Episode Seven: Greta Garbo

Hey guys, welcome back to Women of Hollywoodland, the podcast that uncovers the feminist dawn of Hollywood. It’s the very delayed episode number seven, where we will barely scratch the surface of the gloriousness that is Greta Garbo.


I won’t even go into the shennanigans that resulted in this episode being delayed because I want to have lie down in a darkened room at the very thought of it – but I’ve decided that for the time being, especially at this early stage, I’m just going to get an episode to you as often as I possibly can rather than trying to stick to a schedule or seasons or anything like that. I hope that’s okay.


Also! I have just discovered that there are reviews in different stores on Itunes that I didn’t even know about! So J-stobb, C-Chestnut and Mandypants – thanks a million.


We’re stepping a little bit outside the box with this episode, because Garbo wasn’t a filmmaker exactly. She did take a kind of executive producer type role on most of her projects from Queen Christina onwards, but she was, primarily an actress.


She was also working a little bit later than our primary period – when Mary Pickford and Lois Weber were launching their careers, Garbo was still at school in Stockholm, and in 1922 when many female filmmakers were losing their careers, she was working in the hat department of the PUB department store.


But even so, Garbo’s power and influence over Hollywood during her career can hardly be overstated, so I think she is worth taking a closer look at.


That, and I kind of love her. In fact, I had to force myself to still double check books to pull out specific quotes for you and so on for this episode, because I pretty much know her life story off by heart. I feel as though she is one of those icons that most people have heard of, but very few know very much about her. I’ve even met people who had heard the name but didn’t even realise she was Swedish. Don’t worry, I did shame these people.


So. There are two particular aspects of Garbo’s career that I want to highlight in this episode. One is just how famous she was. I was just racking my brains to try to think of someone to compare her to, and I can only come up with musicians – Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, maybe Madonna.


Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe are the only two movie stars I can think of with that level of iconic status – and what’s interesting about that, is they, like Garbo, are all women. And I think that’s important for us to take note of.  In the past twenty, thirty years there has been all kinds of talk about how female stars can’t helm movies, that they don’t draw audiences in the same way as the guys, and it’s been used as a justification for the fact that female stars are paid sometimes millions of dollars less than their male co stars.


Now, of course there have always been actions and Westerns that are arguably more male orientated, but this idea of movies in general, or at least mainstream, Hollywood movies as inherently masculine in some way, is very very new. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when that idea was born – was it with the rise of the fanboys around Star Wars?


Because the he eighties seemed to be fairly dominated by blokey type franchises – Die Hard and Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters and Rambo – and looking at the top ten grossing films by decade, from the eighties onwards every top grossing movie is pretty male dominated.


However, look in the other direction and in the seventies you’ve got Grease, Love Story, Kramer vs Kramer which aren’t exactly female dominated but at least mixed.


In the sixties there’s Cleopatra, Funny Girl, My Fair Lady, and basically the further back you go the more balanced it becomes in terms of the lead actor or actors and subject matter.


From the sixties working backwards, the top grossing film of each decade was The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments, Bambi, Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur – they’re not chick flicks or guy movies – they’re just movies.


I was interested by this, so I just took a look at contemporary reviews for Queen Christina in 1933, and The Women and Gone with the Wind, both released in 1939. Nnot one of them so much as mention the fact that these films are dominated by female leads in the way that today it’s all ‘stop the presses – this is a LADY film!’


So it seems to be that in the same waypastel coloured lego for girls was invented some time long after I was playing with lego, the idea that given movies are either for women or for men is very new – and it’s destructive. It leads to pretty shit films.


Honestly, that is really the point of this podcast – it’s not just about celebrating that women got to make movies for the sake of it, but pointing out that a) it’s simply not true that Hollywood is intrinsically male dominated. As historical fact, it’s simply wrong. And omore importantly, that when there is balance: there’s better movies.


I think that one of the reasons that this balance, in terms of stories being told, at least, lasted long after the glory days of female filmakers, was that there was so many powerful female stars around.


