Greta Garbo

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Greta Garbo photographed by Ruth Harriet Louise around 1930signature

Greta Garbo (born September 18, 1905 as Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Stockholm , † April 15, 1990 in New York City ) was a Swedish - American film actress . Considered a Hollywood icon, she was named by the American Film Institute in its 1999 list of the 25 greatest female screen legends of all timevoted in 5th place. Because of its timeless beauty and its mysterious charisma, the press gave it nicknames such as "the Divine" or "Swedish Sphinx". Her film career began in the early 1920s and lasted almost two decades. In contrast to many other stars of the silent film era, Greta Garbo made the transition to talkies . In 1941 she withdrew from the screen. At the Academy Awards in 1955 , the actress was awarded an honorary Oscar for her “unforgettable screen appearances ”.

life and career

The early years

Greta Garbo, photo from 1919

Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 18, 1905 at Gamla Södra BB maternity hospital in Stockholm. She was the youngest of the three children of Karl Alfred "Kalle" Gustafsson (1871-1920) and Anna Lovisa Gustafsson (nee Karlsson; 1872-1944). Her parents already had a son named Sven Alfred (1898–1967) and a daughter named Alva Maria (1903–1926). The family lived in difficult financial circumstances at Blekingegatan 32 in Stockholm's working-class district of Södermalm . From August 1912 Greta attended Katarina Södra elementary school in Södermalm, which she left in June 1919 - not unusual for a working class girl at the time - at the age of 13. During her school days she sang in the church choir and played in amateur theaters. Since she had no money to see professional theater performances, she often waited at the back door of Stockholm's Mosebacke Theater to watch the actors going in and out. In a 1927 interview with Ruth Biery for the US magazine Photoplay , Garbo recalled:

“I could smell the stage make-up. No smell in the world can be compared to that of a theater backyard. No other smell will ever mean so much to me. "

She was 14 years old when her father died. To support the family, she first worked as a tvålflicka ("soap girl") at a hairdresser's. Her income improved when she got a job in the well-known Stockholm department store PUB in July 1920 . In January 1921, Garbo posed in front of a camera for the first time; For the spring edition of the in-house catalog with a print run of 50,000 copies, she presented various women's hats. That same year, Greta and her sister Alva Maria acted as extras in the Swedish silent film production En lyckoriddare with. She also appeared in the two short commercials Herr och Fru Stockholm from 1921 and Konsum Stockholm Promo , which was shot in 1922.

Career start in the silent film era

Greta Garbo on a movie poster for Gösta Berling 1924 ( Filmstaden , Solna )

In July 1922 she met director Erik A. Petschler in the hat department of PUB , who gave her a small role in the slapstick comedy Luffar-Petter . The silent film, in which she appeared in a bathing suit under her maiden name Greta Gustafsson, was an amateur production without proper dramaturgy or striking characters. Nevertheless, she quit her job at PUB for the commitment on the grounds of “entering the film business”. The Swedish press paid tribute to her debut by saying:

"Although American bathing beauties are perhaps more beautiful and delicate, our Swedish ones have more freshness and charm [...] Greta Gustafsson [...] could very well become a Swedish film star."

Greta Garbo in Die joyllose Gasse , 1925

Determined to become an actress, Garbo passed the entrance exam for the prestigious acting academy of the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm in August 1922 . Even decades later, she said that both the audition and the subsequent acceptance into the academy were the most exciting and happiest moments of her entire life. During her training she was discovered by the internationally known Swedish director Mauritz Stiller , who was just putting together the cast for the film adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf's novel Gösta Berling . Stiller arranged for test recordings and was so impressed by the natural talent and charisma of the young actress that he gave her the role of Countess Elisabeth Dohna in 1923. The filming, which lasted almost a year, was tough for the young and inexperienced actress. Stiller was considered a perfectionist and did not hold back with criticism and verbal abuse if he was not satisfied with her performance. At the same time, he encouraged her by teaching her how to dress favorably and how to move around in front of the camera. It was also Quieter who prompted her to give herself the stage name Garbo . Gösta Berling had its world premiere in Stockholm in March 1924 and was distributed in Germany in August 1924.

After the great financial and artistic success of Gösta Berling, Garbo and Stiller received the offer to work on the German film adaptation of the novel Die Odaliske von Smolny by Vladimir Semitjov. In the drama about the escape of a young Russian noblewoman from the October Revolution , Garbo was to take on the female lead under the direction of Stiller. In November 1924 she left the drama academy and traveled to Bulgaria and Turkey with Stiller to find suitable locations for the project. In the end, however, the plans came to nothing. Instead, Garbo took part in Georg Wilhelm Pabst's Die joudlose Gasse in 1925 .

Breakthrough in Hollywood

In the same year Stiller signed a contract with the newly founded Hollywood studio MGM . Garbo accompanied her mentor to a meeting with studio boss Louis B. Mayer . He was very impressed by the young Swede and gave her a three-year studio contract . In the first two films, Floods of Passion and Demon Woman , Garbo was used in the role of South American women with a relaxed lifestyle. The critics hailed the actress as an exciting discovery. The collaboration with cameraman William H. Daniels was significant for the further course of her career . He realized that the intensity and beauty of their portrayal were best shown in extreme close-ups. Shots in the shots were ever after Garbo movies rather the exception. Daniels has appeared in almost all of her films. He ensured that the film sets were hermetically sealed to visitors and unauthorized persons, since the actress was sensitive to disturbances and could not concentrate to the extent that she thought necessary.

