Thursday 26 November 2015

Greta Garbo: An Untold Story


 A life in two lives. The immaculately aloof Movie Star, 
 and the fan whose emotional life she choreographed 
and whose dreams she defined… 

‘Don’t step on Greta Garbo as you walk down the Boulevard, 
she looks so weak and fragile, that’s why she tried to be so hard, 
but they turned her into a princess, and they sat her on a throne, 
but she turned her back on stardom, 
because she wanted to be alone…’ 
 “Celluloid Heroes” by The Kinks)

I was born – illegitimate as they used to call it, in 1947, on the 18th September. My Mother said she was unable to forget so significant a date, because it was Greta Garbo’s birthday. Not – note, the other way around. Garbo first. Then me. A joke? Perhaps. But I suspect not.

Greta Garbo was a Movie Star. And in the absolute sense that true stars are defined, she was bigger than the often trite and frequently insubstantial vehicles in which she appeared. She remains – above all else, a shining image. A profile. An immaculately flawless visage detached from whatever context it is placed within. Others act. Garbo is. Her indelible identity is enough. Just being there renders other actors invisible. Her gaze goes beyond these things. It suggests more than it ever delivers. But sometimes, suggestion can be enough. Thousands of words, in books and movie-mags, on film, TV and record albums, attempt to explain the provocative fascination of this frightened nineteen-year-old Swedish starlet who arrived in Hollywood in 1925 speaking no English, only to vanish from the screen as its most enigmatic star, into silent mystique only sixteen years and twenty-four movies later. Few, if any, can do her justice. It all begins here.

Although her movies might have been structured from original works by Dumas or Tolstoy, the MGM-studios of the 1930’s were just as much a streamlined automated hit production-machine as Tamla-Motown records would be in the 1960’s, boasting a movie-a-week schedule. And it customised its product to the perceived requirements of the audience. Hence Garbo’s were generically ‘women’s pictures’. In ‘Camille’ Garbo plays the doomed courtesan – not, my mother insists, a prostitute, although – I argue back, surely it’s only the semantics of social class and the magnitude of the financial transaction involved that defines the difference? She is dying of consumption. But as a mistress, a ‘kept woman’, a courtesan, she can never express her true feelings. Love must be a transaction – even to death. To admit – or hope for more, would be a betrayal. 

Elsewhere, in ‘Queen Christina’ Garbo is the deposed monarch sailing into exile, staring back at the Sweden she loves and was born destined to rule, but is now forbidden to ever see again. In both films she portrays a dignified secret suffering achieved with minimal expression. Today, Post-Stanislavski, inner torment and stress are expressed through a repertoire of outer mannerisms. The anguished shouting. The compulsive drinking. The explosively slammed door. This is the way we are now programmed to react. This is what we are. 

But Garbo expresses a different morality for a different age. And when my mother’s life collapses, it is Garbo’s dignified secret suffering that provides the behavioural role through which she will survive it all. This is what she becomes. Like Camille she has the ache of secret shame that can never be expressed, for fear of betraying those she cares for. Until death. Like Queen Christina she is exiled, forbidden from returning to what she’s lost. The ache conveyed with a minimal outer expression of suspended reality. Merely a transfixing symmetry, piercingly clear-eyed. 

One of the pithiest insights into her stardom was made by ‘The Observer’s one-time theatre and movie critic Kenneth Tynan who observed that ‘what, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.’ To Roland Barthes, Garbo’s face is an idea, a severely abstracted Platonic ideal of perfection, as frigidly distant as the midnight sun. It is an image that persists in popular culture. Garbo is the first in a roster of iconic names that Madonna tributes on her hit record “Vogue” (‘Greta Garbo and Monroe, Dietrich and DiMaggio, Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean, on the cover of a magazine’). In Lloyd Cole’s “Perfect Skin” his lover ‘has cheekbones like geometry’ (‘at the age of ten she looked like Greta Garbo, and I loved her then?’). Garbo titles a 1980’s Stevie Nicks ‘B’-side. While in Jackie DeShannon’s “Bette Davis Eyes”, recorded for the charts by Kim Carne’s ‘she got Greta Garbo stand-off sighs’ and ‘all the boy’s think she’s a spy’, like Garbo in ‘Ninotchka’.

In America, at least until the final flickerings of Vaudeville at the opening of the 1940’s – it was still occasionally possible to see live stage shows alternating with movie screenings. But a night at the ‘flicks’ has always been about more than just a Movie. In those distant days before even the hey-day of mass radio entertainment, your ‘six-penny-worth of dark’ bought a communal fantasia in itself. The ‘Kinema’ – the Odeon, Roxy, Gaumont, or Regal provides cheap refuge from a near-Third World harsh reality, to see things denied them in real life. The ‘Picture Palaces’ are the most spectacular and luxurious buildings most ordinary people ever get to set foot in. Art Deco fantasies of sparkling lights, lavishly soft carpets, burnished brass railings and plush decor, where uniformed commissionaires and front-of-house managers in dinner jackets and bow ties usher you in. 

Critic Philip French recalls how ‘I was entranced by the vast auditorium and by the imposing commissionaire, his waxed moustache bristling, the ribbons of his Great War medals on the chest of his uniform, and by the usherette who showed you to your seats in the dark if you arrived late and was there with her tray of chocolates, ice-cream and cigarettes in the breaks. Most importantly, when the curtains parted and the lights went down there were the immense close-ups of the characters, at once gigantic and intimate, the abrupt switches of location, the swirling action seen from so many different angles. 

It was overwhelming and all experienced in semi-darkness.’ Film might aspire to be the ‘seventh muse’, but already Cecil Day-Lewis was satirising what anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker was condemning as a ‘Dream Factory’, a medium designed to prevent people confronting the real world – ‘enter the dream palace, brothers and sisters, leaving your debts asleep, your history at the door.’ The ‘mighty Wurlitzer’ organ takes centre-piece of the pre-show in-house entertainment. After which the lights go down, and cinema becomes a personal one-to-one dialogue with the images on-screen, conjuring sanitised idealised versions of the audience’s most disturbing dreams. Through movies, you can rise above your deprived lives… 

And this first great age of moving images with their flickering illusions of truth and interpretation, runs concurrent with the first shock-decades of the new twentieth century. So that the medium of film creates itself in the dual role of both vital art-form, and mass entertainment. The burgeoning American movie industry had its origins in New York, but its immigrant pioneers soon cross the continent in the years before the First World War to put down roots in California. They migrated west, partly for the climate, but also to escape paying patent-royalties to those claiming rights to all of that film equipment. And from the construction of its first Hollywood back-lot in 1908 the Dream Factory’s stylistic evolution responds at first to changing trends and audience expectations. Then – by reflecting and amplifying them, it goes on to initiate and accelerate those changes. Directors like Sergei Eisenstein and DW Griffith contrive to provide both elements. And FW Murnau’s 1921 ‘Nosferatu’ casts long highly expressionistic shadows. As well as being one of just eleven mourners to attend Murnau’s Los Angeles funeral in March 1931, Garbo commissioned a death-mask of the gay German-born director, and kept it on her desk throughout her Hollywood years. 

Further landmarks were Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’ (1925), and Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ (1926). Rudolph Valentino’s ‘Son Of The Sheik’ (1926) premiered the year of his death from gastric ulcer surgery, and the unprecedented hysteria surrounding its release established the global supremacy of the movies beyond any possible doubt. A former restaurant ‘taxi-dancer’ with an ambiguous gigolo-allure, Valentino’s provocative feline narcissism challenged and confronts prevailing attitudes to gender norms in much the same unsettling way that Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger would. As Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo will. The big studio ‘hit-machine’ system was perfected during the 1920’s, each studio raising different expectations, their lighting was different, their regular writers, stars, producers, actors and production staff – under tight contract and working from the same lots, contrived a different shared persona to feed the cinema-chains that the big companies owned. 

My mother – Marjorie Exton, was repeatedly impacted by the world. Yet in return, she never compromised with it, never came to terms with its random cruelty, never really understood its rules. Never even grazed its surface. Follow Garbo’s eyes. She tracks their gaze. Beyond. And it all begins here. Two strange little girls in Laxey, Isle of Man, with a resented stepmother, then an even more resented second stepmother. And a pile of movie magazines. It’s probably true that Dorothy, the older sister, first identified the stills. Cut them out. Stuck them in the scrapbooks. But while Dorothy diversified into domestic and career stability, it is my mother – Marjorie who persisted tunnel-visioned on the idée fix, to the exclusion of all else. 

