After watching “Ninotchka” in August 2012, I decided that I must see every single movie Greta Garbo made. It took 12 months. On August 3, 2013, I watched “The Kiss”, and my Greta Garbo odyssey was complete. As I went through Garbo’s movies, I decided to write comments on each. For her birthday in 2013, I released them to the Internet. One year later, I am presenting a revised version.
These are not meant to be ‘reviews’. They are simply my thoughts and reflections on all the movies I’ve seen that have Greta Garbo in them (not including those that show clips of her from other movies). I wrote these words to remind me of what I did and didn’t like, along with my reactions to Garbo characters, stories, and performances.
If you want detailed background information on these movies, there are many places on the Internet to find it. I’m not trying to provide the most sophisticated and meticulous appraisal of each movie. All I’m doing is telling you about one Garbo fan’s thoughts and feelings about her movie legacy and hoping you’ll enjoy reading them.
Garbo Starts! – The Early Years (1920-1925)
“How Not To Dress” [Or Herrskapet Stockholm ute på inköp”/
“Mr. and Mrs. Stockholm Go Shopping”] (1920)
Greta Garbo (still going by her real name of ‘Greta Gustafsson’) can be seen in a commercial she made as a teen. She did this for a department store where she worked. In the commercial, she spends a few minutes trying on bulky outfits, then smiling and posing.
I’m not sure why the title got changed from “Mr. and Mrs. Stockholm Go Shopping” to “How Not To Dress”. I guess the new name refers to Garbo’s outfits being unflattering. While they’re not “sexy” or feminine, I can see how they’d be useful in cold Swedish winters. Since I can imagine a time when dressing in them might be wise, I believe the title is a little too harsh and unnecessary.
Maybe a better title would be “How Not To Dress…In The Summmer”. You can see this commercial on the “Gösta Berlings saga” DVD. There isn’t much going on, but I liked it as an opportunity to see what advertisements were like in the 1920s. I also enjoyed seeing the future Garbo as a fresh-faced, innocent-looking young kid just happy to be in front of a camera. She made a commercial about bread too. Orson Welles described it amusingly.
#1: “Luffar-Petter” (1922)
“Luffar-Petter” (“Peter the Tramp” in English) is a lost film. Only an excerpt from it can be seen on the “Gösta Berlings saga” DVD and Youtube. From what I’ve seen, I can’t tell the point of this movie. There’s some guy hanging out with three young girls. Greta Gustafsson plays the tallest. After being chummy with an older woman, the cheerful young trio takes a boat ride, sets up camp, and then picnics with Peter, a mustachioed fellow in a robe. They play in and around nearby water while Peter and some onlookers smile at them. They laugh at one man for being a fatty. Peter’s clothes and belongings are stolen while he’s watching the girls.
The movie is supposed to be funny. I don’t really see what’s so funny about it. I guess the girls laughing at the fat guy is sort of amusing, although I generally prefer less mean-spirited humour. The movie oddly concludes with a title card that says ‘Slut’, which is funny, but not supposed to be funny. It’s simply the Swedish word for ‘End’! Young Greta is cute, happily running around with her two companions in hats, shirts, and shorts, then swimwear. She’s a long way from the goddess-like figure she’d later become. This was technically her only comedy until “Ninotchka”.
#2: “Gösta Berlings saga” (1924)
Like many of Greta Garbo’s movies, “Gösta Berlings saga” made me frustrated as I impatiently waited for Garbo to show up. I shouldn’t have been surprised that she didn’t appear right away. She’s not the main character. That’s Lars Hanson. He stars as disgraced priest Gösta Berling, who is unfairly rejected by his people and defrocked.
Garbo first appears at a party, looking glamourous and immediately capturing everyone’s attention. She’s heavier than in later pictures and wearing too much make-up, but already an arresting presence. Her character accepts the admiration of spectators with flattered amusement. It’s a suitably grand and ceremonious debut for a woman who would later be seen as Hollywood royalty. Garbo is absent for long stretches of the film, even though she’s the title character’s love interest. When she does show up, she’s captivating. Outstretching her arms with sad, yearning eyes, Garbo conveys so much desire and grief. She was a natural born silent actress.
