Here is my contribution to the TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon, hosted by Journey’s In Classic Film. Day 26: Featuring Greta Garbo.
Greta Garbo with her mystique charm, irresistible allure combined with a remarkable presence and celestial beauty has been enthralling audiences for decades with her inimitable unique talents, which made for one of cinemas most prominent assets.
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson made her star studded debut in this world on September 18th, 1905 in Sodermalm, Stockholm in Sweden to parents Karl Gustafsson and Anna Lovisa, who at the time of Greta’s birth already had their hands tied raising their two young children, while trying to survive living on a considerably low income.
Life wasn’t easy for the Gustafsson’s. While Greta was growing up her family suffered from extreme poverty, which made it difficult for them to maintain a congenial living environment for their children. Even though her father was working, he often found himself in between jobs which didn’t help matters. For a while he worked as a street cleaner, grocer, factory worker and butchers assistant, but none of these positions earned him a considerable income, and because of their impecunious situation they were forced to live in a dreary cold water flat situated in the Blekingegatan district, known as the city’s slum. Years later Garbo recalled her childhood by saying “It was eternally grey—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 were filled with anxiety, as if there were 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.”
To add to the already troublesome situation was Greta’s education. Due to the families financial status, Greta was a shy child and preferred to play alone, which led to years of bullying at school. The only thing that got her through her years of school was her strong desideratum to become an actress and her participation in amateur theatre.
At the age of thirteen Greta graduated from school to pursue a career in acting. However this was put on hold for a while when the Spanish Flu broke out around Stockholm in the Winter of 1919, and Greta’s father who she held a close knit relationship with became ill. With his exacerbating health he was no longer able to work and required full time care from his daughter. Shortly after her father died in 1920, when Greta was fourteen years old.
After her fathers death, Greta started to seek work. Realizing that she needed to acquire more experience before finding a profession in dramatics, she decided to start off earning money by doing normal work. A few weeks later she attained work as a soap lather girl in a barbers shop, but when she found the tasks repetitive, she took her friends advice and accepted a position at the PUB Department Store, where she would run errands and work in the millinery department. Greta enjoyed this job, and the staff came to like her for her amicable aura and unique qualities, so much that they got her to model hats for the stores catalog, which would lead to her obtaining a more lucrative job as a fashion model.
In late 1920, while Greta was still modeling clothes for the department, she attracted the attention of a director of film commercials, who noticed that the young model exuded that ineffaceable star quality, and began casting her in roles advertising women’s clothing.
After two years of being cast in a myriad of commercials, Greta was recognized for her shining presence, and was selected by Erik Arthur Petschler for a part in his short comedy “Peter The Tramp”.
By now her passion for acting increased, and Greta yearned for a role in a movie. To acquire a better understanding of the theatre, she enrolled and studied for two years at the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s Acting School in Stockholm.
In 1924, Greta Garbo made her film debut in the Swedish classic “The Saga Of Gosta Berling”, which was based on the famous novel by Nobel Prize winner, Selma Lagerlof. The films director Mauritz Stiller became her mentor by training her as a film actress and managing all aspects of her career. After the success of her film, she attained the starring role in the 1925 German production “Die Freudlose Gasse”, which was directed by G.W Pabst.
With two films on her resume, her populace was growing, and before she knew it, Hollywood came knocking on her door. In 1925, she was spotted by Louis B Mayer who had just seen a private screening of “Gosta Berling”, and instantly became intrigued by Garbo’s magnetism.
From the moment he first saw her, Mayer knew that he could make a star out of Greta Garbo, and that was what he was about to do. That same year, Louis B Mayer ordered twenty year old Garbo over to the United States, where they remained in New York for a while, but after six months of hearing no word from MGM, they decided to travel to Los Angeles. Not long after arriving in Hollywood, she was assisted by a Swedish friend, who contacted Irving Thalberg, who agreed to give her a screen test. Thalberg was immediately impressed by the screen test, and started grooming the young actress and arranged for her to have English lessons.
In 1926, Greta Garbo made her debut in Hollywood when she was cast in “Torrent”, a film that was directed by Monta Bell. On it’s release, the film opened to critical acclaim, most notably for Garbo’s performance that stuck out from a mile off. Following the success of “Torrent”, she landed the role in “The Temptress”, another film that was highly regarded by critics, and is now considered to be one of the top grossing films of that period.
During the next five years, Greta Garbo continued to memorize audiences in eight more silent films, which all opened to a plethora of accolades and glowing reviews for Garbo by audiences who were titillated by her onscreen chemistry with frequent co star John Gilbert.
By 1929, talking pictures were fully established, and even though Garbo was one of the most popular stars from the silent film, the studio feared that her Swedish accent might impair her work in sound and delayed Garbo’s transition into talking pictures for as long as possible.
Garbo appeared in her last silent film in 1929, when she was cast in “The Kiss”. With sound fully established, and MGM being the last studio to make the transition, they knew that Garbo would have to take the switch to sound, but little did they know it then that Greta Garbo would go on to become one of the biggest box office draws of the next decade.
In 1930, Greta Garbo appeared in her first sound film “Anna Christie”, which was an adaptation of the 1922 play by Eugene O’Neill. The film premiered in New York on February 21st, 1930, publicized with the catchphrase “Garbo talks, and became the most celebrated film of the year. Not only was Garbo praised for her thunderous performance, she also garnered her first Academy Award nomination, but sadly lost to Norma Shearer.
During the annals of her career in talking pictures, Greta Garbo pioneered her way through an array of meritorious productions, which included “Mata Hari” and “Grand Hotel”, starring Garbo alongside John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford among other memorable stars of the decade in a production that would become the highest earning film of 1932.
As the 1930’s progressed, Garbo’s populace escalated to great heights, but by the time 1939 approached her popularity began to decline, so MGM decided to cast her in her first comedy “Ninotchka”. The film was one of the first Hollywood movies which, under the cover of a satirical, light romance, depicted the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin as being rigid and gray when compared to its prewar years.”Ninotchka” premiered in October 1939, publicized with the catchphrase “Garbo laughs!”, commenting on the departure of Garbo’s serious and melancholy image as she transferred to comedy. Despite the film’s critical favoritism and box office success in the United States and abroad, it was banned in the Soviet Union and its satellites.
Her final film came in 1941, when she starred in “Two Faced Woman “. This was to serve as her second foray into comedy, but sadly the film was largely panned on it’s release, but even though it performed considerably well at the box office, Greta Garbo decided to call it quits. She was thirty six, and had a resume that consisted of twenty eight feature films in sixteen years.
For the rest of her life, Garbo led a private existence of simplicity and leisure, and refused to make public appearances by assiduously trying to avoid the press she detested.
By the time the 1980’s approached, Garbo’s health began to deteriorate. In 1984, she was successfully treated for Breast Cancer, and would remain stable for the remainder of the decade. Her health declined rapidly at the cessation of 1989, and she was receiving dialysis treatments three times a week.
On April 15th, 1990, at the age of 84, Greta Garbo passed away peacefully at the hospital from Pneumonia and renal failure.
Twenty Five years since her passing, Greta Garbo is remembered as one of the brightest stars to ever grace the silver screen, and even though her career was short lived, she left a mark of distinction in just about every performance she gave.