Biography of Greta Garbo

Legendary Movie Pioneer

Greta Garbo
Photo by Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Greta Lovisa Gustafsson (September 18, 1905 - April 15, 1990) was one of the top movie stars of the 1920s and 1930s. She was known both for her legendary glamorous film roles and her seclusion after retiring at age 35. She was the rare star who easily made the transition from silent to sound films.

Early Life

Greta Garbo was born and raised in the Sodermalm district of Stockholm, Sweden. At the time, the area was underdeveloped. Her father worked a wide range of jobs including street cleaner and factory worker. With dreams of one day being a theater actress, she graduated from school at age 13 and did not attend high school. Greta Garbo's beloved father died in 1920 when she was 14. He was a victim of the worldwide Spanish flu pandemic.

After the death of her father, Garbo began working in a department store. The job led to a successful career as a fashion model, which soon led her into movies. Garbo's oldest known appearance on film was a commercial for the PUB department store that debuted December 12, 1920. After appearing in a  short called "Peter the Tramp," Greta Garbo enrolled as an acting student at Stockholm's Royal Dramatic Theatre from 1922 to 1924. 

Finnish film director Mauritz Stiller noticed the young actress and signed her to star in his adaptation of the novel "The Saga of Gosta Berling" by Nobel Prize-winning author Selma Lagerlof. Stiller received credit for giving her the pseudonym Greta Garbo. She was a film sensation and also appeared in 1925's "Joyless Street" by legendary Austrian director G.W. Pabst.

Emigration and American Silent Movie Star

At least two different stories exist about MGM executive Louis B. Mayer and his discovery of Greta Garbo. In one version, he watched her film "The Saga of Gosta Berling" before traveling to Europe looking for new talent. In the other, he didn't see her work until he arrived in Europe. Regardless of which is true, it is known that Garbo came to New York City in July 1925 at Mayer's request. She was 20 years old and did not yet speak English.

Greta Garbo and director Mauritz Stiller spent more than six months in America before MGM producer Irving Thalberg invited her for a screen test. He was so impressed with the results that he instantly began grooming her for stardom.

From her first film in America, the 1926 silent release "Torrent," Greta Garbo was a star. Mauritz Stiller was hired to direct her second American movie "The Temptress," but MGM fired him when he did not get along with the male lead Antonio Moreno. Stiller returned to Sweden and died in 1927 at age 45.

Garbo made eight more silent films. Among them were three more co-starring John Gilbert including "Flesh and the Devil" and "A Woman of Affairs." The on-screen magnetism between Gilbert and Garbo was notoriously erotic for that era. By the 1928-1929 film season, Greta Garbo was MGM's top box office star. Her final silent film was 1929's "The Kiss" co-starring Conrad Nagel.

Transition to Sound Films

With the transition to sound in the late 1920s, MGM executives were worried that a thick Swedish accent would sink the career of their top female star. They delayed Greta Garbo's sound debut as long as possible. An adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play "Anna Christie" was the vehicle, which was released to theaters in 1930 with the headline "Garbo talks!" The movie was a hit. It earned the star her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and Greta Garbo's successful transition to sound was assured. At the time, she was such a major star that Garbo was utilized in the film "Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)" to co-star with and boost the career of relative unknown Clark Gable in 1931.

Greta Garbo appeared in a string of more successful movies including 1932's "Grand Hotel," an Academy Award winner for Best Picture. The movie is the source of Garbo's signature statement, "I want to be alone."

In 1932, Garbo's MGM contract expired, and she traveled back to Sweden. After almost a year of negotiations, she returned to the U.S. with a new MGM contract and an agreement to film "Queen Christina," a movie about the life of 17th century Queen Christina of Sweden. Garbo insisted that John Gilbert co-star in the production, and it was their final appearance together. Her return was a box office success, and she continued to be one of the world's top movie stars.

In the mid-1930s, Greta Garbo starred in two of her most memorable roles. She appeared as the heroine in Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" in 1935. The next year she was the star of "Camille" directed by George Cukor. Both earned her New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Actress, and the latter received an Academy Award nomination.