#3: “Die freudlose Gasse” / “The Joyless Street”/
“Streets of Sorrow” (1925)
At the time when I watched “Gösta Berlings saga” for the first time, I wasn’t aware that musical scores didn’t exist in movies until 1926. I loved its music, not realizing that everything I was hearing had been composed in the 2000s. I wish “The Joyless Street” had a modern score like that. It was long, depressing, and hard for me to watch. The lack of music or sound effects made it especially tough to endure. The story shows Vienna’s awful social conditions after World War I. Various characters struggle to make a living. Greedy, corrupt townspeople mistreat and cheat them. They find salvation in the kindness of merciful citizens who want to help them survive.
The movie’s intentions are laudable and its production values are excellent. It was directed by G.W. Pabst, who would go on to make some of the silent era’s most visually striking movies with Louise Brooks. I respect the movie, without liking it very much. I appreciated the opportunity to watch Garbo further refine her silent acting, before she had a chance to do it in a story I could enjoy.
Garbo Moves! – The Silent Hollywood Years (1926-1929)
#4: “Torrent” (1926)
This is not the deepest or most original movie, yet when I saw it for the first time, I shed tears of joy. I was so grateful to watch something more touching than the last few Garbo movies I’d seen. I was also moved by Garbo’s beauty in close-ups and a majestic musical score.
In a documentary called “The Divine Garbo”, actress Glenn Close was made to describe “Torrent” as a “silly melodrama”. I understand why someone might have that opinion. I might be more easily affected by “Torrent” than other people, because stories about forbidden love really shake me up when they’re done a certain way (and this movie does it that way). Greta Garbo and Ricardo Cortez play childhood sweethearts. They’re ripped apart by class differences and disapproving parents. After they achieve success through different paths in life, they meet again as adults. Their reuinion is bittersweet.
The time when Garbo and Cortez could be together in love is lost and can never be regained. They know this and have accepted it, but there’s still melancholy longing between them. Multi-tinted cinematography and an emotional score give this movie a haunting atmosphere. The climactic storm is a riveting spectacle. I think most of Garbo’s leading men don’t seem imposing enough to be worthy of her. Ricardo Cortez doesn’t have that problem. Together, these elements make “Torrent” one of my favourite Garbo movies.
#5: “The Temptress” (1926)
I don’t agree with this movie’s title. I think of a ‘temptress’ as an immoral woman who chooses to control and influence men, using her sexuality. A temptress draws power from her sexuality. Garbo doesn’t have much power in this movie. She’s a trophy wife in a world of horny, clownish men with bad mustaches. They harm or kill each other out of jealously. In the most entertaining scene, two have a duel over her with whips(!) while a mariachi band plays.
The South American setting gives “The Temptress” some exotic flavour. I liked this movie’s look more than its events. I hate how Garbo’s character is blamed for men destroying lives or committing murder. As she correctly points out, it’s only their selfish desire that motivates them. She is not truly a temptress, yet she’s punished and condemned as if fatal actions of stupid men were her fault. They only have themselves to blame. All she can do is helplessly look on in horror…just like I did when watching “The Temptress”.
#6: “Flesh and the Devil” (1926)
From the time I became interested in Greta Garbo, I read a lot about her sensuality. I didn’t really understand why people focused on that. I thought her characters and movies were more effective because of their emotion than eroticism. “Flesh and the Devil” was different. If anyone wants to understand how she could inspire lust through her sexuality, this is the movie to watch.
As a woman named Felicitas, she flaunts physical chemistry with real life lover John Gilbert. They are an intensely sexy couple on screen. There’s a scene where Gilbert lies on the floor while Garbo holds him. A Garbo documentary explained that audiences found this scene tantalizing because it’s like she’s “devouring” him with her open-mouthed kiss. I think that’s a perfect description.
