Intellectuals from Roland Barthes to Kenneth Tynan have rhapsodized idiotically and sometimes touchingly about the Greta Garbo phenomenon. Her image exists in an atmosphere of incense, ceaseless publicity, and acres of purple prose (Garbo! Greta! Swedish Sphinx of the Ages!). After she retired from acting in 1941, her solitary, threadbare life was an object of intense curiosity for 50 years. In 1995, five years after her death, Barry Paris published his definitive biography, presenting the real person as found in letters and interviews with her friends. What emerged was not displeasing. There were rumors that Garbo had been dull, even stupid. Not at all. From the evidence of Paris’s book, Garbo was a genuinely weird person with an eccentric personality to match her one-of-a-kind face.
Garbo, who was born a century ago this month, has been voted the most beautiful woman that ever lived by the Guinness Book of World Records. Is she? There’s no way of judging such things, of course, but let’s say for a moment that she is, or was. What made her beautiful? Technically speaking, it has to be the large velveteen gap between her eyelids and her eyebrows. This area was emphasized with make-up as her career progressed, so that her eyes looked like the excessive, nearly gaudy invention of an inspired painter. Her nose was rather large, her mouth thin, with barely a hard line for her upper lip. Her body was gangly and she moved awkwardly, tipping over to the right and to the left like a ship on a stormy sea, her shoulders constantly hunched up around her ears. She continually displayed her swan-like neck by throwing her head back in submission, joy, despair and everything else in between. Garbo’s expressive hands had long tapering fingers, and these extremities were matched by her large and frequently hidden feet. Her breasts, usually sans brassiere, sagged stylishly in sweaters and in some of the screen’s most outlandish costumes. She preferred her hair to hang lank to her shoulders, and she walked with a fearlessly masculine stride. Just looking at her is transfixing, hypnotic.
Was Garbo a great actress? She hardly needed to be. However, this new box set of her most important films clearly displays her drastically different performance modes. Taken chronologically, the films collected here show her somewhat tardy development as a performer; as late as 1932, in one of her most famous films, Grand Hotel, she was capable of giving a shockingly bad performance. But after that, she gave several performances that place her in the small pantheon of great screen actors. In her silent and early talkie programmers, she was never less than an extraordinarily sensual screen presence.
Garbo was born into a lower-class family in Sweden in 1905. She wasn’t a beauty from the start: early photographs reveal an enormous girl with frizzy hair and bad teeth. She went to drama school and picked up some stagy technical tricks that would mark her early films in Hollywood (closing her eyes slowly to register despair and clutching her head in a crisis were the worst of them). She cavorted in a bathing suit in her first film, Peter the Tramp, a short comedy often excerpted but never shown. As is so often the case with legendary stars, she was discovered and mentored by a fine director, Mauritz Stiller. He cast her in his lengthy ensemble piece The Story of Gosta Berling and brought her over to Germany to make G.W. Pabst’s gritty, ambitious Joyless Street. In these early European films, not included in the set, Garbo is quite haunting, if unfocused, in her embryonic state.
Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, saw Gosta Berling and brought Stiller and Garbo to Hollywood. Stiller did not direct her debut, an impossible melodrama called Torrent, but he was supposed to guide her sophomore effort, The Temptress; he was fired, and all his footage was re-shot by Fred Niblo. This film, the earliest in the set, was the one American Garbo movie that never made it to TV or video (it recently premiered on TCM). Surprisingly, The Temptress is fairly enjoyable, with a number of striking set pieces. The opening is magical: Garbo appears at a party wearing a mask. She rushes through the crowd and can’t seem to lose them; already, she wants to be alone. But then the Man comes into her life.
The Man in Garbo movies is of little importance. He can be feminine and overwrought (John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro), masculine and indifferent (John Barrymore, Fredric March), pretty and lively (Lew Ayres, Robert Taylor), or even a great actor like herself (Charles Boyer). But Garbo works alone. The Man in The Temptress is Antonio Moreno, and he asks Garbo to take off her mask. Her head bobbling back, her mouth open submissively, she slowly removes the mask and the camera lingers on Moreno as he reacts. When we see her face, her drugged-up sexuality is still potent, even startling. They share a love scene, and then The Temptress goes dead until it lands in Argentina, where vampy Garbo taunts Moreno at length. In the last scene, Garbo is down and out, and she seems relieved to be free of feminine clothes and affectations. Suddenly she’s riveting: drunk, wasted, whispering lewd suggestions to Moreno. The actress displaces the sex star, but only momentarily.
