Once Greta Garbo came to America, the only studio she ever worked at was M-G-M. She was never loaned out, she never went freelance, and she didn’t divide her time between the movies and the stage like many other actors of that era. M-G-M was Garbo’s studio, and she knew how to use what it offered to her advantage.
How Greta Gustafsson wound up at M-G-M is almost as mysterious as her life in general. It’s unclear whether L.B. Mayer signed the Swedish actress on the recommendation of director Mauritz Stiller, or whether it was Mayer’s own idea. Who knows. Either way, what is known is that after he signed her, Mayer famously told Garbo that “American men don’t like their women fat. And get your teeth fixed.”
Ahem. Garbo was not fat, thank you very much. A tiny bit husky, maybe, but not fat.
Garbo did slim down, though, and her first film at M-G-M was 1926’s The Torrent. Although the public took to her right away, M-G-M had to figure out how to present her. According to the documentary, MGM: When the Lion Roars, they first tried the sporty approach which didn’t really pan out, as Garbo looked awkward standing next to high jumpers and pretending to run races.
The answer to M-G-M’s conundrum was right under their noses. Garbo’s persona lay in her deep underlying emotions, and all the studio had to do was present her as she was. As a silent screen actress, Garbo wasn’t a bit hammy. She was an intense lady who stayed in character consistently, and audiences could read everything she was thinking on her face. Garbo became a massive star, outshining everyone at the studio. Her breakthrough role came when she starred in 1927’s Flesh and the Devil with John Gilbert. Garbo and Gilbert began to have a torrid love affair during the shooting, which gave the film a smoldering realism. Director Clarence Brown would call “Cut!” at the end of romantic scenes, and these two would just keep right on going.
The real test came when films began to talk, and plenty of established stars had gone down like ninepins once they opened their mouths. Whether it was a speech impediment or a thick accent, or just not sounding the way the public expected them to, it didn’t take much for an idol to suddenly become passé. Garbo, of course, spoke English with a heavy Swedish delivery, and the M-G-M executives were scared stiff that she would fall flat on her face. Her first lines were spoken in the 1930 film, Anna Christie:
Give me a whiskey. Ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.
Garbo nailed it. Her voice was deep and sultry, her character full of world-weariness. All of M-G-M breathed a sigh of relief.
When it came time to negotiate her new contract in 1933, Garbo thought she deserved more than the weekly salary of $5,000 she was currently getting. M-G-M didn’t budge, and neither did Garbo. In fact, she bolted, staying away from the studio for eight months, which the studio muckety-mucks felt keenly. In what was essentially a very expensive staring contest, M-G-M blinked first. Garbo’s salary was raised to $300,000 per film.
Having flown over those little hurdles, Garbo was able to exercise quite a bit of clout at the studio. She had a limo to take her from her dressing room to the set, and she famously didn’t socialize with the other stars. She certainly didn’t sign autographs, not even for her adorable Anna Karenina co-star Freddie Bartholomew, who knocked on her dressing room door and very sweetly and politely asked her to sign something for his aunt. Garbo said “No,” and shut the door. Sorry, Freddie. Stars such as James Stewart tried unsuccessfully to meet her, although in Stewart’s case he accidentally knocked her over. The one exception was John Barrymore, with whom Garbo went to great lengths to spend as much time as possible while they were shooting Grand Hotel.
Garbo had very definite ideas about filming. She didn’t like to rehearse. She also didn’t like a lot of people looking at her, preferring to be surrounded by screens. The few people who did see her in front of the camera thought she was the most wooden actress they had ever seen, but the footage told a different story, as Garbo’s emotions came out onscreen. Making movies was a private affair between Garbo and the camera, and no one else was invited.
Garbo appealed the most to European audiences and those who liked very genteel, high-class movies. As her stardom progressed, however, the public’s taste changed, and she actually got the dreaded “box office poison” label in 1937. So M-G-M decided to give her image an overhaul. Ninotchka was, of course, her first ever comedy, and while it’s a terrific movie, things unfortunately went downhill from there. For some reason the studio heads thought they had to de-glam Garbo, which meant she could no longer be the remote, inaccessible screen goddess. All of a sudden, Garbo had to be like everyone else. Not suprisingly, the change didn’t go over at all well. One critic complained, “It’s as shocking as seeing your mother drunk.”
Garbo’s last film was 1942’s Two-Faced Woman, which was a massive flop. Some like to point to this film as the catalyst for Garbo’s early retirement, but the film’s director, George Cukor, used to bristle whenever anyone made this suggestion to him. In his mind, there were other factors at work. One explanation was that she plainly and simply lost interest in filmmaking. Garbo’s famous line is, of course, “I want to be alone,” and what she meant by that is that she wanted to be left alone. She never liked being bothered by autograph seekers, and she really didn’t like the paparazzi intruding on her private life, so leaving that lifestyle behind may have been a huge relief.
It also may have been that, at thirty-five, Garbo was approaching the end of her time as a romantic lead. Hollywood has always prized youth above everything, and studios believed no one wanted to watch chronologically mature love stories. A few stars such as Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were able to rise above this mindset, but on average, a woman could (and still can) only play romantic leads for ten or maybe fifteen years.
Another factor was the current state of the world. Since the Second World War was on, the European market was now closed to Hollywood films, which cost Garbo of a big chunk of her audience. She thought it would be a good time to take a break and see what the lay of the land was once the war was over.
Whatever was the case, Garbo never returned to M-G-M. She was one of the last of the original stars to leave the studio, and she never explained why to anyone. Friends and family said she would always clam up when someone asked her about her film career. Fortunately, Garbo invested her money wisely, and she was able to live very comfortably on just the interest, including buying a gorgeous Manhattan apartment. Her biggest dilemma was figuring out how to spend her now-endless free time.
When Garbo came to M-G-M, it became a different place. When she left, it was never the same. She will always remain a legend and an enigma.
That does it for my Day Three, and as always, Crystal has more Garbo for you at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
Coming up in December, among other fun bits:
If anyone wants to join, please contact Aurora at Once Upon A Screen, Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club, and Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled. Hope you enjoyed reading, everyone, and Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers! See you next time…
Eames, John Douglas. The M-G-M Story. Crown Publishers, Inc.: New York, 1976.
Hays, Peter. M-G-M: When the Lion Roars. Turner Publishing, Inc.: Atlanta, 1991.
MGM: When the Lion Roars. Director: Frank Martin. Narrator: Patrick Stewart. Turner Entertainment, 1992.
Paris, Barry. Garbo. Alfred P. Knopf: New York, 1995