No other movies exist but Garbo’s. They are the immaculate narcotic. They exist to escape into, away from here where the rapist lurks in the gorse on the way home from school, where they wheel you into the hospital operating theatre for ear-surgery, and you can see the terrifying medieval torture-instruments racked out awaiting you, where you fall from the school-wall avoiding the bully, breaking the bridge of your nose, leaving a scar that will remain all her life. And a home where people say wild dangerous and hurtful things to make you cry. On the screen you can live somebody else’s life. According to somebody else’s script. In an ethereal space that makes sense when the world does not. I believe in angels. Something good in everything I see. Garbo is a beautiful evasion, bigger than all this bewildering confusion. 

‘He ain’t no Aphrodite, 
she ain’t no Greta Garbo’ 
(“She Keeps On Comin” The Bee Gees 2001) 

Like the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll, or the Internet, the new electronic media of movies and radio forms a firebreak in history. A defining point around which generations locate their identities. It is July 1931, and Marjorie has just turned fifteen, when first stepmother Winnifred Harriet (nee-Baldock) dies. That July is followed by the hottest August in nearly a decade. The sand on Laxey beach is so hot it pains your bare feet. Mr Kaylie, an aged Manxman neighbour who greets them with ‘Moghrey Mie’ (‘Good Morning’ in Manx), delights in regularly catching the girls out with the same deception, ‘Look, there’s an aeroplane!’ which – of course, there isn’t. Then chortling to himself with satisfaction as they search the skies for so rare a sighting. 

And father marries for a third time. The girls listen to the polite Crooners and dance-band music played by genteel ‘Major’ Christopher Stone DSO MA, the first BBC Radio Disc Jockey who broadcasts his ‘Record Round-Up’ from London’s Savoy Hill Studios, to the satisfying frisson of parental disapproval. Yet Father pays the annual ten-shilling license fee, and dismantles and reassembles the radio receiver with amused dexterity as his daughters anxiously watch – as their Christopher Stone programme-time hurtles nearer. With completion always accomplished in the precise nick of time! Radio is exciting. But Hollywood imagery is even more alluring. And parental ridicule of ‘Greta Garbage’ also helps to firm and sharpen their generational self-identity.

The studios appreciate the value of promoting that brand-loyalty towards their key actors and actresses. And movie fan-mags – their direct conduit of gossip, news, reviews, and profiles, are cult items to be carefully hoarded. The first issue of ‘The Picture Show’ arrives as early as 3 May 1919, with Charlie Chaplin on the cover. Then there is ‘Picturegoer’, launched in 1921 as a monthly, only to be re-launched as a weekly on 30th May 1931 with cover-girl Marlene Dietrich. Followed the next week by Garbo on the cover of no.2, her eyelashes like immaculate harpoons. Then there are Garbo covers for ‘Screen Book’ and ‘Screenland’. The magazines embellish images with a careful spin of orchestrated detail. Through their pages the private lives of Stars become public property to a degree never before possible, celebrity-gossip about their loves and marriages, with leaked exclusives about their fabulous houses and opulent cars – and their even more fabulous fees. While audiences copy, as best they can, their idol’s manner of dress, the way they hold their cigarette, the way they close their eyes when they kiss. 

Greta Garbo can never be as big as her own image. She appears a masterpiece of controlled self-sufficiency, but mystique, even aloofness is in part a studio construction. In part, a concealment. Underneath, is a Swedish peasant girl of limited education, tall and clumsy, with – allegedly, dirty underwear. On first arriving in Hollywood naive and awkward, memorising English phrases, she’s asked, is she married? ‘No, but I live with (manager) Stiller’ she answers. Implying a cohabitation shocking to conformist Hollywood morès. Perhaps her response should be read as unsophisticated directness, or near-mistranslation. But it leads to the studio discouraging her from doing further interviews. Hence inadvertently cultivating the ‘reclusive Swede’ image of glacial reserve. The mysterious goddess. 

After a few such experiences her aversion to, and distrust of journalists, results in her often being described as a kind of hermit, which is untrue. Nor was she shrouded in permanent gloom, as some might assume. Yet loneliness is the most striking and essential aspect of her persona. A strong element of unreality magnified by foreign mystique. A luminous serenity that also has an intriguing and contradictory element of awkwardness about it. Her lonely isolation in the strangeness of America, an alien far from home and family, unable even to express herself in the new language. Does she feel fragile… unsure, struggling to make sense of it all? Yet, by a part-fortuitous accident, that gaucheness transforms into a luminous on-screen quality. And once constructed, the image is impossible to un-construct. Like Elvis Presley. Or Michael Jackson. How can we know what is real or not? Did she really fall in love with her co-stars? Are those real tears she cries? 

Events conspire in this choreography of lives, as meticulously as a dance-routine from an MGM musical. The studio that was created in 1924 by the fusion of Metro with Goldwyn Pictures under the benevolent patriarchy of arch-conservative Louis B Meyer Productions. Dubbed the ‘Lion of Hollywood’ (according to his 2005 biographer Eyman) – both needy and egotistical, Mayer was its most tyrannical mogul, and his trajectory from scrap-seller to head of the world’s most successful studio, is nothing short of amazing. The merged studio boasted the largest Lot in Hollywood – one hundred acres of Culver City land with no less than twenty-two sound-stages. A place where movie stars were treasured, but told what to learn and whom to marry. But more importantly its roaring lion logo precedes movies advertising ‘more stars than there are in heaven’. And it hits box-office gold within twelve months with the spectacular ‘Ben-Hur’

To modern eyes – to my eyes, the films Garbo produced during these years seem mannered and exaggerated. Wistful gazes. Immense sadnesses, lit by sudden ecstasy. Emotive gestures. Naively two-dimensional. Yet her films have an undeniable difference. In appearance, there’s no cute cupid-bow mouth. And she’s taller than fashion demands. But there’s more. Unlike other screen-stars of the time, she hadn’t come to movies from a theatrical grounding in stage-work. She is pure cinema. So by comparison she ‘underplays’ and works direct to camera. Detached, but professional. ‘She would find the key light, and she would turn her head into the light, and that light liked her’ according to director George Sidney on TV’s ‘South Bank Show’. Sharp cameos catch her style. Drawing on a cigarette holder, her eyes lustrously sultry in ‘The Torrent’. At a masked ball she flirtatiously lowers her mask, with all the erotic charge of total disrobement in ‘Temptress’. In the midst of garden revelry, her attention is fixed totally on the object of her desire. Her eyelashes lowering only once. 

She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in Blekingegatan, a bleak working-class area of south Stockholm, 18 September 1905 to a family that was just one-generation removed from peasant stock. Although they were living five to a room, she was a solitary girl, given to her ‘dreamworld’. ‘I preferred sitting in a corner with a doll and my picture-books.’ She left school aged thirteen – just a year before Karl-Alfred, her sickly labourer father, died of TB. Stockholm was different then. A city of islands and trees. The air so sharp and clear you see your breath as you exhale. A smaller city than now. Simpler, and foreign in ways that today’s globalised world no longer does foreign. 

I imagine my mother there. Following recognisable ghosts that are already fading. Tracing up locations familiar from biogs in fan-mags, but even they are changing. Here is the Barber’s Shop where Greta Gustafsson worked briefly, lathering men’s pre-shave faces. Now my mother is gazing up at the austere dignity of the large Department Store where ‘Garbo’ served behind the hat counter advertising ‘HATTAR FOR DAMER OCH FLICKOR’. The shop where – fortuitously, she got the opportunity to model – hats, first in still photo-ads, then in a short advertising film demonstrating how not to dress. It was little more than the equivalent of a modern in-store promotional video, yet it inspires the impossible dream of movies. For in the movie-world people live ‘a more beautiful life than in the real world.’ 

And the walk-on advertising films she was making attract the attention of a local film-maker. The Department Store refused her time off to pursue the dream he offered, so she abruptly quit, giving as her remarkably assured reason ‘to become a film actress’. She subsequently appeared as a plump bathing beauty wearing a coy costume halfway down to the knee, in a comedy-farce about three daughters and their encounter with ‘Peter The Tramp’. The director played the title-role himself!

