Greta Garbo


Actor
Greta Garbo

About

Also Known As
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson
Birth Place
Sweden
Born
September 18, 1905
Died
April 15, 1990

Biography

Greta Garbo was arguably the quintessential embodiment of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a beautiful, glamorous, and above all, mysterious image, carefully cultivated by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the sole studio she would work for during her American film career. Touted as the "Swedish Sphinx" by MGM upon her arrival in Hollywood, Garbo immediately became one of silent film’s most popular actresses ...

Photos & Videos

Grand Hotel - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Camille - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Queen Christina - Casting Memo from Garbo

Family & Companions

John Gilbert
Companion
Actor. Together in late 1920s.
Leopold Stokowski
Companion
Conductor. Together in mid-1930s.
Mercedes de Acosta
Companion
Writer.
Gaylord Hauser
Companion
Writer, health food promoter. Together in 1940s and 50s in a platonic relationship.

Bibliography

"Conversations With Greta Garbo"
Steve Broman, Viking (1992)
"Walking With Garbo"
Raymond Daum and Vance Muse, HarperCollins (1991)
"The Great Garbo"
Robert Payne, Praeger (1976)
"Greta Garbo"
Richard Corliss, Pyramid Books (1974)

Notes

The screen name, Greta Garbo, was suggested by director Mauritz Stiller.

Garbo's ashes were finally interred in a Stockholm cemetery on June 16, 1999

Biography

Greta Garbo was arguably the quintessential embodiment of Hollywood’s Golden Age, a beautiful, glamorous, and above all, mysterious image, carefully cultivated by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the sole studio she would work for during her American film career. Touted as the "Swedish Sphinx" by MGM upon her arrival in Hollywood, Garbo immediately became one of silent film’s most popular actresses in such features as "The Torrent" (1926), "Flesh and the Devil" (1927) and "Love" (1927). Paired with the most talented directors and popular leading men, she entranced audiences with her mesmerizing portrayals of "fallen women" and fatalistic lovers. Even the arrival of sound could not diminish her appeal; in fact, Garbo’s sultry, accented voice only added to her allure in her first "talkie," "Anna Christie" (1930). Later films – in particular, "Mata Hari" (1931), "Grand Hotel" (1932), "Queen Christina" (1933) and "Camille" (1936) – cemented her megastar status, not only in America, but around the world. Known for her aversion to publicity and demanding nature on the set of her films, she was also an astute business woman, whose bargaining acumen made her one of the highest paid movie stars of the day. Garbo's sudden decision to retire from film in 1941 and her steadfast maintenance of a notoriously reclusive lifestyle until her death in 1990 further enhanced her mystique and immortalized her as one of the silver screen’s greatest icons.

Born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on Sept. 18, 1905 in Stockholm, Sweden, she was the youngest child of Anna Lovisa and Karl Alfred Gustafsson. Karl was an unskilled laborer, who took on any menial job he could; consequently, Garbo’s childhood was one of near abject poverty. Life was made even more difficult for the shy girl when her father grew seriously ill and she was forced to leave school at the age of 13 to care for him. Karl passed away a year later, inevitably leading to the 14-year-old Garbo entering the workforce to help support the family – first in a barbershop and later as a department store salesclerk. It was while working at the latter job in 1921, that the attractive young clerk – who had already begun working as a catalogue model – was cast in a short advertisement film sponsored by the store. This led to more promotional shorts and a role in the silent comedy feature "Luffar-Petter" ("Peter the Tramp") (1922). Enamored by the theater since she was a child, Garbo studied for two years at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre Acting School, during which time she was chosen by noted Swedish film director Mauritz Stiller to play the lead in the romantic drama "Gösta Berlings Saga" ("The Saga of Gosta Berling") (1924). Stiller soon became her mentor and manager, controlling all aspects of her emerging career, including changing her surname to "Garbo."

The newly christened Garbo may not have taken her homeland by storm, but in Germany, where she was seen in her second feature, the G.W. Pabst-directed drama "The Joyless Street" (1925), they loved her. Accounts of what brought Garbo to America differ – some said it was Stiller, who insisted his young protégé join him; others that media mogul Louis B. Mayer was immediately taken by her screen presence. Regardless of the particulars, in the summer of 1925, both Stiller and Garbo left Sweden for Hollywood with contracts awaiting them at MGM. She first appeared in two Latin love stories drawn from torrid Vicente Blasco-Ibanez novels. First came "The Torrent" (1926), in which an unconvinced MGM cast her as a vamp opposite leading man Ricardo Cortez. For her part, Garbo was unimpressed by the script and disappointed that Stiller would not be directing her in her U.S. film debut. MGM, on the other hand, was thrilled by the film’s eventual box-office success and the critical raves Garbo received for her performance. Always looking for a winning formula, the studio immediately cast her in a similar vehicle, opposite Latin heartthrob Antonio Moreno in "The Temptress" (1926). This time, however, the actress was given top billing and was to be directed by Stiller, who had convinced Garbo to accept the project. The experience was not a happy one, though, as the confrontational Stiller was quickly fired from the film and Garbo received word of her sister’s death in Sweden during the shoot. Nonetheless, "The Temptress" was a hit with moviegoers and MGM had officially found its newest star.