Greta Garbo, 1928

After her first films were relatively successful financially, the breakthrough came with It Was , which came into national distribution in January 1927. She and her film partner John Gilbert fell in love while filming. The strip, which is based on a piece by Hermann Sudermann , was a huge box-office success. Garbo first worked here with director Clarence Brown , who later often directed her films. The movie's success left audiences and producers calling for a new Garbo film. But the actress was dissatisfied with just - as she put it - playing "bad women" and therefore turned down the role in Women Love Diamonds . Garbo also believed her weekly salary of $ 500 was too little for a star everyone wanted to see on screen. She went on strike for seven months until the studio raised her salary to $ 5,000 and guaranteed her a wider range of roles. Immediately afterwards she shot a heavily shortened version of Anna Karenina with John Gilbert . Two alternative endings were shot for the film: a happy ending for the US market, while the rest of the world, more familiar with Tolstoy's work, saw the tragic ending of the original. In the United States, the film was called simply Love , in keeping with the happy ending, and was advertised there with the slogan “Gilbert and Garbo in Love”.

Most of the silent films Garbo made were far from being classics of the genre; However, they not only brought in the manufacturing costs, they also made a profit. Usually the plot revolved around a young woman who has to face romantic entanglements between a passionate lover and the mostly older husband - preferably played by Lewis Stone  . A certain exception was Invisible Shackles , which the actress presented as a young American with progressive ideas about relations between the sexes. For some time, the heroine lives quite openly with a man, played by Nils Asther , without being married. The two cruise on a sailing ship called The All Alone in the South Pacific. The character played by Garbo also often goes for walks alone in the rain. Both are more or less subtle allusions to Garbo's withdrawn and solitary attitude that had become her trademark.

Success in the sound film era


With the advent of talkies, Garbo's position as one of the studio's top stars seemed at risk. Other European actors of the time such as Vilma Bánky , Emil Jannings , Pola Negri or Lars Hanson failed when faced with the challenge of speaking understandable English. In addition, there was a certain uncertainty as to whether the prominent position of Greta Garbo was not endangered by the sound film. The Los Angeles Examiner newspaper on January 18, 1930 summed up the general perplexity :

“The upcoming sound film debut has sparked heated discussions among fans of the Swedish star. Some believe that the tone increases her fascination, while others claim that the attraction of the exotic actress lies in her ability to arouse emotions in the audience through mere hints. "

Garbo around 1930

MGM was therefore reluctant to use Garbo in a sound film. It was not until early 1930 that the recording technique had improved and Garbo had perfected her pronunciation that they dared to present her in a speaking role. The chief producer of the MGM, Irving Thalberg , initially tried to acquire the rights to George Bernard Shaw's play The Holy Johanna for Garbo , but this failed. The choice for the debut fell surprisingly in 1930 on the role of the bitter, alcoholic Swedish-born prostitute Anna Christie in the play of the same name by Eugene O'Neill . Garbo does not appear for a good quarter of an hour. She sits down in silence and speaks her first line of dialogue with a clear English-Swedish accent:

"Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side and don't be stingy, baby."

Greta Garbo also shot a German version . She claimed she did her best acting ever in it. The first sentence that has become famous was in German:

"Whiskey, but not too short."

The actress received at the Academy Awards in 1930 for Anna Christie and Romance each a nomination for the Oscar for best actress , but had to let Norma Shearer go first.

For Garbo, three more films followed in 1931: Yvonne , who she used alongside Robert Montgomery as his artistic muse, was a financial success, but disappointing artistically. Mata Hari , a romanticized biography of the famous spy , was produced with considerable effort; Chief Designer Gilbert Adrian created some of the most eye-catching, if not bizarre, costumes Garbo has put on in her entire career. At the beginning you see Garbo in a kind of bikini while she performs an exotic dance. Later she wears a completely see-through negligee, a trouser suit made of gold lamé and other creations. What they all have in common is that they have nothing to do with the actual time in which the action takes place. The different hats and headgear, which support the exotic aura of Greta Garbo, are also spectacular. The action itself has only a rudimentary resemblance to the real facts. She consistently presents Garbo as a self-confident, autonomous woman. To the harsh reprimand of the espionage chief that she had to obey unconditionally, she replied in the original:

“I am Mata Hari. I am my own master. "

The film grossed nearly $ 900,000, making it one of the actress' most commercially successful productions. As the first ever film with Garbo, Mata Hari had a glamorous gala premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater . In the trade press there was also some astonishment why, next to Garbo, Ramón Novarro was a second name above the title. This form of co-starring was rather uncommon for established stars. Garbo started Helga's fall and rise later in the year as an American with a Swedish background, who runs away from home and, after many wrong turns and misunderstandings, finds true happiness. For the first time Garbo got a contemporary, modern partner in Clark Gable , whose rise in the months before made him the most sought-after actor in Hollywood. The press therefore also praised the opportunity to see Garbo in the arms of a typical American. No fewer than 14 authors worked on the script, which could explain the different quality within the film. In contrast to the incoherent script, the camera work and the lighting was innovative. She skilfully based herself on German models and immersed the scenes in a sharp light-dark contrast that was unusually harsh for MGM productions. The studio wanted to use Garbo and Gable in the production of Dschungel im Sturm immediately , but the female role ended up going to Jean Harlow .