As I said earlier, Greta Garbo was definitely number one, but even in her time there was also Gloria Swanson and Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, Mae West. Aside from anything else, would you want to be the one to tell Bette Davis that she was the ‘second lead’?  Of course it isn’t a perfect science – Grace Kelly had that iconic status, but she invariably played the love interest, and of course Marilyn Monroe’s status came about in a large part because she was a romantic fantasy.


But that’s another thing that made Greta Garbo unique. She certainly had sex appeal – she was one of the great vamps, for one thing, but – so often, in movies, at least, it seems as though women can either have power or they can have sex appeal.


Female characters tend to invariably be either an asexual ball breaker or the girly love interest – in fact, many of the more depressing rom coms of the past couple of decades – often involving Sandra Bullock or Katherine Heigel – have had the woman’s journey be from one to the other. Because you can’t be both.


But Garbo was both. In fact, you can’t really distinguish between her power and her sexuality – they are one and the same, she is mesmerising because she is powerful, and vice versa.


The vamp character – sometime I’d like to do a whole podcast episode just exploring the Vamp as a character and a symbol, because in many ways I think she set the conflict at the heart of how women are portrayed on screen. What’s fascinating about her is not that she was a feminist hero or a misogynist cypher, but that she was simultaneously both. Or as Mick La Salle puts it in Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre Code Hollywood – “The paranoid fantasy is that sex can kill you. The romantic fantasy is that it just might be worth it.


The other aspect of Garbo’s career I want to talk about a little bit is her obsession with money – or more accurately, her determination to be paid what she was worth. Having grown up in poverty – it always amuses me when bios refer to Södermalm as the slums of Stockholm because I lived there for five years. These days, it’s Swedish celebrity/hipster central and you can’t buy a shoebox for less than a couple of million kronor. Incidentally, in my first summer, I rented an apartment just around the corner from where Garbo was born and grew up.


It was on Ringvägen, after Skanstull going towards Vitabergsparken for anyone who happens to know Stockholm. Next door to Elefantpojken. As I had just moved Sweden I didn’t know a soul, so I spent a lot of my time reading – mostly Greta Garbo bios. And managed to stumble across the fact that when Garbo went off to the States and made her first lot of money, she bought her mother a new apartment – in the building I was living in! It was built in 1911 so it would just have been about ten years old, and even though it was only six or seven blocks from their old apartment – yes I know precisely where it is, it’s not stalking if the person is dead – it was a step up in the world.


Anyway, in 1937, Garbo wrote home to a friend:


I am incredibly tired of being a ‘star’, tired of the films they offer me, just tired in a word. But I am not satisfied with what I’ve got in the way of money, so I’ll have to keep working for a while longer.


Bear in mind, that this was just five years after she signed a contract that made her the highest paid woman in America. And even in her early years in Hollywood she regularly went on strike for one reason or another – Louis B Mayer fairly quickly discovered that he could count on being able to woo her back with the promise of more money. And I really respect that about her.


There’s this idea that extends to all creative industries – and isn’t limited to women, though as usual, women suffer disproportionately – that if you’re a creative you should love what you do so much that you should be grateful to be paid at all.


We’ve all heard the old joke about bands trying to pay their mortgage with “exposure” – and time and time again when there’s discussion about how much less actresses are paid than their male co stars, they often say that they didn’t negotiate as hard as they should have because they were just grateful to be cast. But not Garbo.


In Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, Karen Ward Mahar tells us:


“After becoming a star in late 1926, Garbo demanded a raise from $600 to $5000 a week. When Mayer refused, she left for Sweden and after seven months, Mayer conceeded.”


So, a bit of background. Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on, according to Sven Broman’s “The Divine Garbo” ‘one of the ugliest street in the bleakest of working-class neighbourhoods on the south side of Stockholm.’ on September 18, 1905.


She was the youngest of three. Her brother Sven became a builder – and I promise I won’t keep doing this, but I once looked at an apartment on Stigbergsgatan in a building that he built – and her sister Alva died fairly young, not long after Greta arrived in Hollywood. Her father, Karl Gustafsson suffered from some kind of kidney trouble, and so worked fairly erratically with long periods of being too ill to work.