Garbo’s major breakthrough came with her third feature when MGM paired her with the silent screen's most popular leading man, John Gilbert, in the unrestrained romance "Flesh and the Devil" (1927). By all accounts, the two developed an instant and intense romantic rapport that carried over onscreen and encouraged the publicity and gossip about her offscreen life that followed Garbo throughout the remainder of her life. Following the undeniable success of "Flesh and the Devil," Garbo – already exhausted from her hectic schedule and still angry over the studio’s refusal to allow her to attend her sister’s funeral in Sweden – demanded a raise. Initially, MGM balked, but after shrewd negotiation tactics that included threats to return to Sweden and a temporary strike, Garbo’s pay increased to record levels, and her cavalier indifference to stardom served only to fuel her legend even more. During the remainder of her career at MGM, Garbo would work with only the most venerated directors, most notably Clarence Brown, with whom she collaborated on a total of seven films. The superstar was also given her preference in production staff, often working with her favorite cinematographer, William Daniels. The studio also famously conceded to Garbo’s demands as to working conditions, which included closed sets, no overtime, and that she and the camera be entirely surrounded by black curtains during the filming of close-ups. Within three years of her arrival at MGM, Garbo's public image had been fashioned into the epitome of the glamorous excess the studio had become known for.

Garbo went on to film seven more silent films for MGM, all of which proved to be hugely successful. "Love" (1927) cast her opposite Gilbert once again in an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and the studio shrewdly capitalized on the couple’s much publicized romance with its sensational marketing campaign. The advent of sound to motion pictures had proved to be the demise of so many Hollywood film actors, especially those transplanted from Europe, and an anxious MGM kept the thickly-accented Garbo away from the microphones for as long as possible. The actress’ final silent film, "The Kiss" (1929), would also be the studio’s last. Heralded by the famous ad campaign of "Garbo Talks!" the studio finally permitted the last of its silent stars to speak onscreen in the Brown-directed adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" (1930). MGM need not have worried, as American audiences were instantly beguiled by Garbo’s husky voice from the moment she uttered her first line – "Gimme a visky with a ginger ale on the side and don’t be stingy, baby." "Anna Christie" went on to become a massive hit – so successful, in fact, that a German language version was released the following year – and earned the actress her first Academy Award nomination. Re-teamed with Brown, she garnered another Oscar nod for her work in the "fallen woman" romantic drama "Romance" (1931). More popular releases followed in quick succession, including a smoldering turn as the titular World War I seductress "Mata Hari" (1931) in MGM’s biggest blockbuster of the year.

"Garbo-mania" reached its greatest height with the release of the star-studded ensemble drama "Grand Hotel" (1932), co-starring film royalty John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery. It was, however, Garbo’s fading ballerina character with her immortal, persona-defining declaration of "I want to be alone," that stole the show. Directed by Edmund Goulding, "Grand Hotel" won the 1932 Academy Award for Best Picture. The success of "Grand Hotel" gave Garbo even more power within the studio, which she used to help her former lover, Gilbert, whose career had been suffering terribly since the introduction sound. The former superstar couple appeared onscreen one last time in the historical drama "Queen Christina" (1933), in which she gave one of her most revered performances as the 17th Century Swedish monarch. Garbo’s enigmatic, lengthy close up in the final seconds of the film would become one of cinema’s most examined screen moments. She then reprised her earlier acclaimed role in a more literal adaptation of "Anna Karenina" (1935), and continued with more portrayals of lonely women willing to sacrifice love for the greater good in "Camille" (1936) and "Conquest" (1937). While "Camille" earned her yet another Academy Award nomination, "Conquest," due in large part to its monumental budget, became one of the star’s only box-office disappointments.

