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Greer Garson - Star of the Month
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Greer Garson Profile

Long before Greer Garson had even set foot in Hollywood, when she was still an aspiring, and quickly ascending, stage actress in Great Britain, she received the kind of compliment every actress dreams of. While she was performing George Bernard Shaw's "Too True to Be Good," in 1932, she received a letter from Shaw himself, comparing her with some of the greatest actresses of the London stage: "Sarah Bernhardt broke one's heart. Ellen Terry mended it. You, Miss Garson, are the new Ellen Terry. Never leave the theatre. I shall be very disappointed indeed if you go to Hollywood to work with magic lanterns."

Luckily for us, if not so happily for Shaw, Garson, a captivating redhead with sparkling eyes and regal bearing, did end up in Hollywood, becoming one of the most respected and beloved stars of the 1940s. Garson was born in London in 1904, to a Scottish father and an Irish mother. (She was originally called Eileen, though she began to use Greer, a family name, around the time she starred in "Too True to Be Good.") Just as Garson's theater career was taking off, she was discovered by MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who was then trolling Europe for potential stars to add to his collection. He offered her a contract, and she and her mother, Nina, arrived in Hollywood in 1937.

There Garson waited, and waited, for Mayer to cast her in a film. After nearly a year of inactivity - and just as she was about to give up and return to England -- she landed her first film role, as Katherine, the vivacious professor's wife in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Garson was at first reluctant to take the part - it was a small one, and not the big Hollywood debut she'd hoped for. But her turn as Katherine is one of the most charming performances of her career: Opposite her co-star, Robert Donat, she's an effervescent presence. If, in her later roles, she'd achieve the regal richness of full-bodied coffee, this performance is pure champagne.

The picture was a hit, and Garson was a hit in it: Mayer, who'd almost lost interest in her, realized he might have a potential star on his hands, and in 1940 she was cast as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, opposite Laurence Olivier, with whom she'd worked on the London stage. If the picture takes some liberties with Jane Austen's source material, it is, as the critic Robin Wood has observed, alive, and Garson's spirited performance is its lifeline.

From that point on, critics and audiences couldn't help but notice Garson, and other roles quickly followed: She received acclaim for her role as Edna Gladney, an advocate for disadvantaged children, in Blossoms in the Dust (1941). But she would make her real breakthrough the following year, playing the title character in the wartime morale booster Mrs. Miniver.

At first, Garson didn't want to accept the role of the unflappable matriarch, facing hardships cheerfully but resolutely in wartime England. One of her objections was that the character had a grown son. But Garson finally agreed to take the role. (She also, incidentally, went on to marry the actor who played her son, Richard Ney, though the marriage lasted only 4 years.) The performance resonated with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Queen Elizabeth herself, the wife of George VI (and mother of Queen Elizabeth II), wrote to the actress: "You made us feel more brave than we actually were by your performance. To you, we will all be eternally grateful."

While the film was extremely popular with audiences, some critics, particularly in Great Britain, had harsh words for it: "God, those Hollywood men with their funny ideas of what this war is about!" bemoaned critic Eric Knight. But even those who had reservations about the film found Garson compelling. The performance earned her an Academy Award that year, and she accepted her statuette with a famously rambling, but also heartfelt, speech.

Garson's career continued to thrive through the '40s: She followed Mrs. Miniver with the romantic melodrama Random Harvest (1942), in which she gives a stirring performance as the long-suffering love of a man whose memory has been erased by amnesia (played by Ronald Colman). According to Garson's biographer, Michael Troyan, Garson said many years later, "The screen's main function, I believe, is to give the world beauty and romance, to make us forget our own troubles for a time and send us out of the theater with a lift of the heart. For sheer make-believe romance, you cannot top James Hilton's Random Harvest. It is the happiest film I ever made."

Immediately following, Garson starred in Madame Curie (1943), once again appearing with Walter Pidgeon, her co-star in Blossoms in the Dust and Mrs. Miniver. Garson and Pidgeon were also close friends off-screen; he'd reached out to her when she first arrived in Hollywood and knew very few people. It was Pidgeon who, when the two first did a screen test together, gave Garson the nickname "Duchess," a moniker that stuck because of the actress' inherent dignity and grace.

In Madame Curie, Garson and Pidgeon, as the hardworking husband-wife physicist duo Pierre and Marie Curie, have lovely chemistry together: Garson had by this time grown into this type of "great lady" role, but Pidgeon's presence, both elegant and unassuming, helps keep her down to earth. The two would make yet another movie in 1944, the romantic drama Mrs. Parkington, and went on to make several more, for a total of eight. Others include That Forsyte Woman (1949), The Miniver Story (1950) and Scandal at Scourie (1953).

As with other actresses of her generation - most notably her rival, Joan Crawford -- Garson's career began to slow down in the 1950s. Notable roles included that of Calpurnia in the 1953 Julius Caesar, and of Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1960 Sunrise at Campobello. The latter performance earned her the last of the seven Academy Award nominations she received in the course of her career. (Mrs. Miniver was her sole win.) In 1966, Garson appeared, as Mother Prioress, in The Singing Nun, with Debbie Reynolds.

Like many actors who'd had their heyday in Hollywood's golden age, Garson worked largely in television through the '50s, '60s and '70s. To kids of the '60s, her rich, sonorous voice, with its meticulous diction and plummy vowels, was familiar as the narrator of the 1968 animated TV special "The Little Drummer Boy." But Garson worked less frequently as the years wore on, preferring to devote her energy to philanthropic causes in Dallas, where she lived until the end of her life, in 1996. The 1940s may have been Garson's most glorious era, but her regal bearing and Titian-haired beauty are timeless. Thank goodness she ignored Shaw's advice and gave in to the magic lanterns.

by Stephanie Zacharek

Michael Troyan, A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson, University Press of Kentucky, 2005


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