There is one story – I could have sworn I had read it in The Divine Garbo, but I can’t find it now but it’s so brilliant I want to tell it to you anyway. If I find the source I’ll add it to the show notes. It describes how Garbo as a wee girl once accompanied her father to the hospital.


He died in 1920, so this would have been around the time of the First World War, and though the Social Democrats didn’t bring socialism properly to Sweden until well into the 1920s, it was already at that time possible to be seen by a doctor for free or, I think,t a nominal sum. The problem was that those who could pay were prioritised – so someone who couldn’t pay could sit there for hours technically at the front of the queue as richer people came and went.


This was exactly what happened to young Greta and her father for several hours until finally she stood up on the bench and fainted dramatically into a passing doctor’s arms. When he offered to treat her immediately, she pointed him in her dad’s direction.


She seems to have been accurely conscious of her family’s poverty and this may account for her determination to get all the money in her later years. In 1931, Greta described her childhood to Swedish magazine Lektyr:


It was eternally gray – thos elong winter’s nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room, my mother is repairing ragged oud clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We are filled with anxiety, as if there is a danger in the air. Such evenings are unforgettable for a sensitive girl.


However, she always had her imagination to escape to. There are dozens of stories of neighbours seeing her playing make believe alone around Blekingegatan, and of coercing school friends into putting on plays with her. Her aunt Maria reported finding Greta sitting alone one day and asking her what she was doing. “I’m thinking,” she replied, “of being grown up and becoming a great actress.”


According to Greta Garbo, Divine Star by David Bret, in February 1917, Garbo dragged a friend along to Stockholm’s film studio Nordisk Studios on the island of Lidingö to the north of the city. Even today, Lidingö is a bit of a pain to get to as the underground stops at Ropsten then you have to change onto a bus to get across the bridge to the island.


And so it was for Greta and her friend – but they didn’t have enough money to pay the toll to get across the bridge, but it was February in Stockholm and so the water was frozen solid. Now, I know that stretch of water fairly well, I’ve both crossed the bridge by bus and been on the water below on a boat and kayak, and… it’s reasonably wide. If it started to crack in the middle, you’d be in trouble.


Further, though it’s obviously not open sea, it’s a channel between two islands – it is part of the same body of water that is the Baltic Sea and there are gigantic ships going to St Petersberg passing by, maybe a kilometre away. I’m just saying – I wouldn’t walk on that ice. So the fact that she did betrays a fairly healthy determination to make it to the film studios. And this is one of the contractions that we see time and time again with Garbo – she was clearly incredibly ambitious – yet she retired at 36. I’ll come back to that.


When her father died in 1920, all three siblings had to leave school and go to work, even though Greta was only fourteen.  Though she was extremely well read, her lack of formal education bothered her thoughout her entire life (she told Swedish journalist Sven Broman in the eighties “I’ve always had a complex because I had so little schooling.”)


She first went to work as a lather girl at a barber shop on Götgatan, and then to the hat department of fancy department store – comparable to Selfriges or Saks Fifth Avenue – PUB (which stands for Paul U Bergström) over in the city centre. I’ve heard different versions of how she got the job there, one that she was spotted at the barber shop by Bergström’s son, and another that her sister Alva had friends who worked there who helped her out.


Given, as I’ve said that Södermalm was the rough slum (known as KnivSöder or knife söder because of all the knife crime), I’d question the likelihood of the well to do Kristian Bergstöm heading there for a shave, so I lean towards the second version.


However she got the job on the sales floor, she was quickly spotted and appeared as a model in catalogues for the store then in 1922 in a promotional film – a prototype commercial – in which a family has lost everything in a fire and has to refit themselves from head to toe.


Magdalena Hellberg who was her superviser at PUB told a reporter in the seventies:


She was concientious about her duties, but she was always dreaming about movies and the theatre. She told me once: “It’s all I ever think about.” That Greta made such a great success in later years must be attributed chiefly to the fact that she was always amitious, never gave up trying, and cautiously, but with determination, climed every run of the ladder until she reached her goal.


