As successful as Greta Garbo’s pre-talkie films were in the states, they were even more popular in Europe where sound was not a barrier. Louis B. Mayer, nervous about Garbo’s American market in the coming sound era, spared no expense and devised a simple campaign slogan for her first speaking role: “Garbo Talks.” In Anna Christie (1930) she takes half of forever to appear and when she does, she delivers a classic line in her inimitable, husky, accented voice: “Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” Unfortunately, it is the only classic thing about the film. Based on one of Eugene O’ Neil’s most mediocre seafaring plays, Anna Christie is hopelessly stagebound and static. Worse, Garbo is cast as an earthy, as opposed to exotic, prostitute, which was a misstep. By this time, Clarence Brown’s directing had shifted to autopilot. The film is, naturally, beautifully photographed. Marie Dressler, through hammy acting, does the impossible and steals the film from Garbo. Still, 193o audiences, unsurprisingly, bought into the publicity and made it a huge hit. Garbo received an Oscar nomination for this film. It was the first of four nominations, none of which she won.
Garbo’s second talkie, Romance (1930) is an even more stilted affair, directed again by Brown. She is an opera star in love with a priest (a miscast Gavin Gordon). Things go south when he discovers she is not a virgin (the Hays production code was not yet being enforced). There is a lot of chatter, and Garbo looks ravishing, but her performance was hardly one of her best, despite a second Oscar nomination. As Cornelius, Lewis Stone steals everything but the camera.
Inspiration (1931) finds Brown again asleep in the director’s chair in a film that, amazingly, seems a pale imitation of her previous film, which wasn’t good to begin with. Garbo and Lewis Stone are refreshing, despite clunky dialogue. Robert Montgomery looks bored.
Garbo’s was still MGM’S hottest foreign commodity, but her last few films had shown a steady decline in the homegrown market. Under pressure, Garbo requested the up-and-coming Clark Gable as her co-star for Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1931). She lived to regret it. By all accounts, the two did not hit it off. Her European aloofness was not to his liking and she though him crass.
Susan Lenox is one of Garbo’s oddest films and a definite pre-coder. She stars as an illegitimate Cinderella type, but she is hardly Snow White. Garbo goes through an entire smorgasbord of men, most of whom she leaves in ruins, and when macho suitor Gable discovers she is “fallen” (i.e. not a virgin) he dumps her, then is tormented by her. Naturally, he seeks her out again, although we are never quite convinced of his yearning. Garbo and Gable’s lack of chemistry is apparent, even though each conveys the qualities that made them sex symbols.
Director Robert Z. Leonard was a prolific veteran of silents, and his discomfort with the sound medium is all too apparent. However, Leonard also gives the film a surreal, silent film like milieu with expressionistic camera angles and sets, some of which were later used for Tod Browning‘s Freaks (1933). Gable, on the other hand, seems like he is stuck in the wrong film, and his character gives the film a misogynistic sheen. The 76 minute film was based on David Graham’s epic novel, and a slew of script writers make it seem like a highlight reel of the original narrative. Despite its flaws, Susan Lenox is a compelling early talkie that should be sought out. It did well at the American box office, but was not quite the hit hoped for.
Since Hollywood in the thirties did not yet subscribe to the maxim “you are only as big as your last film,” Garbo was rushed into the sexy potboiler, Mata Hari (1932). The film itself is not good, mainly due to George Fitzmaurce’s unimaginative direction. That aside, Garbo sizzles.
Audiences of the 30s did not go to see Garbo as a character in a narrative. Rather, they went to see films which catered to her personality. Mata Haridoes (it is more about Garbo than a spy) and the gamble paid off; this was the star’s biggest box office hit. Undoubtedly, much of the credit goes to the famous costume designer Adrian, who adorns Garbo in her sexiest and most revealing outfits. Even though Mata Hari was a pre-code film, the censors took the scissors to it, jettisoning several extended seduction scenes. The scenes still exit, yet, oddly, have not been restored in any of the DVD releases.
Like the film itself, Garbo is alternately campy and erotic. She worked even better in contrast to the effete Ramon Novarro , who had played in the silent Ben Hur and, in 1968, was the victim of one of Hollywood’s grisliest homicides. As campy as Garbo is in this, Novarro’s acting is even campier and his presence is even more dated. It is easy to see why his stardom did not extend into the sound era. Still, he is better than Lionel Barrymore, who is at his worst here, nearly wrecking the film. Garbo takes forever to kill him.
