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The Films of Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo was one of the few actresses who was both a silent screen star and talking film legend. Although she made powerful performances in “Camille,” “Ninotchka,” “Queen Christina” and many others.Although Garbo retired from film-making in her prime, her films continue to make an impact on viewers today.

Before Garbo hit Hollywood, she was already considered an actress in her native country of Sweden. Garbo had modeled for Paul Bergstrom's department store commercial films, played Greta in "Peter The Tramp" (1922). In "The Sage of Gösta Behrling" she played Countess Elisabeth Dohna and although this film was supposed to be Hollywood's draw to director Mauritz Stiller, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer was more impressed by Garbo’s performance. Mayer brought both of them to Hollywood. As with every young starlet, she was put through a rigorous makeover and changed her name from Greta Gustafsson to Greta Garbo.

Her very first official Hollywood silent film, The Torrent (1926), she became a star. The film was a box office success, and the critics loved her. "The Temptress" (1926) immediately followed with Garbo in the title role. Though Greta is on record as remarking how terrible she felt her performance was, critics worshiped her in it. She starred in more successful silent films, such as “Flesh and the Devil,” one of three with her real life lover and silent cinematic heartthrob, John Gilbert.

When the “talkies” emerged, the studio panicked and delayed Garbo’s first “talkie” for as long as they could, fearing she would lose appeal with audiences of her sultry voice and her Swedish dialect. She starred in “The Kiss” (1929), her last silent film for MGM. Then her moment came in “Anna Christie” (1930). Based on the play by Eugene O’Neill’s play of the same name and adapted to screen by female screenwriter Frances Marion, Garbo played a prostitute. Her first lines ever recorded on film were, “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side and don’t be stingy, baby!” She was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress Category for her work in two films, “Anna Christie” and “Romance,” but lost out to Norma Shearer in the “The Divorcee.”

Her most famous line quoted, “But I want to be alone” was from the film “Grand Hotel.” With this success, Garbo desired more control over her pictures and a raise in salary to $250,000 per picture, which demands were hostilely met by Mayer. Thus, Garbo disappeared from films for the next two years. Reluctantly, and uncharacteristically, Mayer complied with Garbo’s demands, including her decision to replace her leading man, Laurence Olivier with John Gilbert, whose career had taken a turn for the worse.

Her next film, “Ninotchka” (1939) was a romantic comedy, and a very different genre for Garbo but, nonetheless, one in which she was happy to show her range. It earned her a fourth Oscar nomination. That was 1939, a heavy year for Oscar contenders, and she lost to Vivian Leigh for “Gone with the Wind.” “The Two-Faced Woman” (1941) was slated to be her last picture. When critics disliked it, and Garbo herself hated it, her decision to retire from films was cemented permanently. In 1955, Greta Garbo received an Honorary Oscar.

After, Garbo became a recluse after she left motion pictures. She acquired U.S. citizenship and lived in New York where she seemed to fade into the limelight. On occasion, the legend could be spotted donning sunglasses and a large hat, shopping amongst other New Yorkers at the city flea markets she frequented. She passed away in 1990.

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