“What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.”–Kenneth Tynan.
As many critics have pointed out, the films of Greta Garbo (1905-1990) have dated considerably, and few are actually good. Yet, Garbo remains pure cinema, an idea created through light, mirrors, and form for the celluloid dreams of her audience, who waxed ecstatic over her face alone.
Garbo came from poverty and started modeling at an early age before breaking into Swedish film. Among her early supporting roles was G.W. Pabst‘s The Joyless Street (1925) (with sets by Edgar G.Ulmer). Despite sounding like a hidden treasure, it is an unremarkable film. After catching her performance in Mauritz Stiller’s The Saga of Gosta Berling (1925), Louis B. Mayer was struck with the actress’ star magnetism and wasted no time bringing her to Hollywood. Garbo was actually part of a package deal, as Mayer had originally wanted the brilliant Stiller as well. Mayer sent Garbo to the dentist, put her on a diet, and gave her English lessons to help her with taking direction. Her first assignment was Torrent (1926), directed by Monta Bell. Garbo had hoped for Stiller to direct. Disappointed, she accepted the assignment and worked on her lines at night. Bell was involved with actress Norma Shearer at the time, and antagonized Garbo. Yet, despite the tension, from her first frame, Garbo exuded an air of exoticism and European pathos. She burned up the screen in an otherwise unmemorable American debut.
Stiller was assigned to direct his protege in The Temptress (1926). Unfortunately, the director was unable to adapt to studio methods and was fired. Crushed, Stiller headed back to Sweden. Garbo wanted to leave with him, but he convinced her to remain in Hollywood. Within two years, Stiller was dead at 45. Garbo was devastated, and a pattern developed. Fred Niblo took over direction of the movie. The Temptress secured Garbo’s stardom. Seen today, it is, undeniably, a dated melodrama. She does not elicit sympathy, yet the 21-year-old star still commands our attention. Mayer was reportedly bewitched by her eyes; they gush torpid sex. She is a silent man-eater here, without ever resorting to vamp cliches. The only thing one remembers about it is her and the way she physically laid into her leading men as no other actress has before or since. Understandably, The Temptress made her a star.
Flesh and The Devil (1926) enshrined Garbo in superstardom and cast her for the first time opposite her greatest leading man, John Gilbert. It is the story of Garbo and Gilbert that served as the model for films like A Star is Born (in 1937, 1954, and 1976) and The Artist (2011). Gilbert was the established star, the leading romantic idol in Hollywood. Garbo was the newcomer. Over a few years, as her star ascended, his declined and, within a decade, Gilbert would meet a horrific end. Here, again, Garbo plays an unsympathetic woman who men kill and die for in a silly melodrama replete with two-dimensional archetypes. Continue reading GARBO: CINEMA’S COOL AND IMMORTAL SPHINX