After having made a career playing doomed lovers in nearly two dozen tragic romantic dramas for MGM – and perhaps still stinging from the failure of "Conquest" – Garbo switched to comedy late in the game with "Ninotchka" (1939). Co-written by the great Billy Wilder and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the movie was a delightful satire skewering Stalin-era Russia and introduced audiences to a previously unseen side of the actress with the marketing tagline "Garbo Laughs!" For her surprisingly versatile performance in the film, she received her fourth and final Academy Award nomination. Unfortunately, an attempt to continue the trend and present Garbo as a domesticated American housewife in director George Cukor's superficial farce "Two-Faced Woman" (1941), failed to attract audiences. With her much-needed international box office draw halted by the start of World War II and her domestic appeal on the wane, Garbo’s once undeniable bargaining had lost much of its power. When MGM stood firm in its refusal to once again increase her salary, the film legend left Hollywood in a retirement that was as sudden as it was permanent. Although enticed by filmmakers to return to the screen many times over the years, Garbo would never make another motion picture. Instead, she led a life of simplicity, indulgence and relative seclusion, traveling extensively throughout Europe while maintaining an upscale residence in Manhattan. Much as she had during her career, Garbo assiduously shunned publicity throughout her later years, only glimpsed infrequently by "Garbo watchers" during her occasional walks around her New York neighborhood. On April 15, 1990, Greta Garbo died at the age of 84 due to complications of pneumonia and kidney failure.

Life Events

1921

Appeared in short publicity film, "How Not to Dress"

1922

First leading role in comedy feature "Luffar Peter" ("Peter the Tramp")

1924

Won first real notice for leading role in "The Atonement of Gosta Berling"

1924

Discovered by Swedish director Mauritz Stiller, accompanied him to New York City (date approximate)

1925

Awarded first Hollywood contract (MGM) thanks to Stiller

1926

First American film, "The Torrent"

1927

Separation from Stiller, who sailed back to Sweden after disagreements with MGM and Paramount

1928

Death of Stiller

1929

Last silent film, "The Kiss"

1930

First sound film, "Anna Christie", filmed in English by Clarence Brown and in German by Jacques Feyder

1939

First comedy, "Ninotchka"

1941

Last film, "Two-Faced Woman"; abandoned film career at age 36

1991

Garbo's $20 million estate was all left to her niece, Gray Reisfield (Sven Ake Fredriksson, a retired salesman, had unsuccessfully challenged the will claiming that he is the illegitimate son of her late brother, Sven Alfred Gustafson)

Photo Collections

Grand Hotel - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Here are a few photos taken during production of MGM's all-star film, Grand Hotel (1932).
Camille - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Here are several behind-the-scenes photos taken during the shooting of Camille (1937). Look for director George Cukor and stars Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.
Queen Christina - Casting Memo from Garbo
In this studio memo, Greta Garbo exercises her rights of casting approval on MGM's Queen Christina (1933).
Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise - Garbo Publicity Stills
Here are Publicity Stills taken of Greta Garbo for Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931), including several by noted photographer Clarence Bull.
The Temptress - Scene Stills
Here are several scene stills from MGM's The Temptress (1926), starring Greta Garbo.
Conquest - Movie Poster
Here is the American One-Sheet Movie Poster from Conquest (1937). One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.
Flesh and the Devil - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Here are a few photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of MGM's Flesh and the Devil (1926), starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert and directed by Clarence Brown.
Anna Karenina (1935) - Behind-the-Scenes Photos
Here are some photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of MGM's Anna Karenina (1935), directed by Clarence Brown and Starring Greta Garbo and Fredric March.
Two-Faced Woman - Kapralik Trade Ad
Here is a trade ad for MGM's Two-Faced Woman (1941), starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas. The art is by mixed-media caricaturist Jaques Kapralik. Trade Ads were placed by studios in industry magazines like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
Camille (1937) - Movie Posters
Here are a few original release American movie posters from MGM's Camille (1937), starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.
The Painted Veil - Movie Poster
Here is an American release movie poster for The Painted Veil (1934), starring Greta Garbo.
Anna Christie - Movie Poster
Here is the American one-sheet movie poster for Anna Christie (1930), starring Greta Garbo. One-sheets measured 27x41 inches, and were the poster style most commonly used in theaters.
Greta Garbo - 1950s Portraits
In Spring or Fall 1951 Garbo approached fashion and society portraitist George Hoyningen- Heune (1900-1968) to do some photos for her passport. Several photographs were made at an afternoon in Los Angeles . Hoyningen Heune published the photos, for Harper's Bazaar in April 1952.
Queen Christina - Garbo Publicity Stills
Here are some publicity stills taken of Greta Garbo, in the title role as Queen Christina (1933).
Greta Garbo - State Express Cigarette Card
This is a small cigarette card of actress Greta Garbo. These trading cards were included in Cigarette packs in the 30's and 40's and were collectible items. Customers could even purchase books to organize and collect these cards. State Express was an active Cigarette Card producer, creating a wide range of cards featuring famous people of which film stars were an often popular draw.