The plot is about childhood friends Leo and Ulrich. Gilbert is Leo. Ulrich is Lars Hanson, reuniting with Garbo after “Gösta Berlings saga”. After Leo and Felicitas fall in love, Leo goes to war, asking Ulrich to take care of her while he’s away. Predictably, Felicitas and Ulrich become lovers in Leo’s absence. When he returns, Leo feels betrayed, and the childhood friends want to kill each other over a woman. There’s something awkward about the way these men interact with each other. Their faces are very close together when they talk and they hold each other tightly.
When Leo and Ulrich hugged and gazed at each other lovingly, I thought they looked like they’re actually in love with each other. As they embraced in the final minutes of the movie, I felt like it needed 5 more minutes so they could kiss and provide a more natural and satisfying ending. I doubt this movie is supposed to have homoerotic subtext. The acting of Gilbert and Hanson gives it one.
This movie starts a pattern of Greta Garbo characters being adulterers. That’s always annoying to me, but I love the moment when Felicitas and Leo are discovered by her husband. It demonstrates how “Flesh and the Devil” is among Garbo’s most stylishly-directed pictures. An ingenious shot has the enraged husband’s fist clenching in the foreground, creating the appearance of his hand crushing Garbo’s skull in the background. Another wonder is a superb final sequence that resolves the love triangle through a visually masterful series of tense and shocking events.
#7: “Love” (1927)
In 1927, the public knew about Greta Garbo and John Gilbert having a real life affair. I like how their second movie together was titled “Love” so that its poster could say “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love”. What shocked me was how all the chemistry they had in “Flesh and the Devil” seemed to have disappeared. The genuine chemistry that existed between Gilbert and Garbo was not evident to me. Many factors were in place to make this movie work. I believe it didn’t work at all. Gilbert looks inferior to Garbo, not her equal.
Since this is an adaptation of “Anna Karenina”, Gilbert is supposed to be the passionate, sensitive lover who inspires Anna to leave her oppressive husband and give up her beloved son. Instead, he looks more like an overanxious teenager pursuing a girl that’s out of his league. I think Gilbert can be an excellent actor (as in “The Big Parade” and “Downstairs”). In this movie, I believe he’s too over-the-top and plays his character badly. He is especially annoying when Anna misses her son and he jealousy whines, wanting her to choose him over the boy. She’s willing to sacrifice everything and be shunned in society for this immature wuss? I don’t buy it.
She seems to barely tolerate the guy. When he tells her that they love each other, it looks like she’s agreeing just so he’ll shut up. The movie has two endings. One is the tragic ending from the book. The other is a happy ending. I like the happier one, but it feels tacked on and I’m generally against film adaptations of books that change too much. I find the original ending anti-climactic, so neither is completely satisfying to me. I consider “Love” a conspicuous misfire for the Gilbert and Garbo duo. When shown on American television, it has a recorded soundtrack. A live audience can be heard reacting to the movie, and they laugh at Gilbert’s facial expressions. This is not one of his better performances.
#8: “The Divine Woman” (1928)
“The Divine Woman” is a mostly lost film. 9 minutes of it can be seen. They suggest a strong entry in Garbo’s filmography. A good amount of story is packed into the movie’s surviving minutes.
This is Garbo’s third and final collaboration with Lars Hanson. They play blissfully happy lovers named Lucien and Marianne. She beams with pride at her brave soldier and showers him with kisses. He seats her on his shoulder and marches around the room singing. The mood changes when Lucien announces he must leave for war.
Emotionally, Marianne goes through a few stages. She feels anger, then resigned acceptance, deciding that she and Lucien should just savour the fleeting moments they have left. What survives of “The Divine Woman” is an insightful demonstration of what can happen to lovers when one goes to war. Even in truncated form, this is a movie of deep feeling. Garbo is very affectionate in a splendid showcase for her range and warmth as an actress.
#9: “The Mysterious Lady” (1928)
“The Mysterious Lady” is about Tania and Karl, who meet at the opera and fall in love. All is well until he finds out about her background. Like many Garbo characters, Tania’s feelings for a man become a burden. The other major character is her boss, a general played by Gustav von Seyffertitz. He’s amusingly over-the-top as a sleazy manipulator. It was funny watching him constantly try to screw Garbo, who keeps squirming away from him.