Garbo was now seventeen. A nervous and inhibited student, her self-conscious lack of education making her feel the outsider alongside the otherwise wealthy and sophisticated pupils at the Stockholm ‘Royal Dramatic Training Academy’. So much so that she failed to complete her full term’s training. But when director Mauritz Stiller – her future Svengali, asked for two academy girls for his next project, he instantly recognises something of her potential. ‘The Saga Of Gosta Berling’, his movie-production of a Swedish literary classic, would be Sweden’s most costly film to date, climaxing in a spectacular fire-sequence. He gambled on casting her in the central role as a countess who falls for a defrocked minister. Although it shows only the most fleeting glimpses of what she would become, it features a prophetic storyboard proclaiming ‘Beyond the sea, lies the whole wide world…’ 

Stiller was a Jewish-Russian émigré from St Petersburg, a fugitive avoiding the Tsar’s military service. Flamboyant, egotistical, manipulative – and gay, he was not averse to using physical force to get his way when all else fails. He saw ‘Garbo’ as his route to success. He changed her name, guided and shaped her career, insisting she lose 20lb to conform to Hollywood standards. Eager to capitalise on his critical success, and to secure financial-backing for his next project, they first find themselves drawn, like GW Pabst and Fritz Lang, to Berlin – the centre of the new German culture and home to the only movie industry capable of rivalling Hollywood’s supremacy. And at the Berlin premier of ‘Gosta Berling’ two important connections are made. With the legendary Pabst himself. And then with MGM vice-president Louis B Meyer. 

Garbo features in a grim Expressionist-style drama – ‘Joyless Street’, about girls forced into the damned vice sub-world. As the innocent daughter of a fine family facing economic ruin, she winds up in a brothel. Garbo artfully animates her seductive shame as she’s pursued by leering manically wild-eyed suitors. In a particularly striking image a triptych-mirror shows the reflection of three lustful men apparently closing in on her. Directed by Pabst, the film succeeds in getting her further noticed. By Meyer, who by coincidence, is in Berlin head-hunting Euro-talent. He initially only wants Stiller, but grudgingly agrees to take his protégé along as part of the package. They settle on a base-salary retainer of just $400 a week. But Garbo was still under twenty-one, and the contracts had to be forwarded home for her mother’s signature, before – Midsummer Eve 1925, Stiller finally takes Garbo off to America by steamship. She passes journey-time by memorising English phrases intended for interview-use. Ten years after Garbo, Ingrid Bergman was born in Stockholm. 

Marjorie Exton was born 12th March 1916 to Police Seargent Frederick George Exton and Ellen (née) Smith. They live at 19 Ionic Road in Stoneycroft, the Irby suburb of Liverpool, until Ellen dies just two years later. While their father is forcibly retired on medical grounds. Seeking the clean air that will benefit his TB he moves his family to Laxey – and remarries. Meanwhile, the girls take full advantage of their new realm, playing ‘up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen.’ Giggling together when they overhear a visitor from the mainland saying ‘look at the fisherman’s daughters.’ 

It is 6th July 1925. And – from New York to Santa Monica, the Hollywood into which Garbo arrives wide-eyed is convulsed by between-the wars social evolutions. Its on-screen images have already progressed from Mack Sennett’s cutely comical kitten-sexy beach-romping girlies, through the Vampish sophistication of Lilian Gish, Norma Swanson and Clara Bow, to the European decadence of Marlene Dietrich’s ‘Lola’, the smoky, sultry cabaret temptress. With her long legs sheathed in silk stockings and black suspenders the iconic imagery of ‘Falling In Love Again’ captures forever the louche intoxication of Weimar Germany’s corrupt cabaret culture. 

The film’s origins lie in an initially Europe-only erotic masterpiece, ‘Der Blaue Engel’ (‘The Blue Angel’), shot at Berlin’s Babelsberg Studios, enhanced by director Josef Von Sternberg’s inventive camera angles. Inevitably the movie leads both Dietrich (who loses some of her ‘Blue Angel’ voluptuousness under Von Sternberg’s guidance), and Von Sternberg himself, to sign for Paramount. They arrive on the SS Bremen five years after Garbo, for their splendidly perverse American debut, ‘Morocco’ (1930), a sophisticated adult movie cleverly challenging prevailing sexual taboos by casting her as a cross-dressing Cabaret siren who also gets to kiss women. Although French actress Sarah Bernhardt had been photographed in her Paris studio as early as 1876 cross-dressing in a jacketed trouser-suit of uncannily modern style, it is Dietrich wearing slacks in ‘Morocco’ which spins off into a new controversial street-wear fashion. 

Over at the Universal production Lot Bela Lugosi was physically resurrecting the metaphor of diseased European corruption in the form of Vampiric horror, while at MGM Garbo’s elusive other-worldly androgyny was taking it into less definable areas. The ‘Dream Factory’ may cap her teeth into conformity, pluck her eyebrows to emphasise the sensually exaggerated curve of her lashes, and tame her frizzy hair, but as early as her 1929 ‘The Single Standard’ she was portraying a free spirit out to prove that women can be just as promiscuous as men. It is a contagion that spreads into the vamp-style bedroom-gowned tease of Jean Harlow. To certain sections of American audiences these imported examples of Old World decadences dangerously threaten clean wholesome New World values. 

Garbo meets Lillian Gish, who provides useful introductions. But until her emergence as a superstar of the 1930’s Garbo endures her share of silly melodramas and studio potboilers. As Stiller fumes. Only HE knows how to direct her, yet he’s passed over as director for her first Hollywood film, and for the second he’s replaced after a mere ten days shooting. He publicly bawls out his replacement at the premiere party, accusing the hapless Fred Niblo of destroying the film and misusing Garbo’s talent. He even disapproves of the ‘Vamp’ roles she’s given. ‘The Beauty Who Sits Alone’ reads the fan-mag blurb, as the studio eases ‘awkward’ Stiller out of the scene. For the rest of her career she will loyally miss his guidance.

Meanwhile, suavely moustachioed matinée idol John Gilbert initially turns down the chance to team with her in her second movie – ‘The Temptress’, prefering to rush into an absurdly lavish swashbuckler called ‘Bardelys the Magnificent’, based around Rafael Sabatini’s novel. But they work together at last – in ‘Flesh And The Devil’, where their immediate chemistry produces onscreen embraces that establish new standards of screen passion – fully-clothed, but lying down – unheard-of at the time, and reputedly continuing long after director Clarence Brown has yelled ‘cut’. Each touch is coded with rapture. Eight years her senior, Gilbert is the star. His name emblazoned above the title on the posters, which show a blissed-out enamoured Garbo swooning in his embrace. Her name is way down, and shunted to the right. 

Yet on-screen she takes the dominant position, her embraces devour him. She even makes the act of sipping from a communion cup an act of profane innuendo, with a sleepy sideways glance at him, as though drunk with lust. Insisting on closed sets, assisted by Gilbert’s sympathetic patronage, helped and hyped by stories of their onscreen/off-screen romance, the third film to use their irresistible combination is ‘A Woman of Affairs’ (1928). In this, her first contemporary role, Garbo is a flapper caught up in a doomed affair with two-timing Neville (Gilbert). But here, although the poster-pose remains essentially the same, her name has been elevated up over the title to share equal space with his. He advises her to renegotiate her contract with Meyer to reflect her new celebrity-level. Now, with ‘The Kiss’ (1929), her name predominates in vivid Art Deco black-and-white typography, while her image – still ecstatic, still embraced, is now coming out of the poster into the foreground. Significantly, this courtroom drama is also Garbo’s – and MGM’s, final silent film. 

‘It’s no wonder you’re shy, you’re Greta Garbo… 
you’re anti-social, and you are too 
bloody lonely for the likes of us…’ 
(Robert Wyatt “Cuckoo Madam” 2003) 

Garbo once described the Hollywood ‘Village’ as ‘the one place in the world where you can live as you like and nobody will say anything about it, no matter what you do.’ Yet it is always dense with intrigue, sweaty with secrets. A place where everyone knows everyone else, socially, professionally, or sexually. And the fact that a number of the world’s most beautiful most powerfully myth-making women were indulging in a ‘Sewing Circle’ of ‘unhealthy titillation’, a submerged network of silky Sapphic seductions, has become something of an open secret among movie-philes. 