In 1932 the actress had reached the peak of her popularity. She earned more than 302,000 dollars a year and was on the list of the ten most bankable stars in 5th place in people at the hotel , a movie star cast , was Greta Garbo among other top stars of the studio as Joan Crawford , Lionel Barrymore , John Barrymore and Wallace Beery used. She only shared scenes with John Barrymore, however. In this film she uttered one of the most famous movie sentences ever:

"I want to be alone."

According to some critics, at 27, the actress was too young and handsome to portray an aging ballerina at the end of her career. Many reviewers have judged that Joan Crawford did the best portrayal in the film. Garbo has a few scenes in the film in which she creates great intensity with few resources: she touches her pearls and philosophizes about the transience of life, she calls her lover and gently caresses the telephone receiver. Her portrayal was so popular that comedian Marion Davies parody Garbo and John Barrymore with Jimmy Durante in the film Blondie of the Follies later that year.

One of the Garbo’s lesser-known films is Wie Du michst , a relatively free adaptation of the play of the same name by Luigi Pirandello , which was later distributed in 1932 . In the first half of the film, Garbo as the cabaret singer Zara wears a platinum-blonde short-haired wig and trouser suits. In the opinion of many critics, your entire portrayal is a subtle caricature of the roles of Marlene Dietrich . This interpretation receives additional nourishment from the fact that the character of Garbo is completely subject to the strict regiment of her impresario, portrayed by Erich von Stroheim . One can certainly see an allusion to the Dietrich / von Sternberg team. With the completion of the filming of How You Want Me , Greta Garbo ended her current contract with the studio, left Hollywood for almost a year and returned to Sweden. Shortly before leaving, she signed a new, lucrative contract. In addition to a guaranteed fee of US $ 250,000 and a large say in the script, casting and selection of the director, the actress was granted the right to set up her own production company.


Garbo returned to the MGM studios in Culver City in 1933. While other stars of the studio could be seen in up to five films per year, MGM turned the rare screen appearances into Garbo's events, which were accompanied with high journalistic effort. Only Norma Shearer held a comparable exclusive position, as the wife of production manager Irving Thalberg, she was the only internal rival. Garbo's first film under the new terms was Queen Christine . After Ernst Lubitsch , who had already made several historical films in Germany and America, was initially discussed as a director, Rouben Mamoulian was finally engaged. Two scenes from the work are very well known: first the scene in which Garbo slowly moves through a room as if to the beat of a metronome and tenderly touches all objects that remind her of the previous night with her lover. The film's final shot, in which only the completely calm and empty face of the actress occupies the screen, has become famous. The film was lavishly produced at almost $ 1.1 million and grossed over $ 650,000. Queen Christine thus made a decisive contribution to MGM's profitability even in 1933, the most difficult economic year for the film industry. The multicolored veil from 1934, loosely adapted from Somerset Maugham , was neither a financial nor an artistic success and met with restrained audience interest. The film was not a success with either critics or audiences. His only merit: he made the pillbox hat popular in women's fashion of the time, which the actress had worn in some scenes.

Due to the restrained reactions to her last appearance, Greta Garbo asked David O. Selznick to produce her next film. Its proposals, which included plans for the filming of Victims of a Great Love, The Flame Within or My Antonia , were rejected either by the studio or by Greta Garbo. The proposal to realize a biography of Isadora Duncan with a screenplay by Philip Barry was also unsuccessful. The producer and star finally agreed on Anna Karenina . The adaptation suffered from the rigid censorship regulations of the time from the start. So important aspects of the relationship between Wronsky and Anna could not even be hinted at. As was almost common with Garbo films back then, there were also many changes to the script. The end product was an adaptation of the book that was streamlined in terms of content and adapted to Hollywood conventions. The film was commercially successful and earned her the award of " Best Actress of the Year " from the New York film critics . One of her best-known films is The Lady of the Camellias from 1936. Garbo was partnered with Hollywood's newest star Robert Taylor . The film itself was based on a play that was already obsolete at the time and depicts the sad fate of a noble courtesan with a heart of gold. In the opinion of the critics, Garbo provided a richly nuanced account. From the glamorous lady at the beginning to the awakening love for her beau to the death scene, she offered a controlled and coherent interpretation. Her scenes with Henry Daniell , who plays a sadistic baron, are rightly praised . Both actors create a scene in which they are sitting at the piano and the new lover rings the doorbell, as a chamber play at a high level. Garbo was nominated again for the Oscar, but to everyone's surprise lost to Luise Rainer .


