Tag Archives: Greta Garbo


This is the second part of a two-part series on Garbo: her silent film work was covered last week in “Garbo, Cinema’s Cool and Immortal Sphinx.” As successful as Greta Garbo’s pre-talkie films were in the States, they were even more popular in Europe, where sound was not a barrier. Louis B. Mayer, nervous about Garbo’s American market in the coming sound era, spared no expense and devised a simple campaign slogan for her first speaking role: “Garbo Talks.” In Anna Christie (1930) she takes half of forever to appear and when she does, she delivers a classic line in her inimitable, husky, accented voice: “Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” Unfortunately, it is the only classic thing about the film. Based on one of Eugene O’ Neil’s most mediocre seafaring plays, Anna Christie is hopelessly stagebound and static. Worse, Garbo is cast as an earthy, as opposed to exotic, prostitute, which was a misstep. By this time, Clarence Brown’s directing had shifted to autopilot. The film is, naturally, beautifully photographed. Marie Dressler, through hammy acting, does the impossible and steals the film from Garbo. Still, 1930 audiences, unsurprisingly, bought into the publicity and made it a huge hit. Garbo received an Oscar nomination for this film. It was the first of four nominations, none of which she won.

Garbo’s second talkie, Romance (1930) is an even more stilted affair, directed again by Brown. She is an opera star in love with a priest (a miscast Gavin Gordon). Things go south when he discovers she is not a virgin (the Hays production code was not yet being enforced). There is a lot of chatter, and Garbo looks ravishing, but her performance was hardly one of her best, despite a second Oscar nomination. As Cornelius, Lewis Stone steals everything but the camera.

Inspiration (1931) finds Brown again asleep in the director’s chair in a film that, amazingly, seems a pale imitation of her previous film, which wasn’t good to begin with. Garbo and Lewis Stone are refreshing, despite clunky dialogue. Robert Montgomery looks bored.

Garbo’s was still MGM’S hottest foreign commodity, but her last few films had shown a steady decline in the homegrown market. Under pressure, Garbo requested the up-and-coming Clark Gable as her co-star for Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931). She lived to regret it. By all accounts, the two did not hit it off. Her European aloofness was not to his liking and she though him crass. Susan Lenox is one of Garbo’s oddest films and a definite pre-coder. She stars as an illegitimate Cinderella type, but she is hardly Snow White. Garbo goes through an entire smorgasbord of men, most of whom she leaves in ruins, and when macho suitor Gable discovers she is “fallen” (i.e. not a virgin) he dumps her, then is tormented by her. Naturally, he seeks her out again, although we are never quite convinced of his yearning. Garbo and Gable’s lack of chemistry is apparent, even though each conveys the qualities that made them sex symbols. Director Robert Z. Leonard was a prolific veteran of silents, and his discomfort with the sound medium is all too apparent. However, Leonard also gives the film a surreal, silent film like milieu with expressionistic camera angles and sets, some of which were later used for ‘s Freaks (1933). Gable, on the other hand, seems like he is stuck in the wrong film, and his character gives the film a misogynistic sheen. The 76 minute film was based on David Graham’s epic novel, and a slew of script writers make it seem like a highlight reel of the original narrative. Despite its flaws, Susan Lenox is a compelling early talkie that should be sought out. It did well at the American box office, but was not quite the hit hoped for.

Still of Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931)
Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931)

Since Hollywood in the thirties did not yet subscribe to the maxim “you are only as big as your last film,” Garbo was rushed into the sexy potboiler, Mata Hari (1932). The film itself is not good, mainly due to George Fitzmaurce’s unimaginative direction. That aside, Garbo sizzles. Audiences of the 30s did not go to see Garbo as a character in a narrative. Rather, they went to see films which catered to her personality. Mata Hari does (it is more about Garbo than a spy) and the gamble paid off; this was the star’s biggest box office hit. Undoubtedly, much of the credit goes to the famous costume designer Adrian, who adorns Garbo in her sexiest and most revealing outfits. Even though Mata Hari was a pre-code film, the censors took the scissors to it, jettisoning several extended seduction scenes. The scenes still exit, yet, oddly, have not been restored in any of the DVD releases. Like the film itself, Garbo is alternately campy and erotic. She worked even better playing off the effete Ramon Novarro, the lead from 1925’s silent Ben Hur who, in 1968, was the victim of one of Hollywood’s grisliest homicides. As campy as Garbo is in this, Novarro’s acting is even campier and his presence is even more dated. It is easy to see why his stardom did not extend into the sound era. Still, he is better than , who is at his worst here, nearly wrecking the film. Garbo takes forever to kill him.

Barrymore fared better in the all-star Grand Hotel (1932), opposite his brother John. Garbo, as a ballerina being courted by that “Great Profile,” convincingly exudes fatigue. The two stars had genuine chemistry on and off screen. It is one of her most extraordinary performances, rightfully earning her a third best Actress nomination. The film itself could serve as a reference for 30s art deco Hollywood glamor and is as artificial as one expects. A young , who is shockingly beautiful, and even human, shines. In contrast, Wallace Beery and the remaining cast are awful. Fortunately, Edmund Goulding directed this soaper with style. Irving Thalberg promoted the extravaganza with the tagline “Grand Hotel has more stars than there are in Heaven.” It paid off, and the movie took Continue reading GARBO TALKS


“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 ‘s The Joyless Street (1925) (with sets by ). 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.

Young Greta Garbo
Garbo in The Saga of Gosta Berling (1925)

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