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the mona lisa of film: greta garbo in the thirties.



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"IF THEY WANT ME TO TALK, I'LL TALK."

THE NINETEEN-THIRTIES WAS THE DECADE GARBO would speak for the first time. It was the decade of some of her most profound roles in such films as, NINOTCHKA, GRAND HOTEL, and QUEEN CHRISTINA. She was one of few who made it into sound, as she endured vocal training during the studios' transition between silent pictures into "talkies", a task not achieved by her peers. Most actors and actresses came from other countries and had thick accents, which when it comes to silent pictures, was anything but a problem. But, when the public wanted more talking pictures, some of the most famous stars couldn't handle the transition, they would lose their public and end their careers. Garbo would work harder than ever before.


I.

GARBO's first speaking role came in the film: ANNA CHRISTIE. An MGM picture from nineteen-thirty, an adaptation o the nineteen-twenty-two play by Eugene O'Neill. The film was advertised with "GARBO TALKS!". Sixteen minutes into the film she utters her first motion picture words: "GIMME A WHISKEY, GINGER ALE ON THE SIDE, AND DON'T BE STINGY, BABY." After two years worth of vocal training, taming her thick Swedish accent, it became all worth it. The public adored her and she received her first Academy Award for Best Actress and the film would go on to become the highest-grossing film of the year. This film sealed her transition into sound pictures. And though the next two films didn't reach the high of her first talkie, she was still ranked as the most popular female star in the United States in nineteen-thirty and nineteen-thirty one. 

"I WAS SO NERVOUS THE NIGHT BEFORE. I COULDN'T SLEEP." - GARBO, TALKING ABOUT HER FIRST SCENE IN ANNA CHRISTIE.


GARBO SHINED IN THE THIRTIES. An awakening of sorts from her personal life growing ever more secretive and the parts she played on the silver screen. In the nineteen-thirty one, it is said that this is when Garbo befriended writer Mercedes de Acosta, a known lesbian within the business. According to both Acosta's and Garbo's biographers, the two began a sporadic romance. And for the following thirty years, the two would remain, not-so-close friends, with Garbo writing over 181 letters, cards, and telegrams. 87 of these items are now at the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. THOUGH it should be mentioned that after opening the letters that had been sold to the museum a decade after Garbo's death, most agree that there was nothing to report on about an intimate relationship. Mercedes had a long obsession with Garbo, one that Garbo even disliked. It is possible that this was all fabricated by Mercedes, it also seems possible that the romance or close friendship lost it's passion quickly after it started. 

THIS WEBSITE GOES INTO THE LETTERS IN MORE DEPTH: X.

Another romance was between Garbo and Mimi Pollak. A letter written in nineteen-thirty, after Garbo discovered Pollak was with child, she wrote: "WE CANNOT HELP OUR NATURE, AS GOD HAS CREATED IT. BUT I HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT YOU AND I BELONGED TOGETHER." Mimi Pollak and Greta Garbo met in Sweden, in nineteen-twenty-two, when Grabo auditioned for a scholarship at the Dramaten School to study acting. The two remained close friends even after Garbo left Sweden and went to Hollywood, the two sent letters to one another for sixty years. 

SOME EXCERPTS FROM THEIR LETTERS: 

GARBO TO MIMI - TAKEN FROM A NINETEEN-TWENTY FOUR LETTER.

"The letter from you had aroused a storm of longing within me."

GARBO TO MIMI - TAKEN FROM A NINETEEN-TWENTY EIGHT LETTER.

"I dream of seeing you and discovering whether you still care as much about your old bachelor. I love you, Mimose."

In the earliest letter, in nineteen twenty-three, writing in her dressing room THIS TIME I WILL NOT JUST PUT SOME BLACK AROUND MY EYES SO I LOOK LIKE AN OWN, before a performance at the Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern in Stockholm, she talks about how boring life is in the capital and declares how much she hates being alone, talking about her old life at drama school, I KEEP THINKING OF YOU MIMI AND THINKING THAT I WILL MEET YOU ANY SECOND IN THE CORRIDOR, then refers to Mimi's engagement, I LOVE YOU AND IF YOU LOVE NISSE THEN I LOVE HIM TOO. 


MIMI POLLAK AND GREAT GARBO, in the right-hand corner. 
GARBO LOOKS DOWN ONTO MIMI, AS SHE LOOKS INTO THE CAMERA.

II. 

"I'VE ALWAYS MAINTAINED THAT THE ABILITY TO TRANSFORM ONE'S SELF CONSTITUTES GREAT ACTING. HERE GRETA GARBO HAD ACHIEVED SOMETHING WHICH FEW PEOPLE EXPECTED OF HER. SHE HAD FITTED HERSELF INTO A PLAY AND INTO A CAST AND HAS RENDERED A GREAT PERFORMANCE EXACTLY AT THAT POINT WHERE THE ROLE WAS CONTRARY TO HER OWN BEING. THE TWITTERING, LAUGHING, HOPPING ABOUT, IN THE TARLATAN OF A BALLET SKIRT IS CERTAINLY NOT WHAT GREAT WOULD HAVE SOUGHT OUT AS HER ROLE. BUT SHE ACCOMPLISHED IT." - VICKI BAUM, author of Grand Hotel, nineteen thirty-two. 