The studio used Greta Garbo again in 1937 against a historical background. For a fee of $ 275,000 she played the Polish Countess Maria Walewska , Napoleon's lover ( Charles Boyer ) in the film of the same name Maria Walewska . Production costs escalated and ended up totaling around $ 2.7 million. This was the most expensive production since Ben Hur . Neither the critics nor the audience were interested in re-portraying Garbo as a woman who suffers for love. In the end, the red numbers stood at over $ 1.4 million, making it the biggest loss of any MGM production ever.

Maria Walewska was one of the few films in which William Daniels was not hired as a cameraman. Norma Shearer specifically refused to release him for filming because she had secured Daniels for her production of Marie Antoinette . Karl Freund , whom Garbo knew from Germany, took over the camera work. The differences to Daniels are easy to see: Overall, a slightly harder, more accentuated lighting predominates. As is almost the norm for a Greta Garbo film, the studio found it difficult to agree on a title. The choices included The Road to Waterloo , Star-Crossed , Less than the Dust and The Night before Waterloo . At least 17 confirmed authors had worked on the finished script, a record for a Garbo film. In 1938, Greta Garbo found herself, along with Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn , Joan Crawford and Mae West, in an advertising campaign by independent cinema operators on a list of actors who were labeled as box office poison .

The studio therefore decided to use Garbo in a comedy. As a project, an agreement was reached in 1939 on the film Ninotschka , directed by Ernst Lubitsch at Garbo's express request. Billy Wilder also worked on the script . The film made fun of Garbo's image as a tragic actress. The simple slogan Garbo laughs, a nod to the Anna Christie advertisement , was enough to draw people in. As a Soviet commissioner in search of valuable jewels, she ends up in Paris and is asked by her comrades there how things are currently going in Moscow. Your answer is short:

“The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians. "

Garbo received her fourth Oscar nomination for the film.

A short time later, Garbo declined to appear in the remake of the 1938 Ingrid Bergman film En Kvinnas Ansigte . The film was eventually filmed with Joan Crawford as The Woman with the Scar . Plans were also dashed to film the life of Marie Curie with Garbo in the lead role. The project was realized with Greer Garson . With the beginning of the Second World War , the foreign markets, which had previously generated the bulk of film revenues, began to collapse. MGM therefore tried to adapt the image of Garbo to the American taste. The actress was persuaded to appear in a new comedy and chose, of all things, a light tabloid comedy by Ludwig Fulda entitled The Twin Sister from the huge pool of scripts at MGM . Filming for The Woman with Two Faces began in 1941. The studio's publicity department made tremendous efforts to bring an entirely new Garbo to the public long before the rental. A perfect athlete, salon lady, friend and lover - in short, the perfect woman.

The woman with the two faces came into US cinemas on December 31, 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor . The film was panned by the critics. The well-known critic Cecelia Ager , for example, reacted with horror in the magazine PM to the efforts of the studio to make Garbo's image more popular and thus vulgarize it:

"The picture makes Garbo a clown, a buffoon, a monkey on a stick."

The time after Hollywood: 1942–1990

Greta Garbo's tombstone on Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm

Garbo gave up her Hollywood career completely after 1942. Until her death in 1990 she lived in seclusion, alternating between her New York apartment and Klosters in Switzerland. She traveled a lot and had very prominent friends, but avoided public appearances. Her daily long walks across New York became legendary. Thanks to good investments, she had a comfortable income all her life, but she also lived rather modestly. The actress was never married. Her notorious fear of strangers sometimes led to strange decisions. She declined a personal invitation to tea with Queen Elizabeth II , which was handwritten on the invitation and guaranteed her a very discreet frame, on the grounds that "I have nothing to wear."

The search for the perfect comeback

Garbo initially had no intention of permanently saying goodbye to the screen. In 1942 there were plans in the studio to have her appear as a Russian resistance fighter in The Girl from Leningrad . There was no shortage of attempts over the next few decades, including on the part of Garbo, to start a comeback. Quite a few roles that Greta Garbo was in discussion for ended up being played by Greer Garson, Irene Dunne or Katharine Hepburn. A parallel to the consistent withdrawal into private life was found in Norma Shearer's career. Their status was on the wane after a few less successful films and after the same George Cukor comedy Her Cardboard Lover from 1942, the actress retired permanently to Sun Valley. In 1943 Katharine Hepburn wanted to perform together with Garbo in Mourning Must Wear Elektra by Eugene O'Neill, but studio boss Louis B. Mayer did not like the subject. For a while Garbo toyed with the idea of appearing as Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary in the film adaptation of The Double Eagle by Jean Cocteau ; the film was to be produced by Alexander Korda and Garbo thought of Marlon Brando as a film partner. Her response to David O. Selznick's offers to alternatively offer her the leading roles in The Paradin Case or the Mother's Secret : "No mothers, no murderesses!"

Tennessee Williams in particular was enthusiastic about the idea of ​​writing a play for the actress. In July 1947, he tried to convince her to play in a play called The Pink Bedroom . Her answer was succinct: "Give the role of Joan Crawford." Unimpressed by the failure of this attempt, Williams tried to win Greta Garbo for the role of Blanche Dubois in Endstation Sehnsucht . In the end, however, she couldn't bring herself to take on the complex role of a psychologically unstable southern beauty. Her reason: "I couldn't tell lies like the girl in the play."