By the late 1930s, Garbo's success at the box office began to fade. Her 1937 costume drama "Conquest" about Napoleon's affair with Polish mistress Marie Walewska lost more than $1 million. It was dubbed one of MGM's biggest failures of the 1930s. Her star fell fast enough that Greta Garbo was one of the stars listed in the 1938 article "Box Office Poison" stating she wasn't worth the financial investment in her salary.

To bring Greta Garbo back to stardom, MGM turned to director Ernst Lubitsch, known for his light touch with romantic comedies. She portrayed the title character in his 1939 film "Ninotchka." It was released with the headlines "Garbo laughs!" contrasting with her reputation as an overly serious star. "Ninotchka" was the last major success of Garbo's film career. She earned her final Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, and the movie received a Best Picture nomination.

George Cukor directed 1941's "Two-Faced Woman," Greta Garbo's final film. It was a rare critical failure for both of them. Although box office figures were positive, Garbo was humiliated by the negative reviews. She did not initially intend to retire. She signed a deal to film "The Girl From Leningrad" that fell through, and in 1948 signed to appear in a Max Ophuls directed adaptation of "La Duchesse de Langeais" by Honore Balzac. Financing fell through, and the project ended. Greta Garbo's career ended after having appeared in only twenty-eight films.

Retirement

Despite her public reputation as a recluse, Greta Garbo spent her retirement years socializing with friends and acquaintances. She carefully avoided the public spotlight, and she distrusted the media. She often spoke to friends about a lifelong battle with depression and melancholia. In 1951, Greta Garbo officially became a citizen of the U.S.  

In the 1940s, Garbo began collecting art. Among her purchases were works by Auguste Renoir, Georges Rouault, and Wassily Kandinsky. At the time of her death, her art collection was worth millions of dollars. Late in life, Greta Garbo was often spotted on long walks in New York City by herself or with close personal companions.

Personal Life

Garbo never married and had no children. She lived alone throughout her adult life. The press identified romantic relationships with a few men through her life including co-star John Gilbert and novelist Erich Maria Remarque. Greta Garbo has been recognized as bisexual or a lesbian in recent years with evidence of romantic relationships with women including author Mercedes de Acosta and actress Mimi Pollak.

Greta Garbo received successful treatment for breast cancer in 1984. Near the end of her life, she suffered from kidney failure and underwent dialysis treatment three times a week. She passed away on April 15, 1990, from a combination of kidney failure and pneumonia. Garbo left behind an estate worth more than $30 million.

Legacy

The American Film Institute has ranked Greta Garbo as the fifth greatest film star of classic Hollywood. She was noted for possessing a powerfully expressive face and a natural affinity for acting. She was recognized as uniquely suited for the camera close-ups of Hollywood cinema instead of stage acting. Many film historians consider most of her movies to be average at best except for Greta Garbo's performance in them. She lifts the entire production by her appearance and skill. Garbo never won the Academy Award for Best Actress, but the Academy gave her a special career recognition in 1954.

Memorable Films

  • "The Saga of Gosta Berling" (1924)
  • "Torrent" (1926)
  • "Flesh and the Devil" (1926)
  • "Anna Christie" (1930)
  • "Grand Hotel" (1932)
  • "Queen Christina" (1933)
  • "Anna Karenina" (1935)
  • "Camille" (1936)
  • "Ninotchka" (1939)

Awards

  • New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (1935): "Anna Karenina"
  • New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (1936): "Camille"
  • "Daily Variety" Poll Best Actress of the Half Century (1950)
  • Honorary Academy Award for Luminous and Unforgettable Screen Performances (1954)
  • George Eastman Awad for Distinguished Contribution to the Art of Film (1957)

Resources and Further Reading

  • Paris, Barry. Garbo: A Biography. Knopf, 1995.
  • Swenson, Karen. Greta Garbo: A Life Apart. Scribner, 1997.
  • Vieira, Mark A. Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy. Harry N. Abrams, 2005.