Barrymore fared better in the all-star Grand Hotel (1932), opposite his brother John. Garbo, as a ballerina being courted by that “Great Profile,” convincingly exudes fatigue. The two stars had genuine chemistry on and off screen. It is one of her most extraordinary performances, rightfully earning her a third best Actress nomination. The film itself could serve as a reference for 30s art deco Hollywood glamor and is as artificial as one expects.
A young Joan Crawford who is shockingly beautiful, and even human, shines. In contrast, Wallace Beery and the remaining cast are awful. Fortunately, Edmund Goulding directed this soaper with style. Irving Thalberg promoted the extravaganza with the tagline “Grand Hotel has more stars than there are in Heaven.” It paid off, and the movie took home the 1932 Oscar for Best Picture. Grand Hotel is also the film that has Garbo speak her most famous line: “I want to be alone.”
Garbo was again under George Fitzmaurice’s lackluster direction in As You Desire Me (1932). It is one of the star’s least known films, and for good reason. In the first half, Garbo is ludicrously given a Jean Harlow-like bleached-blonde wig. Co-star Erich von Stroheim tries to compensate for the innate dullness with an unbearable ham performance.
Queen Christina (1933) is the stuff of legend, and even critics who normally cannot appreciate Garbo’s delightfully dated style count this as her best performance. Garbo insisted on John Gilbert for her co-star, much to Louis B. Mayer’s chagrin. By now, even this fascistic mogul gave in to Garbo’s demands.
Although Gilbert lacks the fire he had in his silent films, he turns in his best sound performance, which would be his next-to-last, here. Garbo, of course, plays the infamously bisexual, cross-dressing Swedish Queen who gave up the throne for love. Garbo’s own bisexuality must have given her an additional sense of identity with a character who is presented as sexually ambiguous. Naturally, it is only hinted at: the Hays office had warned Mayer to refrain from any references to the Queen’s well-known lesbianism. However, in addition to the cross-dressing, Mayer and director Rouben Mamoulian rebelliously got through a scene of Garbo kissing another woman.
A line is uttered, which could very well have been Garbo’s own: “I shall die a bachelor.”
The famous, final scene has been endlessly written about. Mamoulian proves to be a sensitive director, making one wish this was not his only collaboration with the star. For the final scene, Mamoulian simply told Gabro to clear her mind and think of nothing. Daniel’s camera did the rest in one of the most famous, lush closeups in cinema, competing with Chaplin‘s City Lights (1931) finale. The remainder of this richly romantic film is hampered by its stagey quality.
Richard Boleslawski was a disastrous choice to direct Garbo in a screen version of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (1934). Daniels exemplary work has luster, as usual, and Garbo has lost none of her erotic charisma. Despite these assets, and a China location, the rest is a deadly dull affair.
For the second time, Garbo plays Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1935). It is better than the earlier version, but, again MGM shortchanges the author. The studio almost makes up for it with a typical, lavish treatment, radiant cinematography, and Garbo’s bewitching performance as the tragic heroine who is torn between Frederic March and her husband, Basil Rathbone, who fares best amongst her co-stars. Despite the illustrious ensemble, director Clarence Brown directs ploddingly. He does manage to find enough enthusiasm to solicit the best performance from his star, and the gloomy Swede is the only one who counts. No one makes tortured passion seem so desirable. Freddie Bartholomew goes the distance in inspiring hatred for child actors.
George Cukor, that great director of women, finally got his chance to direct the First Lady of the Silver Screen in Camille (1936), and the team-up paid off in spades, with Garbo’s best, and best acted, performance. As the doomed courtesan, the actress conveys warmth, intelligence, and reserved passion. It is small wonder the actress herself counted this as her favorite role.
The miscast Robert Taylor, as the one man who actually loves Camille, is a prettified puppy who is easily outdistanced. Lionel Barrymore manages to make a very small role a total embarrassment.
Only Henry Daniell’s precision withstands Garbo’s fire and ice. The production values are typical MGM gloss at its most seductive and sickening, though aided considerably by the cameras of William Daniels and Karl Freund under Cukor’s assured hand.
