Reflecting on a career that included 26 years at MGM and six Academy Award nominations, director Clarence Brown summed up the studio system under which he both thrived and bristled: “In those days we didn’t just make movies. We made myths, and they had to be protected and helped.” Hollywood’s most enduring myth was also its most unlikely. A slightly overweight actress with crooked teeth and a stubborn streak, Greta Garbo arrived in the United States in 1925 at age 19, with her own director in tow and a $100-a-week contract at MGM. Less than two years later, she was the studio’s most prized female player, boasting a $5,000-a-week contract–and declining all requests for photo shoots and interviews. The story of how this shy teenager from Sweden conquered Hollywood, then the world, begins with her third American film Flesh and the Devil, for which the MGM mythmakers converged.
Garbo, neé Greta Gustafson, quit school at the age of 13 to care for her sick father. She always considered herself a misfit, dressing in her brother’s clothes as a child and introducing herself as “Gustafson’s youngest boy.” Given to solitude and fantasy, she later said her sole wish growing up “was to creep inside the magic stage door.” She became a clerk at a department store, which featured her in its magazine ads and publicity shorts. Later, while studying under scholarship at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, she caught the eye of director Mauritz Stiller, who saw in her a captivating innocence. He cast her in The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924) and took complete control of her career. She accompanied him to Germany, where she further demonstrated her onscreen pathos in G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925).
After signing a contract in Berlin with Louis B. Mayer himself, Garbo arrived in Los Angeles to a bewildered studio who did not know how to use her type-defying, androgynous beauty. Before making her first two pictures–formulaic potboilers about seductresses–Garbo spent her idle hours on the set of Victor Sjöström’s The Scarlet Letter (1926), mingling with compatriots. The time was well-spent, as she learned about camera angles, how correct lighting could enhance emotion–and how star Lillian Gish managed to avoid participating in publicity stunts. In her third MGM picture, she would learn much more from co-star John Gilbert.
A vaudeville orphan, John Gilbert learned about the movies alongside Clarence Brown on the sets of Maurice Tourneur’s films. He co-wrote The Great Redeemer with Brown in 1919, and became Tourneur’s assistant when Brown moved on. The multitalented Gilbert later made his way to MGM, where he starred in a string of popular films. By the time he appeared in King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925), he was considered the most-known man in America, where stores stocked John Gilbert long-collared shirts with French cuffs, and John Gilbert ties. His pairing with Garbo in Flesh and the Devil was the idea of new MGM production head Irving Thalberg, who banked on his highest paid player to help define an unknown entity.
Neither Garbo nor Gilbert liked their assigned roles in Flesh and the Devil. Garbo feared further typecasting as a vamp, and wanted to hold out for serious roles like she had had in Europe. Gilbert, who was about to inherit the Great Lover mantle following Valentino’s death, was afraid he would never see another well-rounded role like the one he had played in The Big Parade. Yet he was curious about Garbo, and agreed not only to the film but also to equal billing. Garbo was less willing to concede, and requested a better project. MGM saw it differently, and ordered her back to work. After a 48-hour boycott, Garbo acquiesced.
Assigned director Clarence Brown arrived at MGM in 1925. Besides his seven years under Maurice Tourneur, his pedigree included a run of five successful movies at Universal. The chosen cinematographer was William Daniels, a veteran of Erich von Stroheim’s films who had photographed Garbo in her first MGM picture, Torrent. For Flesh and the Devil, which features the very first horizontal love scene and close-up, open-mouth kiss in American movie history, Daniels put heavy gauzes and filters over the lens, to make the illicit lovers shimmer in luminescence. He created Garbo’s signature look, lighting her long eyelashes so they cast a shadow on her face, and, in one scene, he put a pencil-size carbon light in Gilbert’s palm to mimic the effect of a flickering match. Further enhancing the erotic imagery was the fact that the two principal actors were falling in love on the set. So intense were Garbo and Gilbert’s encounters that Brown later admitted he was too embarrassed to call cut during their love scenes – he would just move the crew away until they stopped. When Daniels worked again with Gilbert and Garbo on 1927’s Love, he requested a closed set. “She was so shy,” he recounted later, “so I did it to protect her.”
Mad for the mysterious young actress who barely spoke English, Gilbert did all he could to help her, calling for retakes when he thought Garbo didn’t come off well, and deferring to her on camera angles. The grateful Garbo credited Gilbert with improving her performance. “If he had not come into my life at this time, I should probably have come home to Sweden at once, my American career over.” But she also possessed something innate that was only revealed on film, and director Brown learned early to print takes even if he was initially unhappy with them. “She had something behind the eyes that told the whole story, that I couldn’t see from my distance. On the screen Garbo multiplied the effect of the scene I had taken. It was something she had that nobody else ever had.”
The heat between Garbo and Gilbert also multiplied on screen, and audiences responded with record-breaking ticket sales. Off the set, the Garbo-Gilbert romance blossomed, to the delight of the publicity office. Garbo continued to withhold details of her personal life, and the couple was hounded by paparazzi – which most likely provoked the reclusive lifestyle Garbo clung to for the rest of her life. Yet the mystery only fed the myth, to the irritation of MGM publicity chief Howard Dietz. Years later he would concede that it was “the best publicity notion of the century.”
Gilbert’s assistance extended to advising her on managing her career, and standing up to MGM’s notorious Louis B. Mayer. Gilbert offered her the services of his business manager Harry Edington, who handled her affairs free of charge. Her $400-a-week contract, while unprecedented for a new player, paled in comparison to Gilbert’s $250,000 per picture. With profits from Flesh and the Devil rolling into the studio, Garbo felt emboldened enough to stage a second boycott. It lasted seven months and yielded her the best deal for a female player in the business, including back pay for the months she refused to work.
By the time Gilbert and Garbo were teamed for a second time in Love, Garbo had already rejected several marriage proposals by Gilbert, declaring, “I will die a bachelor.” The two remained friends, however, and appeared opposite each other again in A Woman of Affairs (1928). The film offered a relatively small part to Gilbert, which director Brown suggested be expanded. Always the professional, Gilbert declined: “I’d rather play the part of a butler in a good picture than have every foot in a film that’s a flop.” Any further success for Gilbert was sabotaged by Mayer, who took every opportunity to discredit the expensive and strong-willed star. Gilbert made a few sound films and did fine work, as in 1932’s Downstairs, which he himself wrote. However, the mythmaking machine had already turned his story into one of failure. Garbo remained loyal to Gilbert throughout his declining fortunes, staging another boycott until he was cast opposite her in Queen Christina (1933). Broken-hearted by the business he had helped to create, Gilbert made his last film in 1934, dying two years later at age 38.
Garbo ended her own film career in 1941. After Two-Faced Woman lost money, she released MGM from her lucrative contract and moved to New York City, where she continued to feed the publicity machine by ignoring it. She looked back only once, in 1949, when she agreed to star opposite James Mason in Max Ophuls’s The Duchesse. The skittish financiers of the doomed project demanded a screen test of the 44-year-old actress. William Daniels was hired to film it, along with James Wong Howe. “When the camera started to roll,” recalled Howe, “she started to come to life. You could see her personality come out, her mood change. She became more beautiful.” After several hours in front of the camera, the Divine Miss Garbo made her usual retreat. “Thank you,” she said. “I go back to the beach now.” Returning to Manhattan, she spent her life as “the hermit about town.” Rare glimpses of her would provide fodder for the gossip columns until her death in 1990, at age 85.
Presented at Silent Winter 2007 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer