About Greta Garbo: The legendary actress and 20th century icon

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Who was the legendary actress Greta Garbo

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

America’s highest-paid film star in the 1930s was a Swedish-born woman we know as Greta Garbo.

A legend during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Garbo was one of the most popular actresses of the silent film era, as well as very successful in the early talking films.

Born as Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm, Sweden in 1905, the actress crossed the Atlantic in the early 1920s, and went on to become one of the most popular movie stars in the US.

By the time the last article featured below appeared in Picture Show Annual in 1934, she was reportedly making $9,000 per week — an absolute fortune at the time.

Despite three Academy Award nominations, Garbo grew tired of life in the spotlight, and retired from acting in 1941. She was only 35 years old, but had already made 28 movies — enough to cement her status as a film icon.

She spent the rest of her life pursuing other interests — and actively avoiding publicity.

Greta Garbo was 84 years old when she died in New York City in 1990. While she had no spouse and no children, Garbo left behind a cinematic legacy matched by few others.

Greta Garbo eludes all news people (1966)

By Bob Thomas – The Sedalia Democrat (Sedalia, Missouri) September 19, 1966

[Original] Editor’s Note — A lonely beauty who is the screen’s leading legend and perhaps its greatest female talent, turned 60 this week.

Greta Garbo today is almost a phantom, but after 26 years her films still are major attractions. AP columnist Bob Thomas describes Garbo’s career and later life in a three-part series beginning today.

Greta Garbo in 1931

She travels through a shadowy world of her own making, slipping in and out of airports, trench-coated, with a slouch ha pulled down over one eye.

Sometimes an alert photographer spots her behind the dark glasses and steals a quick shot. She manages a wan smile, then races to a waiting limousine and vanishes.

She is Greta Garbo, born Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm, Sweden, 60 years ago Sunday, Some sources say 61. She has not acted in films for a quarter century, yet most critics agree she remains the screen’s greatest actress.

Garbo lives in New York City, much as she has during her 40 years in America, alone. Her aloneness has long been a national joke, but she is not amused.

“I never said, ‘I want to be alone,’ she once complained to a friend, “I only said, ‘I want to be let alone.'”

1926 Greta Garbo

For the most part, she is. Old-time fans often observe her on the long walks she takes on Manhattan streets, but they respect her privacy.

Garbo has lived for many years in a cooperative apartment on 52nd Street overlooking the East River. Her trips have grown more infrequent. She makes a rare return to Europe, usually staying at some secluded place on the Riviera, or on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis.

She comes to Hollywood once a year, visiting a few old friends, like Katharine Hepburn, hairstylist Sidney Guikaroff, and director George Cukor.

But most of the time she leads the solitary life. How did she get that way?

Her biographers have suggested that Garbo was a shy, sensitive girl who was thrust in a life for which she was temperamentally unsuited. The make-believe of being a motion picture actress appealed to her, but the clamor surrounding her status as a movie star proved more than she could endure.

Upon her arrival in Hollywood in 1926, she was immediately placed in the publicity mill at MGM… Press agents posed her with the studio’s trademark lion and in the silent-era version of cheesecake.

Greta Garbo - A brilliant star (1927)
Greta Garbo – A brilliant star (1927)

The nadir came when she was required to don a sprinter’s suit for a photograph with the University of Southern California track coach.

She snapped: “When I am beeg like Gish” — Lillian was then the queen of MGM — “no more publicity like this; no more handshakes with prize-fighters.”

Garbo gave only a few terse interviews before withdrawing into silence. Lon Chaney told her: “Don’t talk to anyone; we are in the business of illusion.”

The illusion of the “Divine Garbo” continued to grow during her 15 years in Hollywood, and it remains vivid today.

Friends say she is acutely conscious of that illusion and the way it is perpetuated by her 24 films, which can be seen on television and at Garbo festivals in arthouse theatres.

Over the years, many producers have announced plans to return Garbo to the screen, and she has not discouraged their overtures.

Greta Garbo with slicked-back hair (1932)

Recently Ross Hunter sent her the script of “The Heaven Train,” in which he wanted her to play a nun. She returned it with the message that she didn’t think she could portray a religious figure.

“I don’t think she will ever act again,” concluded the producer.

Garbo’s friends agree. Says one: “If Greta went back to work now, she would be competing with the way she appears in the films of her heyday, She looks marvelous today. But still, she is 60.”

Greta Garbo in 1930-1931 - With Clark Gable

ALSO SEE: About ‘Gone With The Wind,’ the movie that became the highest-grossing film of all time


Leading men speak of Greta Garbo (1966)

By Bob Thomas – The Sedalia Democrat (Sedalia, Missouri) September 20, 1966

Her leading men speak of Greta Garbo:

Ramon Novarro (“Mata Hari“): “She was like a chameleon, changing all the time, from gayety to being withdrawn. She was very timid, naturally so, but she could be cute and funny, too.

“She was never temperamental, but she did insist on quitting every day at 5. She never carried a wristwatch; her colored maid would signal her when the hour had arrived. Once we were in the middle of the scene where she seduces me. Five o’clock came, and she walked right off the set.”

Greta Garbo in Mata Hari costume (1932)

Lew Ayres (“The Kiss“): “She was a very glamorous, very remote figure. After each scene, she would retire to her dressing room, and she was the first to have a room that was closed off from the view of others.

“But she was very kind and indulgent to a boy who was just starting out as an actor. She was especially helpful on my first day, when I met her and then had to go right into the scene which had ‘The Kiss.'”

Charles Bickford (“Anna Christie“): “A delightfully honest and unassuming human being. We found we had a mutual liking for many things, such as hiking, swimming, tennis, scotch whisky and money.”

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Twenty-five years after her departure from films. Garbo remains an incandescent figure to her coworkers and to the legion of admirers of her cinematic art.

Without even trying, she was the most glamorous star of Hollywood’s golden era, having successfully spanned the transition to sound.

“Garbo talks!” was the advertising catchword for her first dialogue film, “Anna Christie.”

Many a film buff can recite her initial line to the bartender of a waterfront saloon: “Gimmie a visky — ginger ale on the side — and don’t be stingy, baby.”

She reigned throughout the 30s as the screen’s top dramatic actress, appearing opposite the best-known actors: Clark Gable in “Susan Lennox,” John Barrymore in “Grand Hotel,” Fredric March in “Anna Karenina,” Robert Taylor in “Camille,” Charles Boyer in “Conquest.”

Greta Garbo in Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) in 1931
Greta Garbo in Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) in 1931

“She was very practical,” recalls George Cukor, who directed her in “Camille.”

“She knew her own temperament and how she could operate. People distracted her, so she kept the set clear of strangers. As soon as the scene was over, she got offstage, so she could husband her strength. She had only so much to give; that was why she quit at 5 o’clock.”

Garbo’s career began to wane in the late 1930s, but it bounced back in 1939 when she played her first comedy, the brilliant “Ninotchka” — said the ads: “Garbo laughs!”

ALSO SEE: Actress Vivien Leigh on her career and playing Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone With the Wind’ (1940)

She tried another comedy, “Two-Faced Woman,” but it turned into a disaster. The film ran afoul of the censors, was shot over, and then released to critical disdain and poor business.

In 1941, MGM and Garbo agreed to end her contract. The studio viewed the situation realistically.

The Garbo movie had always prospered more in Europe than in the United States, and now the European market had vanished with the war.

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Greta Garbo 1930

Garbo continued living in Hollywood and became an American citizen in 1951.

She had no need to work: she had earned millions — in 1937 her income was $472,602 — and had invested in real estate, stocks and bonds.

In the early 1950s, she moved her home to New York.

Despite her achievements on the screen, she never won an Academy Award for her acting. She was nominated four times.

Hollywood finally made up for the lapse by granting her an honorary award in 1955 for her “series of luminous and unforgettable performances.”

Then the Academy was faced with the problem of how to get the Oscar to her. A friend finally delivered it.

1928 Greta Garbo


Miss Garbo still has her magic (1966)

By Bob Thomas – The Sedalia Democrat (Sedalia, Missouri) September 21, 1966

The thing you notice first is the voice, surprisingly unaccented despite the longtime caricatures of “Av tank ay go home” and “Ay vant to be alone.”

The range is remarkable: she can go from a throaty laugh to a shrill cry in a matter of seconds.

Then there is the face. It has amazing plasticity as well as loveliness: the expressions are ever-changing to reveal the darting emotions of a woman in love.

Greta Garbo's gorgeous eyes (1931)

This is Greto Garbo in “Camille,” the film that most critics consider her best. She made it in 1936, and was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to another MGM actress, Luise Rainer of “The Great Ziegfeld.”

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The Garbo art is currently available to Hollywood fans not merely on television sets, but on the theater screen. which is the best way to see her — only in the enormous closeups can you capture her real magic. The Los Feliz Theater here and the Esquire in Pasadena have been offering a Garbo festival.

“The past three weeks have been the best in the history of the theater,” reports Bob Laemmle, member of the family that owns the houses.

“Not only have the Garbo films been attracting the regular film buffs who come out to our foreign films; we are also getting a smattering of older people who want to see Garbo for nostalgic reasons.”

The series is offering “Mata Hari,” ‘Ninotchka,” “Anna Karenina,” and Garbo’s first talkie, “Anna Christie.”

Greta Garbo - Mata Hari movie theater marquee (1932)
Greta Garbo – Mata Hari movie theater marquee (1932)

“The series has been so successful,” says Laemmle, “that we have now asked MGM for ‘Queen Christina’ and ‘Grand Hotel.'”

Happily, the film company provides new prints; many a retrospective festival has been ruined by scratchy, patched-up film and fuzzy sound.

How can a star remain box office 25 years after she made her last movie — “Two-Faced Woman”? The answer can be found only by watching her performance on the screen — the big screen.

Her appeal lies not only in her beauty — Marlene Dietrich was also beautiful, but never impressed as an actress.

Nor was acting alone Garbo’s major asset. Rather it was that faintly indefinable quality of which Stars are made.

Vintage actress Greta Garbo standing (1928)

Garbo was trained in the silents, an art form that required actors to interpret emotions with their faces, not by means of the spoken word.

As with most silent stars who converted to sound, her face is ever alive. Her eyes express her feelings before she speaks the dialogue.

Viewing Garbo on the screen gives rise to the question: if she were now at the peak of her beauty and dramatic power, could she succeed in today’s movie world?

Probably not. She belonged to another, gentler era in films, when producers fashioned romantic vehicles for the top female stars.

Today it’s a man’s world, and movies would probably find no place for the fragile, enduring talent of Greta Garbo.


Greta Garbo on cover of Photoplay - December 1934


The movies of legendary actress Greta Garbo

From Picture Show Annual (1934)

“The Atonement of Gosta Berling” was the last film Greta Garbo made in Sweden before going to America, to become the greatest star of her time.

MORE: Watch her movies again!

Films of Greta Garbo as of 1934


Greta Garbo movies

1925 – The Atonement of Gosta Berling, with Lars Hansen
1930 – The Mysterious Lady with Conrad Nigel
1926 – Ibanez’ Torrent, with Ricardo Cortez
1930 – A Woman of Affairs, with John Gilbert
1927 – The Temptress, with Antonio Moreno
1930 – Wild Orchids with Nils Asther

Films of Greta Garbo as of 1934


Greta Garbo movies

1928 – Flesh and the Devil, with John Gilbert
1930 – The Single Standard, with Nils Asther
1929 – The Divine Woman, with Lars Hansen
1930 – The Kiss, with Lew Ayres
1929 – Love, with John Gilbert
1930 – Anna Christie, with Charles Bickford

Films of Greta Garbo as of 1934


Greta Garbo movies

1931 – Romance, with Gavin Gordon
1931 – Inspiration, with Robert Montgomery
1932 – The Rise of Helga, with Clark Gable
1932 – Mata Hari, with Ramon Novarro
1932 – As You Desire Me, with Melvyn Douglas
1933 – Grand Hotel with John Barrymore

ALSO SEE: 120+ gorgeous, glamorous actresses of the 1920s

Films of Greta Garbo as of 1934


See Greta Garbo in the end scene from Queen Christina (1933)

You can watch the rest of Queen Christina here


Greta Garbo in The Painted Veil with Herbert Marshall (1934)

Greta Garbo in The Painted Veil with Herbert Marshall - 1934

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