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

THE 1920S

NO MATTER WHICH ACCOUNTS OF THE STORY OF HOW GARBO CAME TO PICTURES - the end is the same, Garbo would become a star on the silver screen. Two accounts of her first contract with Louis B. Mayer of MGM differ from one another. The first is that Victor Seastrom, a Swedish director at the studio, encourage Mayer to meet with the director of a film called, THE SAGE OF GOSTA BERLING, Mauritz Stiller. Mayer was always seeking out new talent and wanted Stiller has a director for the studio, he would decline unless Garbo came with him, as he was her mentor and felt that his career bloomed with her. Mayer agreed to private viewing of GOSTA BERLING. His daughter recalls him saying, "It was her eyes, I can make a star out of her." In the last version, Garbo had Mayer's interest all along. On the way to the screening of the film, he said to his daughter: "This director is wonderful, but what we really ought to look at is the girl. The girl, look at the girl!" Then after the screening, "I'll take her without him. I'll take her with him. Number one is the girl."


SHE WAS BORN GRETA LOVISA GUSTAFSSON in Stockholm, Sweden, on September 18th, 1905. She was third and youngest of her parents, born to poor family life. They brought up their three children in a working-class district regarded as a slum.

It was eternally grey—those long winter's nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room, my mother is repairing ragged old clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We were filled with anxiety, as if there were danger in the air. Such evenings are unforgettable for a sensitive girl. Where we lived, all the houses and apartments looked alike, their ugliness matched by everything surrounding us. - GARBO.

Her father died when she was thirteen and Greta left school at fourteen and got a job at a large department store, selling hats and coats. She would be asked shortly after to pose in an advertisement film. She jumped at the chance to pretend on camera as had been a quite but theatrical child. This would become her first screen appearance.


She would have her chance when a film producer came into her store to purchase costumes for his next picture. She asked him for a part. A week later she would hand in her weeks notice, a bold decision, like the rest of her life. 

The film was PETER THE CHAMP, she played a bathing girl. It wasn't much of a part. Though a critic did mention that she could end up being a Swedish film star. She would go on to meet Mauritz Stiller, Sweden's most famous director, who was casting for a new picture. He saw the talent and star material in this plump Swedish girl and by pure intuition, created the Garbo we know. He told a friend: "She'll be alright. I'll see to that." Garbo would go to say: "Stiller is the best person I know. I have him to thank for everything." He even changed her name from GUSTAFSSON to GARBO, a Swedish name for a wood nymph, doing more than hiring talent, but creating an ideal woman, the perfect screen image. Not only beautiful but mystic and spiritual, radiating a nervous intensity. 

Greta Garbo, July 1925. Photo by Arnold Genthe.

In the mid-twenties, Hollywood was booming with film royalty and had the largest film industry in the world, with it's most powerful studio as the front-runner, MGM. "We have more stars than in heaven." Before long, the vice-president Louie B. Mayer had Stiller and his creation under contract. They spent a lot of time trying to find her and the personality she would wear for all to see. She wrote back home, "They don't have a type like me out here."

Her first film is Hollywood would be the TORRENT, in the part of a naive peasant girl. VARIETY hailed her as the find of the year. Her second film, directed by Shiller, was THE TEMPTRESS. A film that showed her uniqueness to the eager public. GARBO moved with an animal directness, something filmgoers hadn't seen before. The film was painted all over with success and newfound stardom. Unlike that of Stiller, who slow working and temperamental directing style got him fired. The film was finished with another director. Garbo was left heartbroken. She felt alone in this new role, as the studio groomed her, she retreated deeper into her personal space, being nicknamed the Mysterious Stranger. 

Her acting, on the other hand, was impactful and subtle. The art of silent acting. Her subtle movements and mindful lifts of her brows and the lowering of her head. We can see a thought passing through her mind or the hint of delicate emotion, dropping down to her lids. An audience moved with her movements. A flip compared to the sometimes overdrawn acting of the silent era.


John Gilbert gave her a sense of warmth. "The most alluring creature", he said. "One day a child, the next a mysterious woman of a thousand years old, knowing everything." They met on the set of the nineteen-twenty six picture, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL. The film broke new grounds, as Garbo's lovemaking was more realistic than Hollywood ever dared show. And their on-screen romance soon transitioned into real life. Gilbert began coaching her on her acting and by the end of production on the film, the pair were living together. The film also prompted a new direction for Garbo's career, she became a sensation, along with her pairing with Gilbert. In 1929, reviewer Pierre de Rohan wrote in the NEW YORK TELEGRAPH: "She has glamour and fascination for both sexes which have never been equaled on the screen." The two would go on to star in three more hits: LOVE in 1927, A WOMAN OF AFFAIRS in 1928, and QUEEN CHRISTINA in 1933. 

After three films, she was not only world-famous, but her salary went from 350 dollars a week to 5,000 thousand. She began to turn down parts and some of her friends noticed her becoming more and more involved with her alone time, seeing less and less of her when she was not working. She felt that the pressure of being a famous face and doing interviews killed the illusion on the screen and her personal relations and thoughts. And she even began to require unusual working conditions during some of the shooting of her scenes, no visitors and demanded screens around the set to prevent extras of studio hands from watching her work. When asked about her requirements, she said: "If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise."

Her acting was improving, becoming more structured and detailed, well-rounded. And even the arrival of talking pictures didn't shake her. As MGM was the last to switch to sound, Garbo had time to work on her English and to loosen her Swedish accent. She also waited for the new technology to become more understood in a technical sense. Her last silent role was in the nineteen-twenty nine-film, THE KISS, it was also the studio's last silent. Though there was some nervousness around the new decade approaching - the thirties would become the decade of GARBO.