The Greta Garbo Mystique

"All my life I've been a symbol - a symbol of immortal change. I'm tired of being a symbol - I long to be a human being."
Greta Garbo in Queen Christina
Greta Garbo (1905-1990) is arguably one of the greatest actresses in film history. Greta Lovisa Gustafsson of Stockholm, Sweden had long held, and frequently talked about, her ambition to be an actress.
Her first film appearances were in two short advertising films; one for a department store where she worked as a millinery apprentice, and the second for a local bakery. These film ads were followed by a handful of extra roles in minor Swedish silent films. 1922 brought Greta her first opportunity to appear in a professional film.
Peter the Tramp was a small silent comedy filmed in the style of Max Sennett. Her work in the film was enough to help her gain admittance to The Royal Dramatic Theater's Acting School in Stockholm where she would study for two years.
It was during this period when she met, and was mentored by, Sweden's leading film director Mauritz Stiller, who gave her the stage name of Greta Garbo and a major role in his 1924 film The Saga of Gosta Berling. It was at this point that complexity entered the life of Greta Gustafsson.
At the time Greta was quite shy, somewhat passive with a willingness to be molded, and possessed a certain freshness of appeal. She was the perfect subject for director Stiller, who had an imperious ego and fancied himself a cinematic master builder. It was Stiller's dream to create the greatest star of all time - a woman who would personify all women. A woman who could be, "sophisticated, scornful, superior, but under the shining surface humanely warm and womanly."
MGM producer Louis B. Meyer, while viewing The Saga of Gosta Berling during a visit to Berlin, found himself impressed with the direction of Mauritz Stiller, but even more impressed by the acting and screen presence of Greta Garbo. Meyer negotiated a contract to bring Stiller to MGM with Stiller insisting that Garbo also be offered a contract.
The Hollywood arrival of the two Swedish film celebrities induced no special excitement and MGM was not sure of just what to do with them. Director Stiller never completed a film for MGM and although directing a couple of pictures for rival studios, had no success and eventually returned to Sweden.
The start of Greta's Hollywood career also wasn't going so well. Her screen test for Irving Thalberg failed to impress the producer. It took a set of still photos and a second chance at a screen test for Thalberg to realize the elusive, magical, and almost undefinable quality of the actress.
Her first couple of roles in the films Torrent and The Temptress brought Garbo to the attention of both critics and the public. This attention would provide the motivation for MGM to begin the real building of the Garbo legend. MGM had found itself another star.
What followed were some of Garbo's most familiar silent films including Flesh and the Devil, Love, and The Mysterious Lady. Starring with Garbo in Flesh and the Devil and Love was very popular leading man John Gilbert. The erotic intensity of the pair carried into an off-camera romance. The couple lived together for awhile with Gilbert proposing marriage three times before Garbo accepted. They were to be married in 1926. Garbo hid in a lavatory never coming out for the ceremony.
Her reputation for reticence and her mysterious screen presence would fit perfectly with one another. She was almost always cast as a woman of mystery offering a promise of sexual adventure. Audiences were fascinated with Garbo's growing mystique.
She was described as "every man's harmless fantasy mistress. By being worshiped by the entire world she gave you the feeling that if your imagination has to sin, it can at least congratulate itself on its impeccable taste." Other descriptions included, "the supreme symbol of inscrutable tragedy." and, "a super-human symbol of The Other Woman."
The Garbo mystique was developing off screen as well. Her personal life proved to also be a mystery. She dressed in mannish clothing, with a carelessness regarding her appearance, and lived frugally, occupying only a couple of rooms in her large home. Her personal time was guarded, and while there were hints of interesting suitors no one really knew how she spent her time. Unlike other stars of her day, she would avoid being in the spotlight.
In 1927, Greta met stage and screen actress Lilyan Tashman, with the two allegedly having an affair. For a time the pair would be inseparable. This rumor of bisexuality proved to add fuel to the fire of the growing Garbo mystique.
By this time, sound had been introduced into motion pictures. With many of the silent screen stars unable to make the transition to sound recording, Garbo had some doubts regarding her own transition. Having achieved great success in silent films, Garbo held out as long as she could fearing that her Swedish accent would prove to be a problem.
Not only was her accent not a problem, it enhanced her exotic and erotic appeal with audiences. Her voice was first heard in 1930's Anna Christie, which was publicized with the slogan, "Garbo Talks!" Some of her more famous roles would follow including Mata Hari in 1931 and Grand Hotel in 1932.
While Garbo's transition to pictures with sound was considered successful, it can also be said that it signaled the beginning of a slow decent in the stars box office appeal. There now appeared to be a crack in the Garbo mystique.
With the completion of 1941's Two-Faced Woman, Garbo self-imposed upon herself...silence. She chose to try and preserve her mythic quality, gradually withdrawing from the entertainment world, refusing to make any personal appearances, and living a secluded life in New York City surrounded by her internationally renowned art collection.
Greta Garbo has often been associated with her famous line spoken in the film Grand Hotel, "I want to be alone." The sentiment of the line was perceived to be a personal request. When asked if the line might be just that, Garbo responded, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be let alone.' There is all the difference."

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