For much of the movie, Karl is pissed off, Tania feels trapped, and the general is horny. Like “Flesh and the Devil”, this is a movie that makes Garbo’s sex appeal very clear. She’s very alluring at the beginning as she smiles and blows out a candle in her slinky dress. One can understand her man’s wild lust. She’s also very sensual during close-ups of her pantomimed singing. I think the score created for this movie’s DVD restoration only fits occasionally.
#10: “A Woman of Affairs” (1928)
As a fan of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, it was a relief to see them with their chemistry restored in “A Woman of Affairs”. I think of this movie as a marked improvement from “Love” and sort of like a rehearsal for the deeper “Camille”, which Garbo would make with another leading man several years later. In both movies, Garbo plays a woman in love with a man whose father breaks her heart by disapproving of their plans to marry.
Gilbert plays a man named Neville. Garbo is Diana. When Neville’s father sends him overseas to work, the couple knows their relationship is doomed. Apparently long distance relationships weren’t an option at the time…at least in Greta Garbo movies. Years later, Neville gets engaged. Diana comes back into his life and they still want each other. Neville’s fiancée is unbelievably patient and selfless, being willing to give him up. Sadly, Diana thinks it’s too late. The movie is similar to “Torrent” in how it’s about two people whose love is tragically thwarted by outside forces. Careers and the influence of others ruin their potential happiness.
The movie may affect me more than most people because I know how it reflects real life drama between Gilbert and Garbo. Like his character in the movie, Gilbert desperately wanted to marry Garbo and she wouldn’t do it. Diana and Greta just can’t see marriage with this man working out, even though they make a good couple. Fortunately, the failure of their relationship did not make the real Garbo do what her character does at the movie’s end.
#11: “Wild Orchids” (1929)
I hate movies that make married people have affairs without giving them good reasons. It especially bothers me when the husband is ridiculously mean. When that happens, I feel like the woman has been forced into adultery by lazy writing. I appreciated how “Wild Orchids” realistically shows why a couple is incompatible.
Lewis Stone plays Garbo’s husband. He acted in more movies with her than anyone (the lucky devil!) Writing and performances nicely establish how much their characters love each other. The marriage is strained by differing desires and perspectives. He is older and more serious – a workaholic. When they take a trip, he thinks of it as a ‘work holiday’, while to her, it’s a ‘second honeymoon’. She wants more affection than he can give.
The ‘other man’ is a prince played by Nils Asther. Garbo’s relationship with him lacks the realism of her marriage with the Stone character. He’s a creepy asshole from the beginning of the picture. I understood why Garbo was unhappy with Stone. I’m not sure why she loved the nasty Asther character. When she sees him for the first time, he’s whipping a servant! He mellows out as the movie goes on. He never completely stops being a jerk. She seems to ultimately fall in love with the guy just because his life is threatened. While I found Garbo’s love for Asther unearned, I liked this movie more than many of her others because of its atmosphere and mature depiction of a faulty marriage.
#12: “The Single Standard” (1929)
The title of this movie refers to the idea that women should be forgiven for things like adultery as readily as men are, instead of society favouring one gender over the other. The idea is mentioned without really being explored. Garbo is an unfaithful wife once more and Nils Asther returns to the role of her partner in cheating. The two stars fit well together, but again, I felt like their relationship was written poorly. The problem this time is that Asther goes away for years, yet as soon as he gets back, she seems ready to just abandon the life she has built with her husband to be with this guy.
In a movie like this, I find the main story so completely half-assed and shallow that I can only get pleasure from small details. There is enchanting atmosphere and a few good scenes. I like an early scene that has Garbo driving with someone at night. There’s also a funny sequence of two men crazily boxing in a house while Garbo and others watch. My favourite thing about this movie is that Garbo has a young son played by Wally Albright.
He has blonde, curly hair and is very cute. It’s touching to watch Garbo being playful and caring with the boy, showing a tender, maternal side. The scenes of Albright and Garbo together were some of the only parts of this movie that really stood out to me for positive reasons. A little bit of motherly love goes a long way towards making the movie engaging. Pretty scenery helps too.
#13: “The Kiss” (1929)
This was the last Greta Garbo movie I watched on my quest to see every single one. I heard it was good, so I thought it would be a satisfying choice. I was disappointed. The plot feels extremely undercooked to me. I’ve been told that the movie was horribly hacked up in editing, so that might explain its rickety storytelling. Garbo plays a woman who cheats on her husband with one man, then gets accused of cheating on him with someone else.
The husband goes into a jealous rage after she innocently kisses a student (Lew Ayres) who has a crush on her. Ayres throws himself at her and she resists him. The husband sees this and assumes she likes the student’s clumsy groping. The silly misunderstanding leads to a murder behind closed doors. I liked the final scenes, which reveal what really happened (unseen to the audience) as a gun was fired behind those doors. I didn’t like most of what came before.
“The Kiss” is another Garbo movie in which I like isolated moments and details, without caring much for the main plot. My favourite scene follows a fade to black with a fade in to a close-up of Garbo’s face. She checks herself out and rubs a finger across her lips. Then, the camera slowly pulls back, revealing that she’s applying make-up, with the camera being like her mirror. This is the only time Garbo looked directly into the camera during a movie. Her face fills the screen to simulate a view of it from the mirror’s perspective. What a glorious sight. Another detail I liked was how when Garbo looks for a photo to give the student, she’s apparently rummaging through head shots from M.G.M’s publicity department.
Garbo Rules! – The Talkie Years (1930-1941)
#14: “Anna Christie” (1930)
I can imagine how exciting it was for Greta Garbo’s fans as the release of her first talkie approached. It was hyped by the intriguing and adorable tagline ‘Garbo Talks!’ I can also imagine these audiences getting very impatient and irritated during the movie’s early scenes, which were extremely frustrating to me. The screen is littered with noisy, shrill, obnoxious characters who drove me nuts. All I could think was, “WHERE IS SHE? SAVE ME, GRETA! SAME ME FROM THESE IDIOTS!” The movie is a cruel tease, stranding people with fools for 15 minutes before Garbo shows up.
She is worth the wait. Her first words announce her cool quirkiness: “Give me a whiskey. Ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby”. The deep, husky voice and thick, unique accent are immediately appealing. Her vocabulary and diction are full of attitude and personality. If I’d lived in the 1920s as a fan of Garbo from silent movies, I’m sure her voice would’ve rocked my world. I’d probably fall in love with her all over again for a brand new reason after hearing that voice. I don’t like the movie’s other characters and performances. Marie Dressler stands out because she’s like a cartoon woman with her wacky voice and a face of big features.
I can’t stand Charles Bickford’s burly brutish character with a lame fake Irish accent. As her whiny, pitiful father, George F. Marion bothered me even more. Garbo’s Anna Christie is a strong-willed, independent, and resourceful woman who speaks in assertive, individualistic dialogue. I just wish she had better male co-stars. I’m not surprised that people immediately loved the new talking Garbo.
#15: “Romance” (1930)
I believe that most of Greta Garbo’s leading men weren’t good enough for her. She was such a strong, commanding presence that men would often seem diminished or overshadowed next to her. I think Gavin Gordon was her worst co-star of all. “Romance” was his only shot at being a leading man and I don’t think he was up to the task. The whole movie is a flashback from his older self, who tells a story about being in love with Garbo’s character as a young man.
Garbo plays an opera singer. She speaks wistful and philosophical words about romance. There’s a real world-weary, yet hopeful quality to this wise, proud, reflective character. I agree with Greta Garbo’s Oscar nomination for this performance, even though her attempted Italian accent was distracting at times. I would have liked this movie more if its plot and leading man had been deeper.
#16: “Anna Christie” (1931)
Greta Garbo thought the German version of “Annie Christie” was better than its American predecessor. I agree with her. The cast is more subdued. I see them as a huge improvement from the pansy American father and hammy fake Irishman. The film looks visually superior in my eyes too. Handsome direction shows a mastery of using lighting to create mood and atmosphere.