High-profile players number the ravishingly insatiable Tallulah Bankhead, Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lizbeth Scott, with the wildly promiscuous Spanish playgirl, poet and screenwriter Mercedes de Acosta central to its mythic decadence. Other participants include Salka Viertel, intimate of both Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, and brood-mother Alla Nazimova. Off-screen rumours of Garbo’s sexual flexibility run the risk of being potentially career-damaging under the Hays Code. Yet what she calls ‘hidden lives’ with ‘exciting secrets’ also contribute mystery to her heavily-accented trouser-clad aloofness. An extensive correspondence – an archive of some eighty-seven letters from Garbo to de Acosta were placed in trust in the Philadelphia Rosenbach Collection for ten years after their deaths.

Writer Diana McLellan (in ‘The Girls: Sappho Goes To Hollywood’, Robson Books, 2001) speculates – without too much solid evidence, that Garbo and the predatorily bisexual Dietrich had a brief but intensely passionate affair as early as the 1925 winter spent filming ‘Joyless Street’. She quotes the key food-rationing queue scene in which Garbo faints into an uncredited Dietrich’s arms. Yet this supposedly shared past is one that neither cared nor dared to admit to. In fact Dietrich vehemently denies a connection, subsequently mocking the ‘Scandinavian child’ as ‘a peasant’, while sniggering at her ignorance and lack of social polish. 

For her part, Garbo – at the time painfully self-conscious, uneducated, and sexually vulnerable, was reportedly left ‘wounded, shamed, and traumatised’ by their tryst. An experience that has been ascribed to contributing to her obsessive life-long compulsion to protect her privacy. She’s strong. Self-willed and independent. Always holding something of herself in reserve, unable to commit. In his book ‘Garbo’ biographer Barry Paris claims she also had a number of abortions carried out by MGM studio doctors, but that – temperamentally ill-suited to the artificiality of the star life-style that goes with the ‘celebrity couple’, she refused John Gilbert’s offer of marriage – he stormed off and marries someone else! And her emotional assets remain frozen in a reserve that can never yield, to either sex. 

To me, her fluid sexuality seems to have been wide, if shallow. More surface that depth. But if there was no great romance to conceal, it may be that her determination to protect her personal life from scrutiny was more an attempt to preserve the delicate relationship between audience and film star. The art of performance is – after all, a balance between exposure and disguise, a game of hide and seek, and it might have seemed that a degree of tension about her identity off as well as onscreen was necessary for the spell to work. The studios understand this all too well, and exhale smoke-screens to protect the sexuality of their stars, not only because of prevailing social bigotry, but through a conviction that people should not know too much about their celluloid deities. Yet, says Ken Russell ‘when she performed on camera, she let us into something lyrical and hopeful in her heart’ (‘The Times’ 27 December 2007). 

The coming of the ‘Vitaphone’, or the ‘Talking Picture’ – with Al Jolson in Alan Crosland’s ‘The Jazz Singer’ – halfway between the silent era and the full-blown talkie, debuted on the 6th October 1927, providing a potent strategy to fight off the travails of Depression-era economic necessity, and the burgeoning competition from radio. It was a milestone in cultural history. And despite the carping of Charlie Chaplin’s argument that ‘moving pictures need sound as much as Beethoven symphonies need lyrics,’ the advent of sound altered the ground-rules of stardom overnight, turned the failing Warner Brothers studio into a major industry power. It changed the course of cinematic history, affecting the lives of those who made the movies, and those who viewed them. 

The first Talkies – coinciding with the Wall Street Crash, initiated a fresh westward influx of the best East Coast writers and composers to California, aided and abetted by art departments and set designers. Seeing themselves in exile they began creating a mythic larger-than-life movie-facsimile New York of spangly magical Manhattans on sound stages and back-lots of the big studios, where suddenly, silence is no longer golden. But sound also destroyed the careers of many accent-challenged European stars. So MGM kept Garbo silent for as long as it could. But with ‘gif me a visky. ginger alongside... and don’t be stingy, baby,’ Greta Garbo drawled her first highly-accented spoken onscreen lines in a dockside bar-room scene in ‘Anna Christie’ (1930). And ‘GARBO SPEAKS!!!’ thrill the movie-mag adverts and posters. 

On the sleeve-notes to a unique 1964 record-album Pauline Grant recalls ‘the apprehension concerning Garbo’s career which prevailed at the time when ‘talkies’ superseded silent films. Divorced from the disturbing element of her exceptional beauty, her voice is revealed as one of her outstanding accomplishments. Low and musical in pitch, capable of infinite nuance and flexibility, it is the instrument of a generous and passionate but disciplined artist. Garbo is the master of undertone, with an intuitive feeling for rhythm and cadence, and a sensitive appraisal of mood and moment. Everything she does, moreover, is integrated by her insight and intelligence, and enlivened by an exquisite sense of humour.’ But the titillating spectacle of the glamorous diva downing her dram must have proved too much for puritan Hollywood – ‘shall I serve it in a pail?’ suggests the barman. ‘That suits me down to the ground’ she retorts languidly. And Garbo emerges as a bigger star than ever after her talking-film debut. While, ironically, it is John Gilbert who becomes the studio’s main casualty of the sound revolution. His star wanes as the talkies arrive, as hers is ascending. 

1930’s America is a world dreaming with a desperate intensity, thrusting its Chrysler Building concrete aspirations into the clouds, and dancing the Great Depression away in a razzle of Hollywood chorus lines. And for MGM, it was a time of unprecedented technical innovation. Warner Bros may have led with sound in 1927 (‘The Jazz Singer’), and first experimented with colour as early as 1929 (‘On With The Show’), but it is Douglas Shearer’s expertise at MGM that turns sound recording into a sophisticated art-form. And their three-strip Technicolor that establishes industry standards still accepted today. While the shrewd creative mind of ‘Boy Wonder’ Irving G Thalberg choreographs both its star power and studio glamour to ensure MGM’s virtual domination of the period. Previously the production chief for Universal, Thalberg was the model for Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Monroe Stahr’ in the novel ‘The Last Tycoon’. And it was he who selected ‘Anna Christie’ from a Eugene O’Neill play after George Bernard Shaw refused to sell him the rights to ‘Saint Joan’. Then he went on to assemble the first all-star cast production for ‘Grand Hotel’ (1932). With Garbo’s popularity now at an all-time high, it is her name that tops the list above both John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford and William Beery. 

And with ‘Grand Hotel’ (1932), director Edmund Goulding – a ‘fastidious Englishman’ (according to critic Philip French) knowingly uses the movie’s portmanteau format to deliberately play on her perceived persona. For, even though she later denies it, this is the one time Garbo definitely utters the smoky-voiced line ‘I vant to be alone.’ ‘That isn’t true’ he challenges her. Her face goes through a range of conflicting emotions, before conceding ‘for just a minute then.’ It is a moment that, even seventy years on, makes it worth checking out the DVD edition for. The film is set in a Berlin hotel where supposedly ‘nothing ever happens’, yet the guests checking in include Garbo’s lonely ballerina, her jewel-thief lover John Barrymore, and career-girl stenographer Joan Crawford, while other rooms are over-booked with an impressive array of old-time stars, including Wallace Beery and the grumpy dying Lionel Barrymore, each with a gripping story to tell as their parallel worlds briefly collide. The film wins MGM its second ‘Best Picture’ Oscar award. 

Reality only seriously intrudes into these make-believe silver screen worlds when a church-led campaign against onscreen indecency – given added gravitas by falling ticket-sales that unnerve the studios, led to the imposition of rigid self-censoring. And within the year studio heads were introducing the ludicrously simple-minded but highly restrictive Hays Production Code (1929). Its dreaded Irish-American Catholic enforcer Joseph I Breen policed a celluloid never-never land where premarital ‘carnal knowledge’ never happens, and even married couples are always portrayed sleeping in separate beds. And only men drink hard liquor. Absolute for its first four years, this stultifying conformity was only gradually permitted to loosen-up. Of course, Garbo’s glamour presents a more refined concept than crude sexuality, although its lurid aura has a tendency to glow through.