Garbo in her Hollywood silents is selling S-E-X. It is sex that made her a star; artistry came later. But she has power as early as The Temptress because of one essential paradox: her need to be alone, her resistance to society at large, and her helpless, incredible response to love in the abstract for one person. When she first kisses Moreno, her hand trembles a bit as she clutches at his head. Her love scenes are still erotic because her sexuality is rough and passionate, filled with horny nervous energy: she always subjugates her leading men, grabbing them bodily and getting on top, taking the masculine position for kissing. This was just natural to Garbo, and it was a large part of her subversive quality. Garbo’s sublime lesbian authoritativeness worked best, of course, with slightly nelly men.
Garbo’s next film, Flesh and the Devil, paired her with nelly, randy John Gilbert, a big star at the time. Most of the movie is boring buddy stuff with Gilbert and Lars Hanson; they’re flanked by a young ingénue with Mary Pickford curls. Garbo wipes such Griffith antiques aside when she gets Gilbert in a clinch. She’s a bit calculating here, but she has charm, danger, irony; she puts bug-eyed Gilbert in his place on bearskin rugs and he loves it (he loved it in real life, too). The film made her a huge star, but Garbo is less an actress in Flesh and more of a sex goddess; indeed, she plays her famous love bouts with Gilbert as if she’s in some kind of sex coma. In a hilarious scene set in church, Garbo takes a communion chalice and moves it so that she can press her lips to where Gilbert’s lips just touched, a cartoonish, high camp blasphemy. Later on, when Garbo tries to emote, she betrays her inexperience, throwing an extremely atypical hissy fit as the ingénue prays. Garbo is so hot here that the story has to end with her falling into a crack in an iced-over lake.
In the next film in the set, The Mysterious Lady, she has become the Garbo of legend, her hair longer and straighter, her eyes made up, her mask-like visage able to suggest old age and extreme youth in flashes. Her face has become more austere, more masculine; it is this masculinity that completed her beauty (in life, she habitually referred to herself with masculine pronouns). The film itself is enervated trash, but it has a nice entrance for Garbo: she sits in a box at the opera, transported by the music. When it is over, she cries out and seems to laugh at herself a little; her instinct for self-parody is at times as acute as that of her future Grand Hotel co-star John Barrymore. Here she’s a naughty spy with flashes of conscience, a fantasy woman, almost Mae West-ian in her swagger.
The dream goddess of her silents had to make way for sound, and she finally spoke in a movie of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. The American version, helmed by Garbo’s most frequent director, Clarence Brown, is a hopeless early talkie with all the defects of its tentative time period. Shots are held for no reason when people have exited the frame, as if no one was behind the camera, and the sound is very muffled. Garbo’s deep voice wowed audiences at the time, and her short staccato laugh is distinctive, but she’s trying too hard here, especially when she talks tough. Her Anna, an embittered prostitute, is filled with unappealing self-pity. As an imperious drunk, Marie Dressler steals the film: watch the way she puts her hand to her face when she realizes she’s blown Garbo’s cover with her new lover. That’s great acting, something Garbo herself was incapable of at this point.
A second version of Anna Christie was shot in German immediately after the Hollywood film, and it’s a better movie. Garbo is much more at ease in this language, and the dialogue is more to the point. The German Anna has been to jail, and she’s a lot tougher than her Hollywood counterpart, less sorry for herself. Garbo’s Hollywood Anna seemed like a movie star impersonating a hooker: you can’t imagine her turning a trick. Garbo’s German Anna seems like a pro, and though she loathes men, she’s obviously fond of sex. In the American version, her lover, Charles Bickford, is a harsh-voiced Irishman who talks to her paternally, and he stokes her strenuous anger. Her German lover, Theo Shall, is smaller and prettier, a sensual child, and she reacts to him as if she’s both touched and turned on (the obscure Shall is one of her best leading men). The two Anna Christies are fairly untenable for a modern audience, but the German version is far superior.
Established in talkies, Garbo then made a series of truly terrible films, among them Romance, Inspiration, and Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise. Included in the set is one of her worst movies, Mata Hari, which seems to have been made solely so MGM’s costume designer Adrian could put her in some of the most ridiculous outfits he could think of. She’s forced to do a humiliating “dance” in her first scene and can barely manage to wiggle her ass. Her tongue firmly in her cheek, she then proceeds to romance Ramon Novarro, wear a succession of jeweled skullcaps, kill Lionel Barrymore, and march off to the firing squad. “This is absurd,” she says, early on, as if she wanted to walk off the set.