The only reason I like the American version of “Anna Christie” more than the German re-make is because I love hearing Garbo speak English with her accent. German Garbo fans are lucky to have this movie. If the cast and director had been able to do it in English, we might have got the best possible version of “Anna Christie”. Alas, I have to settle for each version having something the other lacks. I think film students could benefit from studying these movies together, seeing how differently two films can turn out despite having many of the same basic building blocks.
#17: “Inspiration” (1931)
The title of “Inspiration” refers to Yvonne, a Greta Garbo character who models for artists, serving as their ‘inspiration’. Many suitors adore her beauty, yet like so many Garbo characters, she can’t find happiness with a lover because societal pressure and a shameful past drive them apart. This movie starts the tradition in Garbo talkies of her sorrowfully yelling out a man’s name when she loves or fears him. This time, she moans for Robert Montgomery’s “André”, pining for him with the lovesick cry of “OWN-DRAY!!!”
Yvonne and André have a few lovely romantic interludes before she spends most of the picture moping over him. Like “The Kiss”, “Inspiration” has a plot that I don’t like, so I’m more keen on moments and details than the main narrative. For example, I like Garbo’s hairstyle at the beginning. It has a wild, almost punk rock quality. I also like the moment when Yvonne overhears a woman laughing at her, marches into the room, and gives a well-earned slap! It’s an exciting moment, but could have been more triumphant. The slap is weak and Yvonne immediately regrets it. I wish she’d hit harder and felt prouder of herself!
I eventually got tired of Yvonne pining over “OWN-DRAY!”. During an intense scene between them, my mind started wandering and I fixated on how Garbo rolls her “R”s too much. The middle section of the movie is oppressive, as things just keep getting worse for Yvonne. To my relief, the story ended on a touching melancholic note. Yvonne writes a letter and I actually had an emotional reaction when the camera lingered on it. If only the rest of “Inspiration” was as inspired as its ending and the letter.
#18: “Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise” (1931)
Garbo and Gable. It’s a promising pairing. Unlike many of Greta Garbo’s leading men, Clark Gable could never be accused of not being manly or charismatic enough to be her equal. Putting together a man and woman with such distinct and appealing personalities sounds like a recipe for success. For awhile, this movie felt like it would really deliver on the potential of uniting them. Each has a persona that we see repeated (with slight variations) in every film they make. The two are very much opposites, and it’s easy to see how they might attract.
Gable is always robust, macho, extroverted, aggressive, stubborn, and ruggedly charming. Garbo is always gentle, tender, delicate, dainty, vulnerable, introverted, and stately. They’re a natural fit – the big strong alpha male protecting the pure, righteous damsel in distress. The movie starts out that way as Garbo plays a poor girl who flees from an abusive household. A vile father wants to force her into marrying some creep. A smiling, relaxed, infinitely cheerful and confident Gable finds her. He happily gives sanctuary to the frightened victim, winning her love honourably.
Then, the movie comes up with a conflict for them, and I start hating it. There’s a misunderstanding that could be fixed with a single conversation (a single sentence, even) and instead of explaining herself, the Garbo character lets her former love hate her. They split up. They reunite years later and treat each other like enemies. Then, their story has an ending so rushed and lazy that it’s disgusting. It’s like the script writers didn’t bother to give their story developments any thought because they assumed Garbo and Gable would make everything work just by being great.
They almost do. It was kinda fun to watch the two stars insult each other, because they have so much energy and attitude. It would be more fun if they had a good reason to hate each other. I read somewhere that Garbo and Gable didn’t like each other. Apparently, she called his acting “wooden” and he called her a “stuck-up broad” when she was rude to him. I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that it’s a more believable and entertaining story than “Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise”. My favourite thing in the movie is Garbo’s hilarious ‘Turkish Dancer’ costume.
