Garbo: The Swedish Sphinx

I’ve long opined that the mania about Greta Garbo (1905-1990) had more to do with the tediousness and lack of imagination of commentators than the woman herself. Moody, withdrawn, and possessed of an interesting, dreamy face, people project things onto her, and it is no more than that. By many accounts she was melancholic and shy in real life. Because she is Swedish, people assume that makes her a philosopher, but of course it could also be that she is just bored by a very boring job (“posing for pictures”, they used to call it) and is showing it, a thing that is rarely done. And it makes people batty when you won’t drink the Kool-Aid and behave as though you like the folks you work for and with, when in reality you’re only there because they pay you to be there. That she retired in her mid-thirties after starring in a little over two dozen movies over a decade and a half doesn’t bespeak enthusiasm for the art and craft of moviemaking. And yet being rejected makes some people crazy with desire. In this case, the unrequited lover was the public.

A working class girl from Stockholm, she began clerking in a department store as a teenager, which led to modeling clothes for the store, which led to being a jobbing commercial model, which led to small parts in movies, which led to stardom. She was 20 years old when she appeared in The Joyless Street, which brought her to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who brought her to the U.S. to work at MGM. After months of being ignored, she was taken in hand by Irving Thalberg and built into a star. Flesh and the Devil (1926), opposite John Gilbert is her best known silent. The Kiss (1929) was her last.

I’ve seen almost all of Garbo’s talkies and yet the number is so few, one feels one wants to see a lot more in order to truly get a bead on her. In Anna Christie (1930) her accent is almost as bad as Tor Johnson’s, and it never got much better. But her faraway look, her sighs, her sadness, are like a magnet. We are wired to want to bring happiness to sad people; to bring satisfaction to the dissatisfied. Garbo was a loner though. She didn’t actually WANT that and she played it, and the public was transfixed. In almost every case she is the sole lure of whatever creaky Hollywood studio vehicle she’s at the center of. Remembering her movies, we think of her and little else. And for the most part, throughout her decade of talkies, she was impeccably cast. The films include Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), The Painted Veil (1934), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), and Ninotchka (1939).

The latter film, a Lubitsch screwball comedy, made antic hay out of Garbo’s dour personality, a bit of satire on Eastern European temperament, the humorlessness of Communists, and Garbo herself. But as a general rule, she was the farthest thing from a comedian. Which made it ever so unfortunate that her last movie was a silly comedy called Two Faced Woman (1941) opposite her Ninotchka co-star Melvyn Douglas. It was the sort of silly trifle Lupe Velez should have starred in, and though it was well attended it got poor reviews. The film had been an attempt to modernize and Americanize Garbo’s image, but there couldn’t be a better example of killing the goose that lays the golden egg…and simply laying an egg. Garbo didn’t retire immediately after this but she did leave MGM. Other opportunities came along over the course of the decade, as they would indeed for the rest of her life, but none came to fruition. And so while still quite young she became a “famous recluse” like Howard Hughes or J.D. Salinger, and thereby every bit as intriguing as she had been when she was still making movies. Paparazzi would spot her on the sidewalk and their published snaps were as good as getting Dead Elvis or Bigfoot. I always picture sunglasses on the retired Garbo, and that’s because she was always wearing them. But as even a child knows, sunglasses do not make you LESS intriguing. And miraculously none of it appears to have been calculated, other than on Thalberg’s part. She really did want to be alone. And people hate that, and love hating it.