Garbo followed her greatest role with what may possibly her worst. She is Napoleon’s mistress in Conquest (1937) and, although she is radiantly costumed by Adrian, she is a mere model here, and Karl Freund’s lens, though expert, never lets us in on what she is thinking. On the surface, the ultra-French romantic lead Charles Boyer would seem miscast, but he gives a good performance, while still failing to save the film. Conquest, as sleepily directed by Clarence Brown, is simply too MGM-conservative, and the three million dollar production lost a fortune.
It was two years before Garbo was back on screen. Mayer was most certainly aware that the actress was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with Hollywood. Audience tastes were changing, moving away from romanticism and towards perceived ideas of realism. Garbo astutely realized she would be rendered antiquated. MGM promoted her first intentional comedy with the ad slogan: “Garbo Laughs.”
With a dwindling local market and an impending World War, MGM placed Ninotcka (1939) in the able hands of Ernst Lubitsch. The choice reaped critical praise and success at the US box office. Garbo’s performance compliments the director’s champagne style. Melvyn Douglas plays her bourgeoisie suitor. Bela Lugosi is uncommonly relaxed in a small part. Despite all the iridescent craftsmanship and expertise, Ninotchka has a disconcerting message: America is superior to Russia, not because of freedom but because, here, you can have more stuff. Reportedly, Garbo actually did not laugh in this, she merely pantomimed laughter and another’s voice was added. Regardless, she received her fourth and final Oscar nomination.
Another two years passed before Garbo returned. Directed by George Cukor, Two-Faced Woman (1941) should have been a hit. Although it was not the box office flop legend has reported, it was a critical disaster with Garbo and Cukor receiving the worst notices of their careers. A few reviewers let Garbo off the hook. Variety wrote: “Had the script writers and George Cukor, entered into the spirit of the thing with as much enthusiasm, lack of self-consciousness and abandon as the star, the result would have been a smash hit.” With Garbo’s dwindling American audience, MGM wanted to bring her a further notch down to earth. Ninotchka had been a hit, but still had a European flavor. Two-Faced Woman is an American screwball comedy. Garbo plays two roles (sort of), gets drunk, and does a delicious rumba. Despite the milieu and studio effort, she retains her sense of mystery, aided by Adrian’s costuming and Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography. The film is worth seeing for her imaginative performance alone. Melvyn Douglas returns as her smitten lover.
Garbo had been enthusiastically planning a Madame Currie project, which fell through, much to her dismay. With the disaster of Two-Faced Woman, she did the unthinkable: she bought out her MGM contract and walked out on Hollywood at the age of 36. The world was stunned. Actually, it was a smart move. MGM was notorious for getting rid of actresses when they hit their mid to late thirties (as they did with Joan Crawford). Garbo’s time was extremely limited, but she beat Mayer to the punch and, in so doing, perpetuated her own myth.
Garbo was made for the cinema. She never would have survived the low expectations television saddles us with. Despite some undeniably good dramatic and social programming, television has never grasped the inherent aesthetic of film. Garbo is a human personification of that aesthetic. She has her detractors, of course. Film historian William K. Everson noted (and exaggerated) that she, like Valentino, never made a great film. Peter Bogdanovich afforded the star a singular compliment when he lamented that Garbo only did one great film, to which Orson Welles retorted: “All she needs is one.” Pauline Kael reminded readers that even in her weakest films, “Garbo is there to be gazed upon.”
Garbo was also very well aware of her standing in film history. Leaving Hollywood, while still young, preserved her in celluloid. Garbo lived in her modest New York Apartment, turning down numerous film offers. Legend has painted her a recluse. Actually, as Lionel Barrymore related, Garbo was not so much aloof as she was intensely shy. That shyness put her at odds with the paparazzi, and “Garbo watching” became a favorite past time for aspiring photographers. Apart from her brief relationship with John Gilbert, Garbo always lived alone, but she was not alone. Correcting the myths about her, Garbo once said: “I did not say I want to be alone. I merely want to be left alone. There is a difference.” In her retirement, Garbo became a jet-setting socialite, even dining often with the Kennedys. Her list of lovers, both male and female, reads like a rich and famous who’s who list.
Maureen O’ Sullivan, who worked with Garbo in Anna Karenina, may have the final word, echoing recollections of many of Garbo’s co-stars: “We had one scene together and she did nothing. I thought she has to be the worst actress. I asked to see the rushes and everything she thought was there on camera. She loved the camera and the camera loved her.”