Videos

Movie Clip

Camille (1936) - Buy Me Some Sweets Mid 19th-century Paris courtesan Marguerite (Greta Garbo) thinks Armand (Robert Taylor) is the Baron with whom she's being set up, as they first meet at the theater, until her friend Prudence (Laura Hope Crews) shows up, in MGM's Camille, 1936.
Camille (1936) - You Look Ill, Too Feeling faint at a party, consumptive Marguerite (Greta Garbo, title character) retreats, followed by Armand (Robert Taylor) who professes his feelings, in MGM's Camille, 1936, from the Alexandre Dumas fils novel.
Queen Christina (1933) - I Have No Time To Soothe You First appearance by Greta Garbo, now grown up, as the Swedish queen, a historical figure, consulting with her chancellor (Lewis Stone) and her (turns out to be...) amorous treasurer (Ian Keith), early in MGM's Queen Christina, also starring John Gilbert.
Queen Christina (1933) - I Give Her Up Gladly Chat about the chambermaid (Barbara Barondess), as Greta Garbo (title character) prepares to share lodgings at a Swedish inn with fellow traveler and gentleman, Spanish ambassador Don Antonio (John Gilbert), who doesn't know she's a girl, or royal, in Rouben Mamoulian's Queen Christina, 1933.
Camille (1936) - Marguerite Gautier A mild literary prologue then the introduction of Marguerite (Greta Garbo), as the "lady of the camelias," thus the name of the story, with friend prudence (Laura Hope Crews), George Cukor directing, in MGM's Camille, 1936.
Painted Veil, The (1934) - Blithering Idiot Alone after her sister's wedding, Austrian Olga (Greta Garbo) with her former schoolmate, Brit doctor Walter (Herbert Marshall), in Richard Boleslawski's The Painted Veil, 1934, from the Somerset Maugham novel.
Painted Veil, The (1934) - Men Ought To Be Different Opening scene from director Richard Boleslawski, bride Olga (Cecilia Parker), her sister Katrin (Greta Garbo), her suitor Walter (Herbert Marshall) and their parents (Jean Hersholt, Bodil Rosing), from The Painted Veil, 1934, from the Somerset Maugham novel.
Painted Veil, The (1934) - The Spell Is Broken Hong Kong man-about-town Jack (George Brent), giving a tour but shameless in his pursuit of newly-arrived doctor's wife Katrin (Greta Garbo), in The Painted Veil, 1934, from the Somerset Maugham novel.
Painted Veil, The (1934) - Admiring Your Garden Left at home during a Hong Kong festival, doctor's wife Katrin (Greta Garbo) is intercepted by her unwelcome suitor Jack (George Brent), then attending together, in The Painted Veil, 1934, from the Somerset Maugham novel.
Romance (1930) - Harder To Be Good Young Manhattan pastor Tom (Gavin Gordon) deals first with a gossipy guest (William Stack), then with his parishoner and host Van Tuyl (Lewis Stone), before briefly meeting the star Greta Garbo, early in her second talkie, Romance, 1930.
Romance (1930) - Perhaps The Boat Will Sink New Yorker Miss Armstrong (Clara Blandick) with Van Tuyl (Lewis Stone), prepared to be offended by opera singer Rita Cavallini (Greta Garbo), and both aiming to discourage her friendship with her pastor brother Tom (Gavin Gordon), in MGM's Romance, 1930.
Flesh And The Devil (1926) - You'd Better Stay And Nurse Him Only the absence of top-billed John Gilbert (as turn-of-the-century German soldier Leo) has been established, his buddy Ulrich (Lars Hanson) attempting to cover at roll call, then the star appearing just in time, early in Flesh And The Devil, 1926, also starring Greta Garbo.

Trailer

Promo

Family

Karl Alfred Gustafsson
Father
Privy cleaner, unskilled laborer. Died of tuberculosis c. 1918.
Anna Lovisa Gustafsson
Mother
Sven Garbo
Brother
Alva Gustaffson
Sister
Actress. Born 1903, died 1926; appeared in "Tva konungar/Two Kings" (1925).
Gray Reisfeld
Niece
Daughter of brother Sven; inherited the bulk of Garbo's estate.

Companions

John Gilbert
Companion
Actor. Together in late 1920s.
Leopold Stokowski
Companion
Conductor. Together in mid-1930s.
Mercedes de Acosta
Companion
Writer.
Gaylord Hauser
Companion
Writer, health food promoter. Together in 1940s and 50s in a platonic relationship.
George Schlee
Companion
Together in 1960s.

Bibliography

"Conversations With Greta Garbo"
Steve Broman, Viking (1992)
"Walking With Garbo"
Raymond Daum and Vance Muse, HarperCollins (1991)
"The Great Garbo"
Robert Payne, Praeger (1976)
"Greta Garbo"
Richard Corliss, Pyramid Books (1974)
"Garbo"
John Bainbridge

Notes

The screen name, Greta Garbo, was suggested by director Mauritz Stiller.

Garbo's ashes were finally interred in a Stockholm cemetery on June 16, 1999