#19: “Mata Hari” (1931)
Greta Garbo’s body was not a big part of her fame (as it was with Marilyn Monroe, for example). She was not curvy or busty. She has been called androgynous (some lunatics even think she might have been a man!), Alfred Hitchcock criticized how “her figure was flat”, and various cartoons have mocked her big feet. For these reasons, I thought it was odd how “Mata Hari” cast her as a spy who learns wartime secrets by seducing men. A sexually alluring, ravishingly curvacious body is key in the arsenal of a seductress. Even the movie seems hesitant to draw attention to Garbo’s body. She does most of an ‘erotic dance’ scene with her back to the camera!
Garbo may not have the right body to play a sexy spy, but her face, voice, and attitude make up for that. She moves through the movie with guarded, detached bemusement, calmly and slyly resisting the advances of lecherous men. She only loses her cool when threatened by a Lionel Barrymore character, who compels her to yell “SHUBAN!!!!!!” with desperation. She usually yells like that at her love interest. This is not Barrymore’s role. The man who loves Garbo in “Mata Hari” is Ramon Novarro.
Novarro was considered a great lover of the silent era. Next to Garbo, I think he seems like an infatuated school boy with a crush on an older and more mature woman, even though she is younger than him! He gives a likeable performance. His only problem is looking overpowered by Garbo’s mighty aura, a meek figure in her presence. “Mata Hari” is the only Garbo movie in which she did something that really upset me. When Novarro explains why a candle must remain lit because of its religious significance, Mata Hari implies that she won’t sleep with him unless he blows it out! This is by far the most cruel and selfish thing I’ve ever seen a Greta Garbo character do. Much worse than anything she did in “The Temptress”. Shame on you, Mata Hari!
#20: “Grand Hotel” (1932)
I define “diva” as an exceptionally talented woman who is very temperamental, self-obsessed, and demanding (often unreasonably). She also expects people to constantly reinforce her confidence or try to increase her comfort. When I watched “Grand Hotel” for the first time, I thought Greta Garbo’s character was perhaps the earliest example of a diva I’d ever seen on film. I think of divas as arrogant, repellent people who are not likable because they’re so bossy and conceited. The big surprise about this character was that even though I thought she was a perfect definition of ‘diva’, I also felt sympathetic towards her. The anguish in hypnotic close-ups of Garbo’s face captured my pity instantly.
“Grand Hotel” has an all-star cast and gives each character a story. I was disappointed by how some ended up, but I generally liked the movie. Most of my affection for it is due to John Barrymore and Greta Garbo. It is very unrealistic how they fall in love after he sneaks into her room to steal jewels, but Barrymore’s dialogue and performance are so sincere that I could forget about the lack of realism. The two create their own little world in her room. My heart pounded and I sighed through their sentimental conversations.
Garbo’s performance was too theatrical and melodramatic for some people. I thought she was just soulful and nakedly raw in emotion. The sorrow and fear of her voice and face provoked all of my compassion. When she falls in love, I think this woman is more happily in love than any other character I’ve seen Garbo play. She is euphoric, singing to herself, prancing around the room, and reporting her joy to anyone who will listen. The movie can be ungainly. Garbo’s scenes alone make it one I must treasure.
#21: “As You Desire Me” (1932)
Greta Garbo was blonde in a lot of cartoons. On film, she was only ever blonde at the beginning of “As You Desire Me”. I’m so glad she doesn’t wear her blonde wig for long, because it’s terrible. I also don’t like the movie’s too complicated and unlikely plot.
Eric Von Stroheim seems very comfortable and skilled at playing an intimidating, scary, unlikable character. I can’t remember much about Melvin Douglas in the movie, except how young he looks (this is the earliest Melvyn Douglas movie I’ve seen). I was mostly just annoyed to be stuck with another movie that has Garbo playing a sad victim. Douglas has a huge framed portrait of her. If I were rich and had the chance, I’d love to buy that painting. If it’s in a museum somewhere, I want to go see it someday.