The attempt by producer Walter Wanger to film the novella Die Herzogin von Langeais by Honoré de Balzac with Garbo went relatively far . James Mason would have become her co-star. There are still three test recordings that James Wong Howe and William H. Daniels made of her. However, there were funding issues and the film was never made. Garbo himself toyed with the idea of returning to the screen as Dorian Gray for a while. In 1952 she was offered the lead role in the film adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel My Cousin Rachel . She refused. Reason: "I could never play a Cornwall woman."

In 1954 she refused to appear in ... and not as a stranger alongside Frank Sinatra . The following year she turned down the main role in Anastasia . Her compatriot Ingrid Bergman took the part and won the Oscar. In addition, there were countless offers to appear on television, which she always rejected. One of the most interesting projects was Orson Welles ' attempt to get Garbo and Charlie Chaplin in front of the camera together as Eleonora Duse and Gabriele D'Annunzio in The Love of D'Annunzio and Duse . This project did not get beyond an early stage either. Almost even more sensational was Salvador Dalí's offer to cast Garbo in the role of Saint Teresa of Avila . Ingmar Bergman tried several times to win Garbo to participate in his films. But neither a role in Das Schweigen nor the chance to play Liv Ullmann's mother in Herbstsonate convinced Garbo of a comeback.

Effect and reception

Acting means of expression

Much has been written about Garbo and her impact on the screen. Clarence Brown can be quoted on behalf of the sometimes escalating speculation about her mysterious aura, who explains in an interview with Kevin Brownlow , published in the book Pioneers of the Film :

“Greta Garbo had something unique on screen that nobody else had, nobody. I don't know if she even knew about it, but she did. And I want to explain it in a few words. I did a scene with Garbo - not bad. I repeated it three or four times. It wasn't bad, but I was never completely satisfied. However, when I saw the same scene on screen, there was something that was kind of missing in the studio. There was something in Garbo's eyes that you couldn't see unless you shot them in close-up. You could see the thoughts. If she was to look jealously at one person and fall in love with another, there was no need to change her expression. You could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other. Garbo managed to do it without knowing the English language. For me, Garbo starts where everyone else ends. "

As Brown pointed out, Garbo was more of a reserved actress. In almost all American films she is more passive and mostly lethargic. Open outbursts of emotions, hysterics or fits of anger are the absolute exception. One of the very few times when Garbo used his whole body to express her emotions was a scene in the silent film version of Anna Karenina when Wronsky had a riding accident. She was just as rarely exposed to overt violence; With the exception of The Kiss and especially As You Wish Me, where Erich von Stroheim in his role as sadistic impresario grabs Garbo's film character hard and kisses him violently, Garbo was mostly seen in the role of the suffering tragedy.

Most critics admired the consistent quality in Greta Garbo's representations over the years. In his review of Ninotschka , Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times wrote :

“The perfection in Garbo's representations is monotonous. We would almost wish that she would at least ruin a scene every now and then so as not to be constantly suspected of being a member of a Greta Garbo fan club. But she remains infallible and Garbo, who is always able to play every situation according to the requirements, is always as good as the script and the director allow her. "


The actress has often been announced by her last name as Garbo since 1928 . Behind this was conscious marketing by her studio MGM, which tried to turn a relatively unknown actress into a distinctive brand. By only mentioning the surname in advertisements and on film posters, the tradition of the great stage stars was continued: the great Duse , the divine Bernhardt . With this trick you ennobled Garbo's acting skills and placed them in a row with well-known predecessors. In 1930 it was enough to advertise Anna Christie with just the announcement Garbo talks .

According to her own statements, the first months at MGM were not very pleasant for Greta Garbo. The studio tried to generate media attention for the actress with a campaign that was as intense as it was intrusive. The first step was to highlight her as a natural type and sporty heroine. Advertising photos from the first few months in Hollywood show her as a track and field athlete, swimmer, rider and even next to Leo, the studio lion. The actress quickly developed an aversion to such marketing methods.

Dealing with the press

In contrast to her American colleagues, who were mostly impartial with the press, Garbo was always careful to shield her private life as much as possible. Contrary to what is often rumored, she did not want to be alone, but simply to be left alone. After 1928 she had almost no contact with the press. She gave only 14 interviews during her entire career - backed up by sources. The studio took advantage of this fact to present Garbo as a woman with a mysterious and mythical aura.

In later years, her escape from paparazzi became part of her legend, which included her public appearances in wide-brimmed hats and large sunglasses. She refused to accept any requests from fans for autographs or personal appearances. The trade press assessed this escape from the public differently. Molie Merrick stated in her column of July 5, 1932, on the occasion of Garbo's absence from the premiere of the film People in the Hotel :

“Whenever Garbo refuses to appear at a premiere, the whole of Hollywood gets upset about this flaw. This is an incomprehensible reaction, however, as everyone knows in advance that Garbo will not appear in public - she has acted this way in the past, and there is no sign of any change in her behavior in the future. The panic that Garbo grips when faced with hordes of admirers has grown rather than weaker over the years. "

Effect on the critics

The film critics became aware of Greta Garbo through her first two films in America. To them, the way Garbo managed to project their feelings onto the screen in a subtle, yet obvious way for everyone, seemed novel and fascinating. The actress created a completely new type of woman and star.