At the peak of her popularity in spite of these cheap little movies (which did huge business for MGM), she was then placed as the figurehead of the first all-star production, the Oscar-winning Grand Hotel. Again, one of Garbo’s big early films is stolen by someone else: Joan Crawford, who was born to play the role of Flaemmchen, a stenographer on the make. Crawford is huge-eyed and slender here, a cheerful opportunist, canny, not very bright, but warm and sympathetic. As a weary ballerina, Garbo is nightmarishly miscalculated, making “big” choices that never work. Her first “tired” close-up is the purest camp. She lingers on the bad dialogue so cluelessly that it finally becomes obvious how lost she is with the English language, and her body language is equally off pitch: she’s ludicrous trying to be a dancer, throwing herself around her hotel room. Garbo postures, declaims, and overacts, even when she says her most famous line, “I want to be alone.” She’s easier to take when the character is awakened by love, but she descends into camp again when she talks melodramatically to a telephone. It’s an embarrassing performance, but her best work was around the corner.
Garbo took some time off, and when she returned under a new contract, she had more control over her films. Gradually, the biggest movie star in the world (and the most beautiful woman) began to gain the confidence necessary to become a great actress. This process began with Queen Christina, an uneven spectacle about the Swedish queen, rather carelessly directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and saddled with John Gilbert in his penultimate movie (Garbo insisted that her ruined former lover have the part). It’s clear that English is still an obstacle course for her, especially during long verbose speeches, which she plows through in a determined, forceful manner. However, the Sapphic flavor of the film is quite fetching; Garbo obviously loves striding around in velvet trousers and soul kissing her favorite lady in waiting. The film comes to life in a long scene at an inn, where Garbo spends the night with Gilbert, then memorizes the contents of the room where they have shared their tryst (it was choreographed like a dance by Mamoulian). Age was smoothing out her features; her Helen of Troy aspect was becoming more mask-like. The famous last close-up of her impassive face in Queen Christina is one of those movie things that you never get over, an endless subject for contemplation.
The real surprise of the set is Anna Karenina. I’d remembered a stolid, workmanlike film with a tired turn by Garbo. On the contrary! The film is much worse than I’d recalled, dully directed by Clarence Brown, indifferently acted by the rest of the cast, truncated, unenthusiastic, a dead thing. But Garbo gives an amazing performance. Gone is the arrant posturing of Grand Hotel. Gone is the need to try too hard, as in Anna Christie. Here, all at once, she is in complete command. Her face emerges from a gust of smoke, haughty, remote, tired of being looked at. Behind her slumberous, captivating eyes is a Niagara Falls of quicksilver thought. She is able to fill any line of dialogue with the deepest emotion, and she accomplishes this without strain, as if she’s in a trance (and she has to be, in order to create in this MGM vacuum). When her cuckolded husband, prissy-mouthed Basil Rathbone, shouts her out of the house, her walk down the stairs is thrilling: she just keeps moving, a weary, sometimes bewildered look on her face. Her brother (Reginald Denny) reminds her that mores must be upheld for the benefit of the public. “Yes, they’re very important,” she says, in a piercingly rich, insincere, distracted voice. Garbo’s late performances are filled with these large jolts of meaning, as if she is capable of joining together any opposing ideas in an instant. She makes Anna’s suicide look like the product of grave, intelligent reflection.
At this point, Garbo was in the zone artistically speaking. Serendipitously, she got herself into a film that did her mature talent full justice, George Cukor’s Camille, a Balzac-ian study of suffocating, vulgar 19th century Parisian life. “I’m afraid of nothing except being bored,” says Garbo’s Marguerite Gautier, a consumptive courtesan impelled by her heartless milieu (and impending death) into near-constant bitchery and frivolity. Garbo’s light touch here is as breathtaking as her beauty, and her newfound sense of life’s vastness informs every bold, contrary choice she makes. When producer Irving Thalberg saw the early rushes of Camille, he was very excited; Cukor asked him why. “Don’t you understand?” he asked. “She is completely unguarded.” She is in such control that she has no visible control whatever, a tremendous change from her self-consciousness in Grand Hotel. Her sexual brazenness is even wilder: in her first love scene with Robert Taylor, she plants a half dozen hungry kisses all over his face without using her hands, then bites into his mouth as if she’s devouring a particularly luscious éclair.
Garbo’s greatest scene, indeed, one of the greatest scenes in film history, is a brief bit of dialogue she shares with Henry Daniell, who plays her rich lover, the Baron de Varville. As Daniell plays a driving piano melody, he smiles ominously at the thought of her new lover (Taylor) ringing her bell outside. When Daniell asks who is ringing, Garbo says, “I might say it was someone at the wrong door…or the great romance of my life!” She makes a huge leap in between these phrases, and her playing has a goose-pimply sense of danger, as if she’s hurling herself off a cliff. Daniell stays right with her, “The great romance of your life!” he howls. “Charming!” She leaps right back in: “It might have been,” she says quickly, and he starts to play the melody louder and faster. Garbo throws her head back to laugh, but no sound comes out. All we hear is the pounding piano as the camera draws close to her agony.
