“All my life I’ve been a symbol – a symbol of immortal change. I’m tired of being a symbol – I long to be a humane being.”
Greta Garbo in Queen Christina
Greta Garbo (1905-1990) is arguably one of the biggest actresses in film history. Greta Lovisa Gustafsson of Stockholm, Sweden had long held, and often times talked about, her ambition to be an actress.
Her primary film appearances were in two short advert films; one for a section store where she worked as a millinery apprentice, and the second for a local bakery. These film ads were followed by a handful of extra roles in minor Swedish silent films. 1922 brought Greta her initial chance to appear in a professional film.
Peter the Tramp was a little silent comedy filmed in the style of Max Sennett. Her work in the film was sufficient to support her gain admittance to The Royal Dramatic Theater’s Acting School in Stockholm where she would study for two years.
It was for the duration of this amount of time when she met, and was mentored by, Sweden’s leading film conductor Mauritz Stiller, who gave her the stage name of Greta Garbo and a major role in his 1924 film The Saga of Gosta Berling. It was at this point that complexity entered the life of Greta Gustafsson.
At the time Greta was rather shy, more or less passive with a willingness to be molded, and possessed a sure freshness of appeal. She was the perfective subject for conductor Stiller, who had an imperial ego and fancied himself a cinematic master builder. It was Stiller’s dream to formulate the biggest star of all time – a woman who would personify all women. A woman who could be, “sophisticated, scornful, superior, but under the shining surface humanely warm and womanly.”
MGM producer Louis B. Meyer, while watching The Saga of Gosta Berling for the duration of a visit to Berlin, found himself impressed with the direction of Mauritz Stiller, but even more impressed by the acting and screen presence of Greta Garbo. Meyer negotiated a contract to fetch Stiller to MGM with Stiller insisting that Garbo also be offered a contract.
The Hollywood arrival of the two Swedish film celebrities induced no special excitement and MGM was not sure of just what to do with them. Director Stiller never finished a film for MGM and even though directing a couple of pictures for rival studios, had no success and finally returned to Sweden.
The begin of Greta’s Hollywood career likewise wasn’t going so well. Her screen test for Irving Thalberg failed to impress the producer. It took a set of still photos and a second chance at a screen test for Thalberg to realize the elusive, magical, and almost undefinable quality of the actress.
Her original couple of roles in the films Torrent and The Temptress brought Garbo to the attention of both critics and the public. This attention would provide the motivation for MGM to start out the real building of the Garbo legend. MGM had found itself another star.
What followed were a heap of of Garbo’s most intimate silent films including Flesh and the Devil, Love, and The Mysterious Lady. Starring with Garbo in Flesh and the Devil and Love was very popular leading man John Gilbert. The (erotic|sexual pleasure|sexually arousing intensity of the pair carried into an off-camera romance. The couple lived together for awhile with Gilbert proposing marriage three times before Garbo accepted. They were to be married in 1926. Garbo hid in a lavatory never coming out for the ceremony.
Her reputation for reticence and her mysterious screen presence would fit utterly with one another. She was almost always cast as a woman of mystery supplying a promise of sexual adventure. Audiences were fascinated with Garbo’s growing mystique.
She was described as “every man’s harmless fantasy mistress. By being worshiped by the entire world she gave you the sentiment that if your imagination has to sin, it may at least felicitate itself on it is impeccable taste.” Other descriptions included, “the supreme symbol of inscrutable tragedy.” and, “a super-human symbol of The Other Woman.”
The Garbo mystique was developing off screen as well. Her personal life proved to also be a mystery. She dressed in mannish clothing, with a carelessness with regards to her appearance, and lived frugally, occupying only a couple of rooms in her huge home. Her personal time was guarded, and while there were hints of interesting suitors no one in truth knew how she expended her time. Unlike other stars of her day, she would keep out of the way of being in the spotlight.
In 1927, Greta met stage and screen actress Lilyan Tashman, with the two allegedly having an affair. For a time the pair would be inseparable. This rumor of bisexuality proved to add fuel to the fire of the growing Garbo mystique.
By this time, sound had been introduced into motion pictures. With a good deal of of the silent screen stars unable to make the transition to sound recording, Garbo had galore doubts in regards to her own transition. Having achieved outstanding success in silent films, Garbo held out as long as she could fearing that her Swedish accent would prove to be a problem.
Not only was her accent not a problem, it intensified her exotic and (erotic|sexual pleasure|sexually arousing appeal with audiences. Her voice was basi heard in 1930′s Anna Christie, which was publicized with the slogan, “Garbo Talks!” Some of her more famous roles would follow including Mata Hari in 1931 and Grand Hotel in 1932.
While Garbo’s transition to pictures with sound was considered successful, it may likewise be said that it signaled the beginning of a slow decent in the stars box office appeal. There now appeared to be a crack in the Garbo mystique.
With the completion of 1941′s Two-Faced Woman, Garbo self-imposed upon herself…silence. She chose to undertake and preserve her mythic quality, gradually withdrawing from the amusement world, refusing to make any personal appearances, and living a secluded life in New York City surrounded by her globally widely known and esteemed art collection.
Greta Garbo has often times been related with her famous line spoken in the film Grand Hotel, “I want to be alone.” The sentiment of the line was sensed to be a personal request. When asked if the line might be just that, Garbo responded, “I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said, ‘I want to be let alone.’ There is all the difference.”
The obsession with the outstanding Greta Garbo still exists today, and the Garbo mystique has become a permanent portion of Hollywood history.