Thalberg’s recent success at directing the Marx Brothers ‘A Night At The Opera’ (1935) had taken their faltering careers to a new popularity high. Now his early death at age thirty-seven robbed the studio of a vital creative asset. While MGM were forced into a strategic repositioning of their product by the loss of markets due to the new European hostilities. In 1940, Hollywood revenue-streams from eleven nations were forcibly closed when Joseph Goebbels specifically banned MGM films from all Nazi-occupied territories. And Garbo again switched tactics, to be reinvented as the star of her first comedy – 1939’s ‘Ninotchka’. After the ‘GARBO TALKS’ sensation it was billed ‘GARBO LAUGHS!!!’ The novelty is deliberately played out in a diner sequence with a sternly uncomprehending Garbo failing to react to a carefully wrought joke about ‘wanting coffee without milk.’ Shoving his chair back in exasperation, the joke-teller goes too far, tips over and crashes to the floor. It’s only now that Garbo bursts into spontaneous laughter. 

She – or the studio, are deliberately ‘acting-with’ and ‘reacting-against’ her typecast personae. But there’s an abundance of other ‘types’ in the early 1940’s, faces and bodies we’re seldom allowed to forget – seductresses like Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth, sophisticates such as Hedy Lamarr and Carole Lombard, ‘sweater girl’ Lana Turner, ‘oomph girl’ Ann Sheridan, earthy moll Jane Russell, and all-American wholesome’s like Paulette Goddard, Dorothy Lamour and Esther Williams. Joan Crawford was the one-time chorus-girl Lucille Le Suer, renamed as the result of a studio Find-A-Star contest. While the one and only Betty Grable’s renowned ‘gams’ bolstered the morale of entire regiments of Allied troops, for fan-mags during WW2 were the prime vehicle for distributing official pin-ups to servicemen. Indeed, tthe golden age of the Pin-Up begins in the 1940’s. 

But Garbo now defines her own category, in a way that no-one else does. The essence of her legend lies in tragic drama. Like many others, Elizabeth Allen, daughter of a Skegness Doctor on the bleak Lincolnshire coast, was drawn by that luring dream to Hollywood. To eventually share screen-time with Garbo, as a bride in ‘Camille’. In 1848 Alexandre Dumas fils wrote of a coughing consumptive prostitute who dies alone of tuberculosis, without redemption. It seems a challenging role for Garbo. Dumas wrote the original novel – ‘La Dame Aux Camelias’, ‘in a state of traumatic obsession’ only months after the real-life model for his heroine – doomed Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis had died. Garbo manages to interpret the drama with a suitably charged austerity that is virtually caressing her own image. 

Until the subtext of ‘Queen Christina’ succeeds in being both seditious, and transgressive. The cinema trailer dramatically announces ‘The eyes of a woman, a seventeenth-century maiden, who lived with twentieth-century madness…’ Based on the real-life Swedish Queen who left for exile in Rome in 1655, to die in 1689 saying ‘I was born free, I lived free, and I die set free…’, biographer Veronica Buckley even suggests she was born ‘intersex’ (in her ‘Christina: Queen Of Sweden’ Fourth Estate 2004). For Garbo, an icon long before the word had entered the lexicon of celebrity, it made the perfect film vehicle.

“Well, I guess I’m going AWOL, 
disconnect my telephone 
just like Greta Garbo, 
I just want to be alone…” 
(“Just Like Greta” by Van Morrison) 

In March 1932 sister Dorothy’s ‘Holiday-work’ at Bingley art project includes sketches of ‘Marjorie cutting bread’. On the 25th December she sketches her sitting on the garden seat at their Bay View House home, it has a view over Laxey Bay. Marjorie is reading a book, a Christmas present. She is wearing a mac. 

Soon, despite the darkening mood of European politics, she follows her dream to Sweden, in the face of furious family disapproval and warnings she doesn’t understand of the vile dangers of ‘white slavers’. It’s not that she’s escaping from reality. More that sometimes she prefers not to notice it, especially when it threatens to interfere with her life. As she’s processed through customs towards the ship the man says – ‘Nurse? are they allowing Nurses to leave the country when there’s a war brewing?’ She puts him in his place. ‘I’m a Children’s Nurse.’ For the highly-valued English Nanny, the smartly-uniformed Children’s Nurse of the 1930s, the strict affection-rationing doctrines of Sir Frederick Truby King are the Dr Spock of their day. She gives her Swedish charges affection anyway.

Friday, 24 January 1947 is the start of the coldest bleakest winter of the century, with the Thames freezing and snow falling every day through to March 16. She tells me she only ever loved one man. I assumed she meant my bio-father. Perhaps I was wrong. There’s a secret she loyally allows to stand. Until death. In the chaos of wartime Sweden – officially neutral, harbouring and repatriating nationals from both belligerent power-blocks, but also threatened across a narrow strait of sea from Nazi-occupied Denmark, she goes through ‘a form of marriage’ with an English airman. But while attempting to return home in a cannibalised plane he fatally ditches into the North Sea, while the marriage is subsequently not officially recognized. 

I knew nothing of this until sorting her effects after her death. But with war done, denied the dignity and recognition of widowhood, she finds herself pregnant as the result of a brief affair with a lover who turns out to be married, and who already has a family living in Herne Bay. London is full of rootless people, drifting in the uncertain aftermath of war, dislocated, demobbed men confronting women charged with a new sense of their own independence. 

As her ordered life crumbles into uncertainty, the freeze gives way to a glorious summer, and it’s still possible to buy a cinema ticket and sit in darkness, watching. To renew your love with impossible beauty in the bright monochrome light of infinite possibility and heart-stilling drama. Garbo puts the distance of virtual flight between herself, and a life that is suddenly unfamiliar, crawling with violence, disappointment, and into an emotional cannibalism of devouring conflict. With time accelerating, seeking escape in increasing desperation, a further relationship collapses into the horrors of physical abuse. She fetches up in Humberside. In role. 

‘I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes…’ 
(‘Quicksand’ David Bowie 1971) 

The England she finds herself in – in 1949, is a drab, shell-shocked and class-ridden place. Ration books are cream for parents, green for a child. My memories start here in monochrome post-war mid-fifties austerity. A wooden shack. Auntie B dies. She leaves £400. A grudging posthumous admission of respect for the strong-willed girl who had defied her. It now provides escape from domestic brutality for her and two bastard sons. An add-on bedroom of asbestos sheeting inner-lined with pulp-board. But England is post-blitzed and bankrupt. A country where Class forms social divisions as real as apartheid, and where freeze-out scrutiny intimidates the unwary who wander into the wrong high-street store. Down the lane other refugees from a damaged world are living in chevrons of converted rail carriages. There is no reason. This is just how it is… 

By now Garbo is a solitary Ice Queen, a prisoner of her ruined beauty, frozen in time, ‘rousting the dead, brooding, making slipcovers and watching TV in bed.’ Her life-tale reduced to a brief European prologue, fifteen years of MGM productions – and a forty-eight-year teasing retirement. With the end of the studio system had come the end of an age some call golden. With actors no longer on contract, there’s no point in controlled image-creation. Screen deities fade, actors emerge, just like the rest of us, only a little more glamorous. ‘I have a hunch that she didn’t enjoy making movies, it was a torture’ confides Peter Viertel on the 2001 ‘South Bank Show’ documentary devoted to her. 

Her final movie ‘The Two-Faced Woman’, is already left in long-ago 1941. Billed as ‘Go Gay With Garbo – Her First Picture Since Ninotchka,’ it’s the story of a woman who pretends to be her own more-glamorous twin sister in order to seduce her own husband. It was largely judged a box-office failure, and – aged just thirty-six, it proved to be Garbo’s movie swansong. Now she is what Cecil Beaton describes as ‘a hermit about town.’ Beaton, dandified careerist and worshipper of the aristocracy of glamour, chronicler of the artifice behind the façade of its fantastical beings, notes unforgivingly in his diary that the hands of the mythical being he’d once likened to ‘a unicorn’ now look as if they do the washing-up.