GARBO then started in two of her best-remembered pictures, as a WWI German spy in nineteen thirty-one's MATA HARI. At its release, it caused panic amongst people, as the police had to keep the waiting mob in order. The following year, she was in GRAND HOTEL, the picture in which she would speak her famous quote, "I WANT TO BE ALONE; I JUST WANT TO BE ALONE." It was a picture with an all-star cast, including that of Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and John Barrymore, and others. Both of these films had been  MGM's highest-earning films. Garbo became "the greatest money-making machine ever put on screen." She would return to Sweden after her contract with MGM expired in nineteen thirty-two. 


QUEEN CHRISTINA | GRETA GARBO KISSES ELIZABETH YOUNG.

AND AFTER A YEAR of negotiations, she agreed to renew her MGM contract, on the sole condition that she would star in QUEEN CHRISTINA, nineteen thirty-three, (one of my personal favorite films and favorite of Garbo's.) She cross-dressed, kissed women, and ruled over her kingdom. Her salary would also increase for this film. The studio had already been nervous about making the film but went along with Garbo, she also rejected both of the studio's suggestions for a leading man, they suggested Laurence Olivier or Charle Boyer. Garbo wanted John Gilbert, her former co-star, and lover, his career had become that of a laughing stock, this was her way of helping her dear friend, and once drunkenly stated "love of my life." It was one of the studio's biggest productions at the time. "GARBO RETURNS," was advertised. It was the highest-grossing film of the year. 


"In part of that scene, I was to take her boots off and run my hands up and down her legs, and it drove me crazy. I knew a little about her reputation, and I didn’t want to be pawing her in 10 or 15 takes. But I had to try to seduce her, and I was so self-conscious in rehearsal that Mamoulian said, “Barbara, I never saw you so stiff. What are you afraid of?” I got red in the face. I couldn’t say, “I don’t want to be making love to her 35 times— she’s liable to like it.” So I said, “I’m so overwhelmed by playing a scene with Miss Garbo, please forgive me. When you do the take, I’ll do it right.” So he laughed and she laughed, and then, to put me at ease, she told me a story about the time she went into a shoe store and asked for moccasins and the clerk recognized her and came back with sizes 8 and 9. She said, “These are too big for me,” and he looked at her, very disappointed, and said, “Oh, I thought you were Garbo.” - BARBARA BARONDESS.

III.

HER NEXT THREE FILMS were all hand-picked by Garbo herself, ANNA KARENINA in nineteen thirty-five, in which she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. She then picked George Cukor's romantic drama CAMILLE in nineteen thirty-six. Some believe the somber mood required for the closing scenes of CAMILLE was added by the death of her untimely death of producer Irving Thalberg and the death of John Gilbert, who died earlier the same year.  

THE NEXT FILM WAS the lavish production CONQUEST, in nineteen thirty-seven. This would be the film that landed Garbo on the published "BOX OFFICE POISON" article, where stars like Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Fred Astaire, and Marlene Dietrich, and others, were dubbed to be box office poison. The film was the most-publicized picture of the year, but it would go on to lose more than a million at the box-office.

GARBO LAUGHS.


ASKED BY WRITER GARSON KANIN WHY HE PUT HER IN A COMEDY IN THE FIRST PLACE, DIRECTOR LUBITSCH REPLIED:

"I said to her one day, "Can you laugh?" and she said, "I think so." I said to her, "Do you often laugh?" And she said, "Not often." And I said, "Could you laugh right now?" And she said, "Let me come back tomorrow." And then the next day she came back and she said, "All right. I'm ready to laugh." So I said, "Go ahead." And she laughed and it was beautiful! And she made me laugh, and there we sat in my office like two loonies, laughing for about ten minutes. From that moment on, I knew I had a picture."

MGM took control and turned in a different direction with their once box-office gold. The nineteen thirty-nine film NINOTHCKA is one of Garbo's best. She is at her best, her liveliest. The camera, like it did in the twenties, cannot take its gaze off her. It was publicized with the phrase, GARBO LAUGHS! A turn from Garbo's more serious and perhaps even melancholy image, into comedy., and a play on GARBO TALKS! almost a decade before. And though banned in the Soviet Union, it was a box-office success in the United States and abroad.

TRYING TO continue with the road of success from NINOTCHKA, MGM put her in another romantic comedy TWO-FACED WOMAN, in nineteen forty-one. Though it performed decently at the box office, it was a critical failure. Garbo herself referred to the film as "my grave."

It would be her last film. 

THE NEXT DECADE WOULD BE ONE OF SOLITUDE, EARLY RETIREMENT, AND THE START OF THE GARBO LEGEND. 


GRETA GARBO IN THE FORTIES WILL COME SOON.

R.