The scene is like a merry-go-round gone berserk, a perfect synthesis of actors, material, music, and direction. We must give Cukor credit here, for surely he is responsible for some of the daring give and take between Garbo and Daniell, the boasting rapidity, the melody from the piano. The scene catches you up in a vice and smacks you around, and when it’s done, you’re changed somehow, no matter how many times you’ve see it. It leaves an exquisite wound. So does her epic death scene, so delicate, so perverse. The film as a whole is filled with the impulse to joke about tragedy. That’s the subversive charm of Camille, and that’s the essence of what Garbo was capable of at the height of her inventiveness.
Jokes about tragedy are also the essence of the final film in the set, a stinging, very bold satire on Soviet Russia, Ninotchka, Garbo’s first comedy. Director Ernst Lubitsch developed a strategy for combating the evil of Hitler (in To Be or Not to Be) and Stalin (in Ninotchka): merciless ridicule. Ninotchka has jokes about the Secret Police and even the show trials. “There will be fewer but better Russians,” insists Garbo’s Ninotchka, a dour commissar who is soon bewitched by capitalistic Paris. Her performance is almost entirely deadpan, and she performs the foolproof script with graceful economy. “I’m so happy!” she says, during her enchanting drunk scene. But Garbo has seen enough of her own movies to know better: “No one can be so happy without being punished!” she continues.
When we hear Garbo’s voice in our head, she is always saying lines like that. “I knew I was too happy,” she gasps in Camille. Garbo was always dying or being killed. So obviously doomed by fate, she clutched at people and even at things around her for reassurance. She made love to so many inanimate objects: John Gilbert’s flowers in A Woman of Affairs, her ballet slipper in Grand Hotel. Everything she touched was eroticized and heightened. Audiences of the time took huge pleasure in watching this exotic woman die, seeing her beauty fade into nothingness slowly but surely. Modern audiences coming across Garbo cold are usually suspicious of her and unimpressed by her grandstanding and her severe beauty. She has lost her status as a cultural event and a lot of her work is dated; Garbo is pre-modern while Marlene Dietrich is post-modern. Dietrich’s cool plays better today than Garbo’s mannered heat, but both women are essential film experiences.
It is still popularly accepted that Garbo retired after her last movie, the egregious comedy Two-Faced Woman, because its failure hurt her pride. This is true, but she was willing to return several times in the late ’40s, most tantalizingly for a version of Balzac’s Duchesse de Langeais to be directed by Max Ophüls, with James Mason as her co-star. She submitted to a screen test for the film; in it, she is even more beautiful with a bit of age on her. But this dream project ran out of money, which humiliated her. She never seriously considered returning again, and lived out her life as a “hermit about town,” doing absolutely nothing for decades on end. Her legend was created by this withdrawal and its resultant publicity. Now that this is behind us and we can look at her films for themselves, Garbo’s early shortcomings as an actress and her later achievements stand in relief. Her beauty is without question and impossible to forget.
The disc devoted to three Garbo silents (The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil, and The Mysterious Lady) is uneven but rewarding. Temptress looks fantastic, with all sorts of nice tinting effects and a terrific score by Michael Picton. Flesh is the same ancient video print from the ’80s, with an overexposed image and a thunderous Carl Davis score. Mysterious Lady has a seriously damaged image, but an appropriately hubba-hubba score by Vivek Maddala. The Hollywood Anna Christie looks good but sounds awful and the German Anna is barely visible in its barge scenes, but it’s so rare that this can’t be helped. The rest of the films look and sound good, with the exception of Camille. This print of Camille has lots of lines and scratches, many more than the print used on television long ago.
There are three excellent commentaries for the films on the silent disc (by Mark Viera, Tony Maietta, and Jeffrey Vance and her best biographer, Barry Paris, respectively) and a real gem: the nine extant minutes of the only lost Garbo movie, Victor Sjöström’s The Divine Woman. In this surviving reel, Garbo is simple and girlish, fighting, smiling, laughing, a vibrant young woman, not the sexed-up zombie of her other silents. "Life is short...so short!" she exclaims, via inter-title, and there are lots of shots of clocks ticking, as if to underline how little is left of this movie, her one Sjöström film. It’s a real shame that this is the lost one, and not one of her emptier films, like Wild Orchids or The Single Standard. The other discs have no commentaries and precious few extras, aside from a fascinatingly weird art deco Camille from 1921 starring Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino. A new documentary feature treads familiar ground.
You’ll want to be alone with this box set.