So again we see that contradiction: in November 1926, she wrote home from Hollywood to an old friend Lars Saxon:


I’ve twice turned my back on the studio and gone home. Threats and all, none of it had any effect. I didn’t go back until I’d calmed down…. I stayed home for over a week then went back and played it. It was a huge scandal let me tell you. That’s just not the kind of thing they do here.


Barely a year after Garbo arrived in Hollywood she went on strike both for more money and so that she wouldn’t have to play the vamp any more. Another contradiction: one of the most famous Vamps of all time, hated the Vamp. She got the money, and she and Louis Mayer and Irving Thalberg came to a compromise about the characters she played.


According to Complicated Women:


Out of that push and pull between Garbo and MGM came a new type, the virtuous vamp the good-bad woman, the glorious, notorious woman that Garbo would play for the rest of her career… the new Garbo character was ultimately good.


So simply by being as valuable as she was to the studio, Garbo got to fundamentally change the nature of the Vamp, a stock character that had dominated movies for over a decade by this point. And importantly, this new Garbo character proved more and more of a hit at the box office than the one dimensional Vamps she initially played. Say it with me: powerful women = better, more successful movies.


A Woman of Affairs, released in 1928, was one of the top grossing films of the year, as was her first talkie Anna Christie, and the release of 1931’s Mata Hari “caused panic with police reserves required to keep the waiting mob in order.”  

And 1932’s Grand Hotel was one of the highest grossing films of the entire decade. Grand Hotel is of course the movie in which she utters the oft misquoted line “I just want to be left alone.”


In the summer of 1932, at the height of her stardom, Garbo took an extended trip to Sweden, leaving the world to pretty much lose its everloving mind. She left the day before her last contract ran out, and hadn’t yet signed a new one – the media was beside itself with rumours that she had quit Hollywood for good.


According to Garbo, a biography by Barry Parris:


For half a century, it was believed that Garbo left MGM up in the air, letting the studio fret for eight months while she lounged abroad. The truth was that – before she left – frantic, behind-the-scenes negotiations had produced a new agreement that was unprecedented at MGM, or for that matter, in Hollywood history.


This top-secret, two-picture deal, signed by Garbo on 8 July 1932, bound the studio to set up a special production company for her… she would get $250,000 per firlm and an addendum of 4 February, 1933 gave her director and co-star approval too.


Now of course, we know it wasn’t entirely unprecedented in Hollywood history – Mabel Normand had had a deal like that, as had Mary Pickford – but it had been a good decade since actors had got deals like that.


Now, I could talk all day to you about Queen Christina, the film she made upon her return – and essentially executive produced, thanks to this secret production deal. It’s one of my favourite films and I believe it genuinely is one of the best of the Pre Codes. It tells the story of Queen Christina, who abdicated the throne of Sweden in 1654. In reality she abdicated to become a Catholic in Lutheran Sweden, but in the movie, it’s for the love of a lowly Spanish ambassador, played by John Gilbert, Garbo’s on-and-off fiancé. It contains one of my all time favourite lines of dialogue.


Christina’s chancellor is pitching her all these diplomatic marriage proposals and she’s basically swiping left on all of them, he says “but your majesty, you cannot die an Old Maid!” and she replies “I have no intention to Chancellor, I shall die a bachelor!”


But Garbo had to fight for just about every frame with the censors, and while she did continue to act throughout the thirties, it has always seemed to me that Christina was the turning point that made her fall out of love with Hollywood.


For one thing, she hated it. She was mortified that a Hollywood love story had been tacked on to a historical biopic, writing home to a friend “It’s impossible to try and achieve anything out of the ordinary here. This is the last time I’m going to try… if only those who dream about Hollywood knew how difficult it all is.”


Queen Christina was a critical success, but at the time, was portrayed as a box office disaster. It was decades later that it finally came out that it had in fact grossed third highest of all of Garbo’s films.


Some historians argue that this was to keep John Gilbert, Garbo’s love interest in the film, from thinking he had made a successful comeback. Others suggest that it was more political – that as the Code came down on Hollywood, it didn’t do to suggest that a bisexual woman who has unabashed premarital sex was a box office draw.