So far, the female stars in Hollywood have been strictly typed. There were virgin heroines like Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford ; there were flappers and young naive a la Colleen Moore and Clara Bow . And there were vamps who just seemed to consist of direct, overheated sexuality. Since the days of Theda Bara and Nita Naldi , the representation of this type had softened somewhat, but the basic principle remained the same. Garbo's reserved, European-cultured view of acting differed from the obvious, always strikingly designed form with which American stars acted. How difficult it was for the critics to describe this new element can be seen in the sometimes excessive comparisons with other actors. In a review of Floods of Passion in the New York Tribune, for example, there were specific references to parallels with Norma Talmadge , ZaSu Pitts and Gloria Swanson , well-known filmmakers at the time.

The search for a "new Garbo"

Monument in the street where Greta Garbo was born

As early as 1928 Paramount tried to find an answer to the ever increasing popularity of Greta Garbo. One began deliberately with building up the Russian actress Olga Baclanova into a "new Garbo". The studio announced her as Baclanova in the films . The project failed due to the indifference of the audience. Attempts to turn actresses like Gwili Andre or Greta Nissen into a “new Garbo” were also not accepted. Even MGM tried in the last days of the silent film to find a possible successor with the actress Eva von Berne, and even put the actress next to John Gilbert. Every time there was no success. The search for an answer to the "Swedish Sphinx" took on some strange traits in the sound film era. Some of the better-known names, touted as sensational new discoveries almost every year, include Anna Sten , Luise Rainer , Sigrid Gurie , who was advertised as Siren of the Fjords , as well as Hedy Lamarr , Isa Miranda and Franciska Gaal . The method was even tried by Lil Dagover , who the studio specifically portrayed in the publicity for her 1932 film The Woman from Monte Carlo as a counterpart to the Swede.

The constant repetition of the method was not without criticism. The well-known journalist Elizabeth Yeaman wrote in her column on December 9, 1930 about Universal's attempts to turn the German-born actress Tala Birell into a new Garbo:

“Paramount had to put up with so much criticism for the constant comparisons between Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo that I just couldn't imagine any other studio trying again to market an actress as the Garbo type. It is rather strange for the American audience to see Garbo as something absolutely unique. And then suddenly loads of other Garbos appear. Apparently the guy is not that unique, at least in Germany. "

A short time later, Louella Parsons reported on a similar case at Fox with similar pointed remarks:

“A new partner has been found for Charles [Farrell] who is said to have the same appeal as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Her name is Elissa Landi . It was about time that we finally had an English Greta Garbo, after we have already had her presented from all other countries. "

Garbo was especially popular in Germany. Joseph Goebbels praised their cinematic presence in 1933 as a perfect example of good, expressive representation. Against this background, quite a few critics even claim that Zarah Leander, at least at the beginning of her career in Germany, could more or less be regarded as a Garbo copy.

In the early thirties, American actresses were also compared to Garbo at every opportunity. A prominent example: Around 1933 the Warner Brothers launched Bette Davis of all people with the following slogan:

"A completely unique star: as beguiling as Garbo and just as difficult to grasp."

Bette Davis, however, always admitted that she never envied and admired any other actress as Greta Garbo. Even the otherwise difficult-to-impress Katharine Hepburn, who was allegedly willing to work as an extra in a Garbo film, just to be able to study the idol, agreed with this judgment.

German actress Ruth Leuwerik was also a big fan of Garbo. She even tried actively to get the role of Grusinskaya in the remake of People in the Hotel in the late 1950s . However, the plans came to nothing. In 1965 Ruth Leuwerik took on the role of Ninotschka in an opulently produced television film.

Garbo and Dietrich

The only success that the entire search campaign had was granted to Marlene Dietrich . Even in her first films in Germany, the actress was often compared to Greta Garbo. When Josef von Sternberg brought his protégée to America, these connections were not unknown to the reporters there either. Louella Parsons led z. B. in their column of July 1, 1930:

"As soon as you think of Sternberg's name, you automatically think of Marlene Dietrich, the German actress he brought to America with him and who is called the 'Garbo von Paramount'."

Even after Dietrich's debut, the comparison was subliminally present. The New York Times critic wrote subtle about Marlene's first American film Morocco :

"Outwardly, Frau Dietrich resembles Greta Garbo, but her acting skills hardly compete with those of the Swedish star."