That might not always have been so. Originally she’d only intended taking vacation-time until the European market restabelised at the war’s end. But the longer she stayed away from the studios, the more difficult it became to go back. She apparently tests out for roles. Makes plans to re-shoot ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ opposite Marilyn Monroe. Even considers TV offers. An unlikely possibility. But no more unlikely than Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s major late-sixties revival with ‘Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?’ – or Don Ameche in 1985’s ‘Cocoon’. While former silent ‘Queen of the Screen’ Gloria Swanson had appeared in nearly seventy films, and survived the transition to sound, yet achieved her most enduring role at the age of fifty, as diva ‘Norma Desmond’ in 1951’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’

Yet – for Garbo, the right role never reached her. Instead she became the ‘Anna Nigma’ of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore’s artful 1965 biog-spoof (from their ‘Not Only But Also’ series), with its knowing recreations of ‘Queen Christina’ and ‘Napoleon’ clips. A figure already lost in time. In its ‘Hundred Icons Of The Century’ ‘Variety’ magazine lists ‘porcelain skin, arched brows and long lashes, the lithe Swedish beauty (who) captured the public imagination…’

‘My name is Jack, and I live in the back 
of the Greta Garbo Home 
for wayward boys and Girls…’ 
(Randy Newman / Manfred Mann) 

I understand her more than she ever understood me. Perhaps we all believe that. Perhaps we all deceive ourselves. Yet I still believe I did. Where my memories start, there are attempts at analysis. But because I try to rationalise, I am cold. I lack emotional response. I don’t feel, she accuses me. When I point out the artificialty of movie scenery, I destroy magic. She believes they really are dancing on the aeroplane wings in ‘Flying Down To Rio’. She resents the intrusion of reality. Don’t do it. While I reason. Cold. She dreams. In comforting celluloid warmth. 

Movies are trips down the rabbit-hole to an infinitely preferable celluloid wonderland. It has little to do with art or artifice. It’s a step through the wardrobe into a more understandable Narnia. Men still cheat in movies. People still die. There is travail and tragedy. But there are narrative logics and sharply defined rules which make sense of it all. 

Mid-sixties. Every week she does Vernon’s pools. She knows nothing about football. But she x’s kisses in neat columns anyway. I argue the statistical improbabilities. But it’s only now that I really understand. For... what? her weekly 1s 6d has nothing to do with odds or chances. It buys an evening’s dream, alone, as the bastard sons sleep. It’s admission to an inner movie she scripts herself. A plot of her own devising. And it gives value for money. Her’s is a strangely incomplete life made up of failed or amputated half-relationships, complete only in that shadow-play between dream and screen. When life assails you, you have other places to go. A dream place. Any place, as long as it isn’t here. I know now that her life was far more complicated than a cycle of partings. And I understand it even less.

I am half in awe, half afraid of her. She harbours an idyll of an impossibly perfect domesticity in spite of our harassed and chaotic home-life. And I – like everything else in her life, disappoint. What she dreams of, sitting in her chair at night as the radio murmurs to itself, and we sleep, is that one day I win a prestigious award, it doesn’t matter which, vindicating everything she’s fought and strived through. And as I take the podium to accept it I say ‘this award should really go to my Mother, I couldn’t have achieved any of this without her selfless love,’ and as the spotlight falls on her she rises, takes a bow to acknowledge the applause, swelling with pride. But instead, I’m the one who fails my eleven-plus, gets dropped a stream when my school grades bottom out, and get summoned to the Magistrates Court for shoplifting an Eddie Cochran record. I have bad acne and NHS spectacles, and I withdraw into myself to escape her proud all-enveloping single-focus maternalism. So that when she most needs me, it becomes impossible for me to re-emerge. 

Only Garbo never dims. Never disappoints. Never betrays her. 

When my half-brother is horribly shattered to death, there is no dream large enough to escape into. This is a bomb that is still exploding. A bomb that has kept exploding throughout my life. Electro-convulsed, chemically coshed and psychiatrically reconstructed she re-emerges into a quieter more stable phase of her life. Retaining her power to unsettle. Escorting her through Leeds, me adult, her already aged, and a vicious fight spills from a ‘Boar Lane’ pub and out onto the pavement. She immediately, unhesitatingly steps forward – brolly brandished, to separate them. I restrain her. Don’t get involved. Shame-faced by my inactivity. Shown up by her concern. I could urge commitment to radical Chile, the Left or anti-Nuke. She instantly exposes that moral cowardice for what it is. 

If, as an adult, every time I’ve drawn back from the brink, preferring safety to risk, it’s due to the penalty she paid for social transgression, the terrifying chasm of emotional loneliness dealt out to the marginalised. I’ve seen loss, I must compensate by holding on tightly to everything else. Now, going over memories and possibilities, looking at old photos, going through my own pain-cycles of guilt, remorse and self-recrimination, you wonder at what point her life could have developed in other ways. Ways that would – incidentally, have eliminated me. But might have been – easier, on her. 

Or perhaps the gods just mark some people out for cruel sport, and these things are predetermined in some way that it’s impossible for atheists like me to comprehend? She could have stayed where she was. Married in the Isle of Man. Had a safe family there. But she didn’t. Either she was restless for more, or was driven by a need to find more. And it’s the point at which that drive, or need was planted that is the defining moment. Garbo is in there somewhere. She is the projection of that need. The two are in some way interlinked. That’s why she went to Sweden. What other reason could there have been? None. It was Garbo. But more – it was the void in her that Garbo filled. All else that happened to her – including my intrusion into life, came as a result of that. 

I don’t understand. I have suggestions. But I guess I never will understand. Lives are unique configurations of events. Older sister Dorothy’s life took on contrastingly stable contours, cleverer, a reliable marriage in a respectable career, children in wedlock. No quixotic gestures. Perhaps the few years difference in the sister’s ages lifted her clear of the family disruptions, the step-mothers, the legacy of instability and inadequacy? She was older, more able to deal with the loss, the extreme emotional responses. 

Dorothy was always there. She could rationalise it more. But only Garbo understood. Affections withheld. Or snatched away. A repeating pattern, established back then. By the time I came along the damage was already long-done. I could have helped more, I was – after all, the most enduring male relationship in her life, but I was a kid, struggling through my own problems. Did I love her? I felt… responsible. I knew, even then, that I was incapable of being the healing she needed. Although hopefully, in some part, I was. It’s just that, every time I choose safety over risk, it’s the awareness of the price she paid for choosing – or being propelled into, choosing risk. In a crueller, more unforgiving world, where female independence and self-determination was brutally suppressed. Brutal? – yes, that’s not too strong a term. Always strong. Always impervious. She never allowed the guard to slip. It’s only now I can see through into the fear and desolation. We stumbled together through the same time-space. I was privileged to share some of it with her.

But Garbo remains. She walked New York’s East 52nd Street in a trench-coat and shades, her hair pulled back in a rubber-band. Paparazzo Ron Galella confronts her in 1969, she pulls up her umbrella protesting ‘why do you bother me? I have done nothing wrong.’ To Ken Russell ‘one appearance of her on the corner of West 86th hidden by collar and sunglasses was enough to cause a riot, even in her eighties.’ Now there are new books. And there is video. As never before my mother could watch them over and over, memorising entire scripts, re-spooling and freezing lost time. 

Garbo died on 15 April 1990. Fifty years after her final movie. My Mother died 4:05pm, Tuesday 22 May 2001. Not so much died, as becomes gradually, by degrees, increasingly disconnected from what is real, the final stage of a long process of becoming more and more detached from the world until the last tenuous threads separate, until no contact remains, and she phases away. I have this vague idea that when we die we enter a world constructed from elements of our own living fantasies. Even if this only occurs within the subjectively eternalised last moment of consciousness. If so, then hers is a monochrome film of chill dignity and aching beauty, where all children are loved unconditionally, and all animals are cared for and protected. But now that she’s gone the scrapbooks and videos remain. And watching them I catch fleeting glimpses of her life… 

‘I ain’t cold no more, 
but I’ve got the buzz like Greta Garbo, 
walking fowards in the sun…’ 
(The Killers “The Ballad Of Michael Valentine”) 


(1) ‘HOW NOT TO DRESS’ aka ‘Herr Och Fru Stockholm’ (1921) Dir: Captain Ragnar Ring. Prod: Hasse W Tullbergs (Bergstrom Department Store Promotional Film, 5-mins) with Olga Andersson, Erick Fröander and Ragnar Widestedt. Garbo cast as elder sister, film edited into ‘The Divine Garbo’ (1990) 

(2) ‘OUR DAILY BREAD’ part of ‘Konsumtionsföreningen Stockholm med omnejd’ (1922) Dir: Captain Ragnar Ring. Prod: Fribergs Filmbrya (Advertising film for bakery Consumer’s Co-operative Assoc of Stockholm – a 27-min film), in Garbo’s 8-mins sequence she and friends have tea on the Strand Hôtel rooftop terrace, and later share a picnic in the park. She also appeared as a maid in ‘En Lyckoriddare’ (‘A Fortune Hunter’, 1921) and as an extra in October 1922 historical drama ‘A Scarlet Angel’ (‘Karlekens Ögon’) 

