Sunday, September 18, 2005

Greta Garbo's 100th Birthday

Today would have been Greta Garbo's 100th birthday if she was still alive. She was born in Stockholm, Sweden as Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, the youngest of three children. Her father's death when she was 14 and a none too good relationship with her mother required her to find work at an early age. She was first a lather girl in a barbershop, then a department store clerk. It was her job at the department store that led to her career in movies. While there she appeared as a model in their newspaper ads and in a commercial short for the store. This led to appearances in a comedy short and the movie A Happy Knight.

By this time Garbo considered herself an actress. She studied at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm from 1922 to 1924. While there she met director Mauritz Stiller. Stiller gave her the stage name "Greta Garbo" and gave Garbo her first big break--a role in the film Gosta Berlings Saga. In 1925 Stiller signed a contract with MGM. Among his conditions was that Garbo also be signed to a contract. Unfortunately, Stiller's career in Hollywood was brief. He was eventuallyfired by MGM. This was quite a different matter for Garbo. She became one of Hollywood's biggest leading ladies.

Garbo's first American film was The Torrent in 1926. She went onto make some of the most successful films of the silent era, including Flesh and the Devil and The Temptress. Garbo was one of the actors to make the transition to film, despite the fact that she had a husky voice with a thick Swedish accent. If anything, she became an even bigger star with the advent of sound than she had been during the silent era. She starred in such movies asGrand Hotel, Quenn Christina, Anna Karenina, and Ninotchka.

Despite Garbo's success as an actress, she remained a very private person. She very rarely gave interviews and almost never attended premieres. She never signed autographs or answered fan mail. When shooting was taking place with Garbo, the sets were always closed to visitors. Her line from Grand Hotel, "I want to be let alone," abbreviated to "I want to be alone," became her catchphrase for more reasons than the fact that it was a good line.

Garbo's success was not simply starring in movies that did well at the box office, but in Oscar nominations as well. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actres for Anna Christie (1930), Romance (1930 movie) (1930)), Camille (movie) (1937) and Ninotchka (1939). Despite this success, it seems that Garbo's life as an actress was not a particularly happy one. Her well publicised romance with John Gilbert ultimately failed, as did his career. From 1932 to 1934 she had a contract dispute with MGM which kept her out of movies for two years. As time passed Garbo apparently became choosier about her roles, appearing in movies less and less frequently. She turned down the starring role in Dark Victory to do Anna Karenina instead.

In 1941, two years after she'd appeared in Ninotchka, Garbo appeared in her last film, Two Faced Woman. At that point Garbo more or less retired from film, taking no parts in any movies offered her. In 1949 she did a screen test, but nothing came of it. Thre were rumours that she would appear in an adaptation of Remembrance of Things Past, but nothing came of that either.

Garbo lived the rest of her life as a private citizen. At times she would socialise with other celebrities, although as time passed she ceased to do this as often. She lived her last several years as a recluse. She died in April 1990 at the age of 84.

Garbo starred in some of the most successful movies of all time. To this day such films as Grand Hotel, Queen Christina, and Camille are still shown on television and in art houses. And while Hollywood treated her as one of its most glamourous stars, she was a serious actress. When she played the role of Queen Christina of Sweden, she insisted on looking as much like the queen as possible, even though it meant that she would look less glamourous doing so. Unfortunately, it seems to me that Garbo's career was largely eclipsed by her mystique. As an actress who fiercely guarded her privacy during her career and entered private life at a relatively young age afterwards, Garbo became an icon known for her life of seclusion. Even into her eighties she was still a target for the papparazzi of New York City. While today Garbo may be best known for her life as a recluse, it seems to me that she should also be remembered for her film career as one of the best actresses of her era, having made a number of classic films.

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