The latent rivalry between the actresses was still in the air in the following year. Elizabeth Yeaman therefore said in her column in May 1931:

“A few months have passed since the premiere of Der Blaue Engel and Morocco , and the audience had the opportunity to realize that Marlene Dietrich is not a second Greta Garbo. But after her return from Germany, Ms. Dietrich's appearance corresponds more than ever to Garbo. "

Mata Hari in particular makes the interactions between the two actresses clear. The idea of ​​using Garbo as a spy was not entirely new, as she had already portrayed an agent in War in the Dark . However, concrete plans were only drawn up when Paramount announced in late 1930 that Marlene Dietrich would appear as a spy in her next film. In this respect, MGM saw itself under pressure and accelerated work on Mata Hari . One of the striking parallels with Dietrich's Dishonor is the spectacular execution scene at the end of the film. In this respect, it was not surprising when Elizabeth Yeaman found in her column of September 26, 1930 about the upcoming filming of Mata Hari :

"In any case, the studios will use these Nordic blondes as spies, Marlene Dietrich's next Paramount film will be a spy story from the world war."

Particularly attentive critics even claim to have discovered a deliberately ironic conundrum by Metro's chief designer Gilbert Adrian on the creations of Travis Banton for Marlene Dietrich at Paramount in Greta Garbo's wardrobe in How You Wish Me, where she wears a trouser suit, among other things.

Role model

Sculpture by Thomas Qvarsebo in the Filmstaden

Greta Garbo's influence on the female colleagues was far-reaching. Especially after 1930 it became a real fashion to copy certain outward appearances of the actress. Many actresses used certain lighting effects to accentuate their eyes and cheekbones. Narrow eyebrows and a slightly accentuated mouth were in vogue in the early 1930s. Barry Paris reports in his biography Garbo that in 1932 the magazine Vanity Fair showed an overview with actresses under the heading Before and After Garbo, about the sometimes amazing similarities in make-up and hairstyle of stars like Tallulah Bankhead or Marlene Dietrich with Greta Garbo to show.

Effects in modulating the voice to evoke a mysterious, thought-lost aura were also popular. Actress Ruth Chatterton was famous for her ability to use various foreign accents. An avid critic wrote in 1930 about the film Sarah and Son , in which Chatterton played an Austrian, that she sounded like Garbo herself. The Garbo period can be demonstrated particularly well using the example of Joan Crawford. The actress ended her previous flapper image around 1930 and played dramatic roles. For the first time in Paid, she consciously adapted her appearance and hairstyle as well as her modulation to Garbo. This alignment peaked in 1932 in Letty Lynton , a melodrama about a fatalistic girl. Elizabeth Yeaman wrote in her review of the film on May 21, 1932:

“Furthermore, her resemblance to Greta Garbo in two or three scenes is extraordinary. She not only looks like Garbo, she even uses Garbo's elusive technique once or twice, the unfathomable expression, the restrained longing, the shimmering tragedy. "

Both Carole Lombard in A Princess for America from 1936 and Norma Shearer in Idiot's Delight from 1939 deliberately created their roles as false European princesses as Garbo parodies, which was expressly noted by the critics.


Greta Garbo herself had a marked aversion to anything to do with fashion. That didn't stop the studio from paying the utmost attention to their film wardrobe, however. Gilbert Adrian , chief designer since the late 1920s, designed some of his most famous creations for Garbo. Costs were irrelevant, and MGM spent $ 30,000 on five ensembles in Mata Hari alone . As far as is known, of all her costumes, Garbo valued the striped house suit that Adrian designed for her in invisible shackles . There's a photo of Garbo in the suit next to Adrian. The intensive working relationship between star and designer was exactly the same as that between Marlene Dietrich and Travis Banton. When Adrian received the instruction from the studio to dress Garbo as a typical American for her last film, he announced the collaboration with MGM.

Garbo also influenced the fashion of the time. The elaborate headgear that the actress regularly wore quickly became something of a trademark. Her cloche, a bell-shaped hat she wore in A Shameless Woman , became very popular. A few years later she established hats in the style of Empress Eugenie in romance . Thanks Mata Hari caps were in the style of a tipping introduced to the fashion and in the film The Painted Veil made her a creation called pillbox was popular. The influence was particularly evident in Queen Christine, where Adrian designed a special collar to accentuate her face. These collars were particularly popular in Europe and were often copied. The Garbo hairstyles also occasionally created trends. The fluffed hairstyle from Yvonne, which she also showed in Helga's fall and rise , was copied, as was the upright hairstyle from Maria Walewska .


For a detailed filmography with additional information on the director, studio and box office results of the individual films, see Greta Garbo / Filmography

A Man's Man (1929) by James Cruze uses archive footage by Greta Garbo and John Gilbert that was incorporated into the plot.


Garbo's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Oscar / Best Actress

New York Film Critics Circle Awards

  • 1936: Best Actress - Anna Karenina
  • 1937: Best Actress - The Lady of the Camellias
  • 1939: 2nd place as best actor - Ninotschka
  • 1941: 3rd place as best actress - the woman with two faces

Further honors

Literature (selection)


Secondary literature with extensive passages on Greta Garbo



  • Greta Garbo: The Temptress and the Clown , Sweden / United States, 1986, 120 min., Director: Dan Säll.
  • The Divine Garbo , United States, 1990, directed by Susan F. Walker.
  • Greta Garbo - Ein Leben (Greta Garbo: A Lone Star) , Great Britain / United States, 2001, 45 min., Director: Steve Cole.
  • Greta Garbo - Loneliness of a Diva (Garbo) , United States, 2005, 85 min., Directors: Christopher Bird and Kevin Brownlow.
  • Greta Garbo: The Mysterious Lady , United States, 2006, 60 min., Director: John Griffin.

