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Greta Garbo: Hollywood's Immortal Goddess

When talking about Old Hollywood, it would easily pass into your mind the intensity of Bette Davis, the glamour of Audrey Hepburn, the allure of Marlene Dietrich , the notoriety of Lana Turner, the independence of Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Luise Rainer, and the whims of other similar, yet less stellar Hollywood icons. But when we talk about Garbo, we can’t say anything but be awed by her presence or, should I say, immortality.

She made a mere 17 films in Hollywood and yet, each of those films assured her stature as Hollywood’s bona fide goddess, looked upon, admired, sometimes mocked by others. But all in all, Garbo became the epitome and probably the most inscrutable star of the Hollywood of the 1930s.

Early Years

Greta Gustafson was born in Stockholm Sweden in 1905 to poor parents. At an early age, when her father became too ill to win bread, Greta worked as a barbershop latherer and sales lady at a department store in Stockholm. There, she sometimes appeared as model or actress during the plays sponsored by the store. At one of those plays, she caught the sight of Sweden’s formidable director, Mauritz B. Stiller. Later, she won a scholarship to the Royal Dramatic Theater.

Welcome to Hollywood

Her first foray into acting took place when Stiller cast her in The Atonement of Gosta Berling (1924), afterwards, she became herself a sensation in Sweden. In 1925, together with Stiller, she sailed to the United States, where she played as a contract player in Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), Hollywood’s brightest studio.

The Flesh and the Devil and Gilbert

Her first year in Hollywood became uneventful. Louis B. Mayer had earlier found her stout and stiff when acting, thus, she was cast as a Spanish maiden in some uneventful silents. However, things took their turns in 1926 when she was cast opposite Hollywood’s top leading man, John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil. After it turned out to be a box office hit, Garbo was propelled to stardom. With her exotic looks and mystifying aura, the audiences cannot help but be lured by the seemingly goddess-like image of Garbo. Other than being her breakthrough film to celebrity status, Flesh and Devil also introduced Garbo into a love affair with Gilbert that lasted until his death in 1934. They ultimately became the hottest loveteam, on and off screen, during the last years of the silent film era.

Garbo was the ultimate run-away bride. Rumors had it that there were wedding bells heard, culminated by their affair. Only it was halted when Garbo felt cold feet in marrying him and decided to run away. She did it twice until Gilbert got tired and married another silent film actress, Ina Claire.

Garbo Becomes a Superstar

Garbo’s stellar rise was further solidified with continual smash hit, one after the other. With Love and The Divine Woman (both in 1927), The Mysterious Lady and A Woman of Affairs (both in 1928), and Wild Orchids (1929), she became silent screen’s last superstar. And she was also the era’s last actress to transition into speaking roles. Ending her silence with The Kiss (1929), Garbo waited until 1930 to make her first speaking part in Anna Christie (1930). She earned two Oscar nominations for her performance in this film and for Romance (1930), only to lose to fellow MGM queen, Norma Shearer.

Indeed, the early part of the 1930s where her most glorious. Her next vehicles, Sussan Lennox (Her Fall and Rise) and Mata Hari in 1931 proved too well at the box office, enough to justify her salary demand of half a million dollars for the two films (she hurdled more than three million dollars by 1941, after she left Hollywood, a very huge fortune at that time).

Garbo, alongside Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West, was already Hollywood’s leading lady and one of the industry’s highest paid and legendary stars of the era. But it was her performance in the Oscar-winning, all star Grand Hotel (1932) that made her an immortal. In this film, she uttered her legendary line “I vant to be alone,” all in her thick, husky Swedish accent.

After Grand Hotel, Garbo sailed back to Sweden after MGM failed to meet her salary demands. She returned in 1933 after the studio offered the unheard-of quarter a million dollars and more clout to appear as the eponymous lead in Queen Christina. She exercised her control over the film when she had Laurence Olivier replaced by her former lover and then- already tarnished John Gilbert. It was a box office hit and her last time to pair with Gilbert. When news of Gilbert’s death reached her while on the set of The Painted Veil (1934), Garbo collapsed.

Garbo continued to her success with Anna Karenina (1935) and Camille (1936), costume dramas which made more money abroad than it did in the US. Both were critically acclaimed and won her back to back best actress awards during the New York Film Critics Award, the latter earning her her third Oscar nomination. This time, she lost to fellow MGM star Luise Rainer. Rainer herself was already dubbed “new Garbo” because of her refusal to bow to convention.

Box Office Poison

Garbo’s next film, Conquest, became a flop. Until 1949, it was the biggest money loser of MGM. And though it fared well at the box office, it failed to coup its staggering expenses. By 1938, together with Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Dolores del Rio, Marlene Dietrich, and May West, she was dubbed box office poison.

Garbo Laughs

However, she quickly rebounded in her first comedy film Ninotchka (1939), one of the most memorable films during Hollywood’s Golden Year, 1939. It was a box office and earned Garbo her fourth and final Oscar nomination. She lost to Vivien Leigh.

Garbo Runs Away

Garbo did not make another film until Two Faced Woman, her last. It was both panned by critics and audience and Garbo planned a what should have been temporary retirement. However, it became permanent.

In 1951, she became a naturalized American citizen. In 1953, she transferred to New York and bought a seven-room flat where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1954, she received in absentia an Honorary Academy Award for her contribution to the motion picture industry.


Garbo died a very wealthy woman in 1990. She frugally spent her money and wisely invested her million-dollar income in real estate. Her beauty and image was so haunting that to this day, one would still count her not just any other actress. She was a goddess and only very few of her colleagues can equal her. None of today’s star can ever surpass her. She was very much a star; a legendary superstar, that is.

(reposted from my Friendster blog)

Read Garbo's biographies and be enchanted by her life:

Greta Garbo: A Life Apart Greta Garbo - The Signature Collection (Anna Christie / Mata Hari / Grand Hotel / Queen Christina / Anna Karenina / Camille / Ninotchka / Garbo Silents) Garbo Greta Garbo: Divine (Movie Icons)


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