know what I was telling her. I learned through experience that Garbo had something behind the eyes that told the whole story that I couldn’t see from my distance…On the screen Garbo multiplied the effect of the scene I had taken. It was something that no one else ever had.”
Cecilia Ager, a critic who wrote for the New York Newspaper PM commented: “The screen doesn’t have an actress to compare with Garbo for loveliness, sensitivity, incandescence. She has feeling first, and she’s acquired the technical proficiency and the knack of timing with which to express it. She reveals still deeper stores of humor and evanescent tenderness than even before. Her voice has become an instrument that indicates all the emotions in their most subtle gradations.”
She appeared in such classics as Queen Christina, Mata Hari, Anna Karenina, Camille and Grand Hotel. She was consistently one of MGM’s strongest assets for more than 15 years, but her appeal began to wane in America and Europe during World War II. So MGM decided to try and change her image. They cast her in Ninotchka in 1939. I loved her in that movie—I thought she was great. The melancholy actress turned out to be an appealing comedienne. But then they cast her in Two-Faced Woman in 1941. I thought it was a weak script and didn’t showcase Garbo at her best. Even though she earned an Oscar nomination for Ninotchka, neither film matched her previous box-office successes.
Although she was humiliated by the poor reviews for Two-Faced Woman, she did not intend to retire at that time. Garbo still thought she would star in a couple of films, but nothing worked out.
At 36, she started worrying about her age. “Time leaves traces on our small faces and bodies,” she said. “It’s not the same anymore, being able to pull it off.”
George Cukor, director of Two-Faced Woman, said: “People often glibly say that the failure of Two-Faced Woman finished Garbo’s career. That’s a grotesque over-simplification. It certainly threw her, but I think that what really happened was that she just gave up. She didn’t want to go on.”
It seems Cukor was right. Four years before her death, Garbo told Swedish biographer Sven Broman: “I was tired of Hollywood. I did not like my work. There were many days when I had to force myself to go to the studio … I really wanted to live another life.”
THE GARBO MYSTIQUE LIVES ON
During her retirement, Garbo was offered many roles, a few interested her, but whenever any problem arose, she’d quickly drop out of the film.
She left Hollywood in 1941 at age 36. In 1954, she purchased a stunning co-op at 450 East 52nd Street in Manhattan right on the East River. She lived in that home until her death in 1990. She enjoyed her life in Manhattan taking long walks and window shopping. The only unpleasantness was that the same photographer who hounded Jackie Onassis hounded Garbo trying to photograph her off guard. She said, “You are never left in peace, you’re just fair game.”
Early in her career, 1927, Garbo said: “The creative artist should be a rare and solitary spirit. My work absorbs me. I have time for nothing else.” That changed during her retirement.
She had been defined by her comment “I want to be alone” that she spoke in that wonderful classic 1932 film Grand Hotel. But that’s not true, according to her great-nephew, Derek Reisfield, who said Garbo was very active socially during her retirement and had many friends. She loved art, music and literature. She was also into yoga and juicing her own healthy drinks, but didn’t give up smoking and cocktails.
She never married—although John Gilbert, her co-star in several films, proposed to her many times, but she would always change her mind at the last minute. Garbo didn’t have any children, but she had a close and loving relationship with her niece Gray Reisfield.
Garbo was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1905. At age 14, her father died and she had to quit school to get a job to help support her impoverished family. She worked for a department store where she appeared in short advertising films. She later won a scholarship to the Royal Dramatic Theater, Sweden’s premier school for actors. But she dropped out of school when she met Mauritz Stiller, a great Swedish director, who put her in his film, The Legend of Gosta Berling in 1924. The film was a great success, made Garbo famous, and intensified her friendship with Stiller.
Their second film, Streets of Sorrow in 1925, strengthened Garbo as a star in Europe and caught the attention of Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM. He wanted Stiller to sign with MGM, but the director would only sign with one provision—that Garbo get a contract too. MGM relented and gave her a contract, but they didn’t expect much from her. They were in for a fabulous surprise. She turned out to be a great star and one of MGM’s lasting luminaries.
Stiller expected to continue working with Garbo in America, but a blowup with MGM executives made him leave MGM and try Paramount. But things blew up there too and Stiller left for Sweden, where he died a year later. Garbo was devastated. “In his studio,” she said, “Stiller taught me how to do everything.”
Garbo, meanwhile, had appeared in two films in 1926: The Temptress and Flesh and the Devil. Both films were hits and made Garbo an international star.
She starred in 26 films in 15 years (1926-1941). Most were big box office hits, not only with her American audience but her appeal was even stronger in Europe. Because she was such a huge asset, MGM gave her unprecedented control over her roles and the films she starred in.
She kept doing things her way. As her biographer John Bainbridge wrote in Garbo, except at the start of her career, “She granted no interviews, signed no autographs, attended no premieres and answered no fan mail.” Her sets were closed to visitors and sometimes even to the film’s director.
Garbo was named fifth on The American Film Institute’s 50 Greatest Legends. And she appeared in three films that have been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant: Flesh and the Devil 1926, Grand Hotel 1932, and Ninotchka 1939.
She never forgot her impoverished childhood and the promise she had made to herself to become rich. And she succeeded. At her death in 1990, her estate was valued at $55 million. She bequeathed her entire estate to her niece, Gray.
After her death, over 7,000 admirers attended the preview exhibit of her personal belongings, furniture, and antiques held by Sotheby’s in New York called The Garbo Collection…proving that she was still an unforgettable star. Her belongings sold for $2.5 million, and her astounding art collection sold for $19 million. She owned a Monet and two Renoirs, but it was modern art that made up the bulk of her collection.
Garbo was a fine actress, a unique, distinctive personality with a powerful presence. She left a film legacy that has survived to this day. Greta Garbo is still remembered as one of the greatest film stars ever and a strong, independent woman.
She lived her life the way she wanted…she made her own decisions…and stayed true to herself for the rest of her life.