Web links

Commons : Greta Garbo  - Collection of Images

References and translations

  1. Greta Garbo goes home at last BBC News from June 17, 1999, accessed on January 1, 2015. (English)
  2. AFI's 50 GREATEST AMERICAN SCREEN LEGENDS Official website of the American Film Institute, accessed January 1, 2015.
  3. The lonely goddess of the film Der Stern on September 18, 2005, accessed on January 1, 2015.
  4. Greta Garbo Awards. Internet Movie Database , accessed March 22, 2021 .
  5. Susan Ware: Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary: Completing the Twentieth Century , 2004, p. 227.
  6. Garbo's father came from Frinnaryd in the province of Småland, her mother was born in Högsby.
  7. Kalle Gustafsson worked, among other things, as a butcher's assistant and gardener to earn a living for his family; the mother also worked as a cleaning lady.
  8. ^ Robert Payne: The Great Garbo, London 1976, p. 22.
  9. ^ "I would smell the greasepaint. There is no smell in the world like the smell of a backyard of a theater. No smell that will mean that much to me - ever! "
  10. quoted in Barry Paris: Garbo. The biography , p. 61.
  11. Greta Garbo Biography The New York Times, accessed January 1, 2015.
  12. There are different versions of how the name was chosen. According to a widespread opinion, it is the phonetic further development of the name Mona Gabor, which Stiller's assistant Arthur Nordén had come up with based on the Hungarian name Gabór of Prince Gabriel Bethlen . According to another opinion, Garbo's friend Mimi Pollack is said to have invented the name. What is certain, however, is that Anna Gustafsson signed the application for a name change for her underage daughter on November 9, 1923.
  13. Patrick Vonderau deals in detail with the failure of the project in "So sch *** en that you can hardly believe it" - Greta Garbo and the adversities of German film production, 1924 (see literature).
  14. “Much discussion has been provoked among the fans of the Swedish star over her forthcoming debut in the talkies. Some maintain her charm will be enhanced, while others declare the lure of the exotic actress lies in her ability to make audiences feel emotion by suggestion. "
  15. German: “I am Mata Hari. I am my own master."
  16. "I want to be alone."
  17. “The last show trials were a great success. There will be fewer, but better, Russians. "
  18. "The film turns Garbo into a clown, a buffoon, a dancing bear."
  19. “It must be monotonous, this superb rightness of Garbo's playing. We almost wish she would handle a scene badly once in a while just to provide us with an opportunity to show we are not a member of a fan club. But she remains infallible and Garbo, always exactly what the situation demands, always as fine as her script and director permit her to be. "
  20. Molie Merrick in her column in: Los Angeles Evening Herald Express.
  21. “Whenever Garbo fails to appear at a premiere, all Hollywood raises protests anew about this defection. A strange reaction in view of the fact that they know beforehand that Garbo will not appear publicly - has not in the past, and has not the slightest intention of doing so in the future. The panic which seizes Garbo when faced by multitudes of the admiring is becoming more intense instead of less poignant than it was heretofore. "
  22. a b c d Elizabeth Yeaman in her column in: Hollywood Daily Citizen.
  23. “So much criticism has descended upon Paramount for playing up the similarity between Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, that I don't believe any one else will be launched as a Garbo type. It is rather strange that the American public should have some to look upon Garbo as an altogether unique type. Then suddenly several other Garbos arrive on the scene. Apparently the type is not unusual in Germany. "
  24. ^ A b Louella O. Parsons in her column in: Los Angeles Examiner .
  25. ^ "A new leading lady has been found for Charlie [Farrell], and one who is reported as having something of the allure of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Her name is Elissa Landi. Time we had an English Greta Garbo. We have had them from all the other countries. "
  26. "A new kind of star: As bewitching as Garbo and as hard to explain."
  27. "Whenever you mention the name von Sternberg you unconsciously think of Marlene Dietrich, the German leading lady whom he brought to this country, the one who is being called the Greta Garbo of Paramount."
  28. "Miss Dietrich bears a resemblance to Greta Garbo, but her acting hardly rivals that of the Swedish star."
  29. “Although several months have elapsed since the release of The Blue Angel and Morocco, and the public has had an opportunity to decide that Marlene Dietrich is not a second Greta Garbo. Miss Dietrich has returned from Germany with more of a Garbo air in her personal attire than ever. "
  30. "In any event, the studios are featuring these Nordic blondes in spy stories, for Marlene Dietrich's next Paramount picture will be a spy story with a World War background."
  31. “Furthermore, in two or three scenes her resemblance to Greta Garbo is extraordinary. Not only does she look like Garbo once or twice, but she employs that elusive Garbo technique that unfathomable expression, that thwarted yearning and lurking tragedy. "
  32. Greta Garbo Honored The New York Times, accessed January 4, 2015.