(3) ‘LUFFAR-PETTER (PETER THE TRAMP)’ (26 Dec 1922) (37 mins, only 10-mins survive) a low-budget drama, directed, produced and written by Erik A Petschler who plays dual roles, the title Tramp and Erik Silverjälm (‘Eric Silver-Helmet’), a prominent fire department official. Garbo is one of his three daughters who he watches bathing, while his other Tramp character, steals his belongings 

(4) ‘THE SAGA OF GÖSTA BERLING’ (10 & 17 Mar 1924) Dir: Mauritz Stiller. Prod: Svemsk Filmindustri (91 mins) Adapted from Selma Lagerlöf’s controversial 1891 novel depicting a milieu of reckless bohemian revelry. When attractive young minister Berling (Lars Hanson), is defrocked due to alcoholism and radical preaching, he arrives at countess Marta Dohna’s manor, to tutor her beautiful stepdaughter Elizabeth (Garbo), they fall in love, without realising the countess has secret plans of her own… 

(5) ‘DIE FREUDLOSE GASSE (THE JOYLESS STREET)’ (18 May 1925) Dir: GW Pabst. Prod: Sofar Film. Morality tale set in Vienna’s Melchiorgasse street during the collapse of the German middle classes in the decay and hyperinflation following their World War I defeat. Virtuous Greta Rumfort (Garbo) escapes prostitution, unlike her friend Maria (Asta Nielsen)… or does she? 

(6) ‘TORRENT’ (21 Feb 1926 – MGM) Dir: Monta Bell Prod: Irving Thalberg (68-mins). Her US and Hollywood debut, a tragic emotional pot-boiler/romance of star-crossed forbidden love, with Garbo as a Spanish peasant who moves to Paris to become Opera star ‘Leonora La Brunna’ 

(7) ‘THE TEMPTRESS’ (10 Oct 1926 – MGM) Dir: Mauritz Stiller replaced by Fred Niblo Prod: Irving Thalberg (95-mins) With Antonio Moreno. Develops her Vamp sex-icon persona when unhappily-wed Garbo first seduces a Bank President, then an Argentinian Mining Engineer. Misery results as the men fight over her. Real-life tragedy strikes as Garbo’s sister Alva dies in mid-shooting

(8) ‘FLESH AND THE DEVIL’ (9 Jan 1927) Dir: Clarence Brown. Prod: Irving Thalberg (95-mins) ‘Observer’ critic Philip French calls it her greatest film, an ‘entrancing melodrama in which she comes between Austrian aristocrats John Gilbert and Lars Hanson, and disappears beneath the ice’ (25 Sept 2005) 

(9) ‘LOVE’ (29 Nov 1927 – MGM) Dir: Edmund Goulding. Prod: Irving Thalberg (82-mins) Adapted from the Leo Tolstoy novel, following their successful pairing in ‘Flesh And The Devil’, this tragedy set in Czarist Russia recasts Garbo as ‘Anna Karenina’ who falls in love with the dashing military officer Count Vronsky (Gilbert), she abandons her husband and child to become Vronsky’s mistress, but tragedy ensues when Vronsky then chooses his military career over her 

(10) ‘THE DIVINE WOMAN’ (14 Jan 1928 – MGM) Dir: Victor ‘Seastrom’ (Sjöström). Prod: Irving Thalberg (80-mins) Only nine enticing minutes remain intact, issued as part of the ‘Garbo Silents’ set (Warner DVD). Poor French country girl Marianne (Garbo) goes to 1860s Paris seeking her fortune as an actress, where she must choose between the romantic attentions of army deserter Lucien (Lars Hanson) and wealthy producer Henry Legrand (Lowell Sherman) 

(11) ‘THE MYSTERIOUS LADY’ (4 Aug 1928 – MGM) Dir: Fred Niblo. Prod: Harry Hapf (96-mins) An improbable spy story with Conrad Nagel. ‘Garbo as a Russian spy in the years before the First World War seducing an Austrian officer, then falling in love with him’ (Philip French)

(12) ‘A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS’ (19 Jan 1929 – MGM) Dir: Clarence Brown. Prod: Irving Thalberg (108-mins) Garbo’s third collaboration with John Gilbert is based on the character ‘Iris Storm’, the tragic heroine of Michael Arlen’s scandalous play ‘The Green Hat’ (1924), herself based on promiscuous socialite Idina Sackville. ‘Life’s best gift is the ability to dream of a better life’ says Storm. Michael Hazanavicius’ 2011 film ‘The Artist’, a pastiche of a monochrome Hollywood movie of the 1920s, is likely based on real-life lovers Gilbert and Garbo 

(13) ‘WILD ORCHIDS’ (30 Mar 1929 – MGM) Dir: Sidney Franklin. Prod: Irving Thalberg (102-mins) On a trip to Java, a routine romantic triangle develops as Garbo (Lillie Sterling) falls for charming native Prince De Grace (Nils Asther), after being neglected by businessman husband John (Lewis Stone), her elegance smoothes out the film’s weak spots

(14) ‘THE SINGLE STANDARD’ (27 July 1929 – MGM) Dir: John S Robertson (73-mins) envying male sexual freedoms denied women, wealthy Arden Stuart (Garbo) has a one-night stand with her chauffeur, after which he’s fired and kills himself. Disenchanted, she takes a romantic South Seas cruise with exciting aspirant boxer Packy Cannon (Nils Asther). He prefers to travel on to China on his ship rather then wed, so by the time he returns, she’s married safe millionaire Tommy Hewlett (Johnny Mack Brown). In the ensuing drama she chooses to accept the ‘Double Standard’ and stay with her husband and child 

(15) ‘A MAN’S MAN’ (1929 – MGM) Dir: James Cruz. Garbo appears only in brief cameo in this documentary, filmed with John Gilbert and director Fred Niblo during a one-day break from the ‘Wild Orchids’ set 

(16) ‘THE KISS’ (15 Nov 1929 – MGM) Dir: Jacques Feyder. Prod: Albert Lewin (89-mins) both MGM and Garbo’s final silent movie. Unhappily married Irene Guarry (Garbo) finds consolations with André Dubail (Conrad Nagel) and then Pierre Lassalle (Lew Ayres), leading to a murder mystery trial 

(17) ‘ANNA CHRISTIE’ (14 Mar 1930 – MGM) Dir: Clarence Brown. Prod: Irving Thalberg. Garbo’s first departure from silents, advertised as ‘Garbo Talks’, adapted from Eugene O’Neill’s play by Frances Marion (74-mins) also released in German version. Directed by Jacques Feyder. Garbo plays what the ‘Observer’s Philip French calls ‘a dockland whore’, a slattern redeemed by her love for a shipwrecked navvy 

(18) ‘ROMANCE’ (22 August 1930 – MGM) Dir: Clarence Brown. Prod: Paul Bern (76-mins) Garbo as opera star Rita Cavallini, according to ‘Picture Play’ magazine it is ‘a thing of pure beauty, an inspiring blend of intellect and emotion, a tender, poignant, poetic portrait of a woman who thrusts love from her because she considers herself unworthy of the man who offers it’ 

(19) ‘INSPIRATION’ (6 Feb 1931 – MGM) Dir: Clarence Brown. Prod: Irving Thalberg (74-mins) A romantic melodrama, Garbo is artist’s model ‘Yvonne Valbret’, a Parisian belle with a past returning to haunt her. The only film in which she plays opposite Robert Montgomery, she plays her role easily and convincingly, contributing sparkling brief bits of light comedy, and making the awkward dialogue sound almost real. She illuminates every scene of the picture, shining in her different styles of coiffure and striking costumes. Based on the 1884 novel ‘Sappho’ by Alphonse Daudet, it also stars Lewis Stone and Marjorie Rambeau. 