Another wee story from Queen Christina tells us a lot about Hollywood Chinese whistpers and the diservice they do to powerful women. There’s an annecdote I’ve read half a dozen times in half a dozen books or articles from the shooting of Queen Christina. They all go roughly like this:


Garbo, as I’ve mentioned, had a complex about her lack of theatre experience and used to refer to herself as ‘not a real actress’ – she believed that her every performance was a fluke. The director of Queen Christina Rouben Mamoullian on the other hand, came from a theatre background. He studied at the famous Moscow Arts Theatre under Stanislavsky, who any of you who’ve ever taken an acting class will probably have heard of. So he was big into rehearsal, while Garbo refused to rehearse in case it broke the magic of her performance.


So the story goes that they got into an impasse over rehearsal, then Mamoullian suggested that they take the first take of a scene, then rehearse it, then take it again, and Garbo could chose which version they printed. Garbo watches the two, then comes running over to Mamoulian all mortified and begs him to burn the first one because he was right and she was wrong.


And I’ve always been a tiny bit dubious about this. Don’t get me wrong, Mamoullian was an undoubtedly great director who arguably saved the movies once sound came in – when there was the switch from silents to talkies, you can see how the visual quality shot right down, sound cameras were heavy and noisy, and so you went from artistic films like Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil in which pretty much every frame could hang in an art gallery, to static long shots of people talking. Mamoullian was arguably the one who came up with all sorts of innovations, like dolly tracks, to get the camera moving, and get films to be visually interesting again.


So I’m not putting Mamoullian down as a director at all – but, all the same, the idea of this guy who, at the time, had only been in Hollywood two or three years schooling the biggest star in the world on rehearsal, frankly, it’s obnoxious. It kind of suggests that if only Garbo had known how to rehearse she might have been successful, except, again… she was the biggest star in the world.


And then I came across this: this is from Rouben Mamoulian in conversation with Garbo’s biographer Sven Broman:


“My first take is always the best,” insisted Garbo.

“… But if it doesn’t work, can we agree that we will work according to my methods, i.e. rehearsal?” he replied.

“Don’t worry,” said Garbo.

“Garbo was right,” admitted Mamoulian. “She really could act. She was an intuitive actress. It was something of a miracle, a divine gift… Garbo was simply unique.”


So according to the director himself, she was right and he was wrong. Why didn’t that version make it into Hollywood history?


Perhaps despite herself, she made some of her greatest successes in the thirties – Anna Karenina, Camille and Ninotchka, which was promoted with the slogan “Garbo laughs.”


Even her last film Two Faced Woman which was slated by the critics, recovered its costs twice over, according to Garbo biographer David Bret. And even if Two Faced Woman had been a flop, a star of Garbo’s status could have absorbed it – I can’t think of a major star that hasn’t had one. This is why Hollywood historians have debated for decades just why this ambitous woman retired so suddenly – and so completely.


In 1986, she told Sven Broman: “I was tired of Hollywood. I did not like my work… [Two Faced Woman] was hardly any worse than any other but I had started to abandon my film career  a long time before that.” She then goes on to talk about how the film’s morality was protested by the Catholic church who successfully managed to get some of it cut, and she says: “You really couldn’t take a trivial film like that so seriously.”


And that’s always been my theory. For all her mixed views on Hollywood and fame, Greta Garbo seems to have been fairly steadfast in her determination to make films she believed in, even if they were, as she says, trivial, and entertainment.


Though she arrived in Hollywood after the tide had already turned towards big business and it was no longer the creative free for all it started as, she managed to catch the tail end of the glory days. But as the studio system took control and the Motion Production Code came down it eventually became impossible for even a star of Garbo’s magnitute to make the kind of movies she wanted to – and I think we all suffer for it.


And on that depressing note, thanks for listening! Next episode, just to cheer us all up, we are going to talk about editor Margaret Booth, who completely bucked this trend and was still supervising post production in the late seventies, at the age of 87.


I hope you’ll join me then, and in the meantime the usual shameless reminder that if you are enjoying this podcast, please tell all your friends. Thanks again, and see you next week!


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