(20) ‘SUSAN LENOX: HER FALL AND RISE’ (16 October 1931 – MGM) Dir: Robert Z Leonard. Prod: Paul Bern. Adapted from David Graham Phillips’ novel ‘Her Rise And Fall’ by Wanda Tuchock with Zelda Sears and Edith Fitzgerald dialogue (76-mins) her only film with Clark Gable – as intermittent, and ultimate love-interest Rodney Spencer, it was only released in the UK in a heavily censored edition

(21) ‘MATA HARI’ (31 December 1931 – MGM) Dir: George Fitzmaurice. Prod: MGM. Original screenplay by Benjamin Glazer and Leo Birinski with dialogue by Doris Anderson and Gilbert Emery (90-mins). The poster says ‘No woman in all history so inflamed the hearts and froze the minds of men as this exotic glamorous spy’, with Garbo’s exotic accent enhancing her role as this ultimate temptress 

(22) ‘GRAND HOTEL’ (12 April 1932 – MGM) Dir: Edmund Goulding. Prod: Paul Bern. Adapted by William A Drake from the Vicki Baum play (113-mins). Various five-star guests at a luxury Berlin hotel work out and intertwine the crises in their lives, with an ambitious Joan Crawford, John and Lionel Barrymore. Her first movie available on DVD 

(23) ‘AS YOU DESIRE ME’ (2 June 1932 – MGM) Dir: George Fitzmaurice. Prod: Paul Bern (71-mins) Adapted from Pirandello’s play, yet a forgettable drama with Garbo playing opposite Erich von Stroheim as a writer’s amnesiac mistress, who recovers her memory only to realise she’s already married. Revived in 2005 for the West End stage with Garbo’s role taken by Kristin Scott Thomas 

(24) ‘QUEEN CHRISTINA’ (26 December 1933 – MGM) Dir: Rouben Mamoulian. Prod: Walter Wanger. Story adapted by Salka Viertel, HM Harwood and Margaret F Levin with dialogue by SN Behrman. Period drama, and Garbo’s greatest and most celebrated role as a 17th-century Swedish monarch who abdicates after a love-affair with a Spanish ambassador (John Gilbert). Laurence Olivier was originally cast opposite her, but Garbo considered his onscreen love-making so tepid she had him replaced with her former real-life lover. She invests the cross-dressing monarch with an ambiguously androgynous allure (97-mins) 

(25) ‘THE PAINTED VEIL’ (7 December 1934 – MGM) Dir: Richard Boleslawski. Prod: Hunt Stromberg (83-mins) Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel inspired by an incident in Dante’s ‘Purgatorio’, indifferently remade in 1957 (as ‘The Seventh Sin’), and in 2007 (as ‘The Painted Veil’) by director John Curran with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. Here ‘filmed rather beautifully’ – according to Philip French, the tale of Kitty, the errant wife of Walter, a straight-laced English doctor in China. As a form of punishment, he takes her into a remote, cholera-stricken province where she experiences redemption and comes to love her husband 

(26) ‘ANNA KARENINA’ (30 August 1935 – MGM) Dir: Clarence Brown. Prod: David O’Selznick. Adapted from the Leo Tolstoy novel by Clemence Dane, Salka Viertel and SN Behrman (95-mins). Decades later Feminist Academic Germaine Greer admits ‘when I read ‘Anna Karenina’ now I keep seeing Greta Garbo…’ 

(27) ‘CAMILLE’ (22 January 1937 – MGM) Dir: George Cukor. Prod: Irving Thalberg (108-mins). Triple-handkerchief weepie, and one of Garbo’s best and most mesmerising performances – alternately mournful, ironic, and tragic, as an ill-starred consumptive courtesan whose charms turn the head of a desperately smitten Robert Taylor, SF writer Fritz Leiber can be glimpsed as a bit player. Adapted from Alexandre Duman’s 1848 ‘La Dame Aux Camellias’ (also the source-work for Verdi’s opera, and Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Moulin Rouge’ with Nicole Kidman & Ewan McGregor as the doomed lovers) by Zoe Atkins, Frances Marion and James Hilton. Excerpts from ‘Camille’ are used in the 1982 musical ‘Annie’ illustrating the lyrics ‘Greta Garbo is probably crying, while Robert Taylor is locked in her dying embrace’ in the song ‘Let’s Go To The Movies’ 

(28) ‘MARIE WALEWSKA’ aka ‘CONQUEST’ (4 November 1937 – MGM) Dir: Clarence Brown Prod: Bernard H Hyman From Waclaw Gasiorowski’s novel ‘Pani Walewska’ by Samuel Hoffenstein, Salka Viertel and SN Behrman (112 mins) Some critics opine that French-born Matinee Idol Charles Boyer, as Napoleon, is the only co-star ever to dominate Garbo. That’s as maybe 

(29) ‘NINOTCHKA’ (9 November 1939 – MGM) Dir and Prod: Ernst Lubitsch. Screenplay by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch from Melchior Lengyel’s story (110 mins) ‘Garbo Laughs’. To Philip French, a ‘magnificent comedy’ with a glittering script… ‘if I were on a desert island with the films of a single year, it would be that one.’ As a stern Soviet commissar Garbo – playing delightfully against type, is sent to a trade delegation in Paris to retrieve three errant communists who’ve been seduced by western life-styles. Debonair count Melvyn Douglas – who represents everything she’s supposed to detest, thaws her out. Later remade by Rouben Mamoulian in 1957 as the MGM musical ‘Silk Stockings’ with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire recreating the roles, Garbo’s original is included in the ‘American Film Institute’s Top 100 Funniest Films Of The Century’ compiled in January 2003. It’s her penultimate role, and forms part of Garbo’s 2005 6-DVD set ‘The Signature Collection’, with ‘Anna Christie’, ‘Mata Hari’, ‘Queen Christina’, ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Camille’ 

 (30) ‘TWO-FACED WOMAN’ (31 December 1941 – MGM) Dir: George Cukor. Prod: Gottfried Reinhardt (94-mins) ‘Go Gay With Garbo’ in a romantic comedy about Larry Blake (Melvyn Douglas), a fashion magazine editor who weds ski-instructor Karin (Garbo), when she follows him to New York and finds him with old flame Grielda (Constance Bennett) she pretends to be her own twin sister Katherine. Based on a Ludwig Fulda play, it also features Roland Young. Garbo’s final film role 

(31) ‘GARBO: RECORDED FROM THE SOUNDTRACK OF VARIOUS MGM FILM PRODUCTIONS’ (12” Record Album MGM-C-975 – 1964), featuring nine dialogue excerpts from ‘Grand Hotel’ (2 scenes), ‘Queen Christina’ (2 scenes), ‘Camille’ (3 scenes), ‘Marie Walewska’ (3 scenes), ‘Ninotchka’ (4 scenes), ‘Susan Lennox, Her Fall And Rise’, ‘Anna Christie’, ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘Mata Hari’, plus a foreword by Walter Pidgeon, sleeve notes by Pauline Grant. Issued to coincide with the box-office record-breaking ‘Garbo Season’ presented by MGM at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square 

(32) ‘HOLLYWOOD REMEMBERS... THE DIVINE GARBO’ (Turner Home Entertainment No.3041) A 47-minute video, hosted by Glenn Close featuring clips from ‘Flesh & The Devil’, ‘Anna Christie’, ‘Susan Lennox’, ‘Grand Hotel’, ‘Ninotchka’, ‘Camille’ and others 

(33) ‘THE SOUTH BANK SHOW: GRETA GARBO’ (Sunday 11 March 2001 – ITV, 10:45pm) Melvyn Bragg introduces the first major TV documentary on Garbo’s life

‘THE SEWING CIRCLE (HOLLYWOOD’S GREATEST SECRET: FEMALE STARS WHO LOVED OTHER WOMEN)’ 1995 Hardcover, 240pp featuring insert nude photos of Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo


Judas Vigilante said...

What a truly amazing feast of information on one of the silver screens great. I loved enjoying you and your mothers fascination with GG. And in turn I felt enthused too. Brilliantly written, enjoyable and intelligent. Loved every minute. Regards, paul. G.

Judas Vigilante said...

What a truly amazing feast of information on one of the silver screens great. I loved enjoying you and your mothers fascination with GG. And in turn I felt enthused too. Brilliantly written, enjoyable and intelligent. Loved every minute. Regards, paul. G.

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Scott Lord on Silent Film, Scott Lord on Mystery Film said...

Nice piece of work on Greta Garbo.

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Anonymous said...

My great aunt dotty who passed away in the early eighties lived in NYC back when Garbo was big on the silver screen. It was always rummered that she had a lesbian affair with Greta. I have to this day a collection of sketches done by my aunt as she continued to live in the city up until the 50’s or so, lots of great sletches and one that suprisingly reminds me of GG.