#22: “Queen Christina” (1933)
As a screen presence, Greta Garbo is often regal, disciplined, and dignified. “Queen Christina” takes full advantage of that. When Garbo’s Queen Christina speaks eloquent words, her voice has the pride of someone whose sincerity and certainty will never waver. She is fiercely devoted to her people, caring about every individual citizen and believing in herself as much as her work. I think this is everything a movie or real life queen should be. She is a consummate diplomat, idealist, and student on a quest for knowledge, committed to improvement of self and country.
I can tell that Greta Garbo had a personal interest in the story of Queen Christina. She probably saw some of herself in the real historical figure. Queen Christina values personal freedom, harmony, duty, and love more than anything else. This movie is not an accurate historical document and its story has some questionable turns. There’s one situation that seems hard to believe for most or all people who watch this movie, including me. That lapse in believability doesn’t matter when there’s so much else to love.
I can describe what “Queen Christina” means to me by paraphrasing my favourite actor in a significant role from his career. “This is what ‘dream movies’ are made of.” An actress I love is directed by a brilliant director, working with the best script they’ve ever had, at the height of their careers. The innovative Rouben Mamoullian had inspired ideas about how to enhance the look and visual impact of his movies. He always knew how to present them for maximum impact. The Queen Christina character seems made for Garbo, playing to her strengths. She is always articulate, philosophical, and heartfelt, showing self-assurance and morality, and demonstrating a witty sense of humour.
I’m so glad Garbo insisted on having John Gilbert as her co-star. Some people call his performance over-the-top. That’s exactly why I like it. His child-like anxiousness in several scenes got big laughs out of me during an often serious movie. There are a lot of ways to describe this movie beyond simply ‘comedy’ or ‘drama’. It is funny, exciting, sad, touching, intelligent, enlightening, well-paced, and visually sumptuous. The script is full of lines that are thoughtful, poetic, and just fun to remember and/or say. I enjoy it in all the ways I can enjoy movies. I enjoy it more than most of the movies I’ve seen in my life. It will always be one of my favourite movies of all time.
#23: “The Painted Veil” (1934)
I’m always disappointed when Garbo is cast as an adulteress. It’s especially annoying in “The Painted Veil” because the guy she cheats with is such a nothing and the guy she cheats on is a really sweet guy. And I’m not just talking about any sweet guy. I’m talking about Herbert Marshall, who I consider better at playing sweet, likeable British guys than any other 1930s actor! In the “The Painted Veil”, he’s a brave doctor trying to cure a plague in China. Garbo ditches him to go sightseeing with a nobody played by George Brent. She’s seduced by Brent while her husband is busy SAVING LIVES. Marshall is so good and Brent’s character is so dull and undeveloped that the Garbo character cheating doesn’t make sense.
My favourite scenes take place before this movie settles on China for its setting. I loved seeing Marshall fall in love with Garbo because it’s heartwarming to see two stars I like being kind to each other. After the story moved to China, I became less happy with the plot, which eventually wraps up in a way that feels forced and rushed. Aside from the first Garbo and Marshall scenes, my favourite aspects of this movie are superficial. I liked Garbo’s Asian-styled clothing, her pleasant interaction with animals, and the attractive Asian scenery.
#24: “Anna Karenina” (1935)
In 1935’s “Anna Karenina”, I think Frederic March is a better partner for Garbo than John Gilbert in 1927’s “Love”. That doesn’t mean I think he’s the best possible choice for this part. Unlike Gilbert, he doesn’t act too immature and self-centered. He has a different problem – not enough passion. This character loves a woman with all his heart and is condemned by society for it. A man carrying such a burden should suffer more intensely.
The other performance that bothers me is by Freddie Bartholomew as Anna’s son. It’s supposed to be tragic that the mother is exiled from her son. It doesn’t seem so bad when Bartholomew speaks in an annoying, high-pitched, grating voice. Garbo’s performance makes sure that the tragedy of her situation can be felt. Anna’s infinite love for her son comes through loud and clear, especially when she treats him with loving adoration in their scenes together. It’s obvious that Anna’s son is more precious to her than anything.
I was surprised to find the picture’s best performance coming from Basil Rathbone as Anna’s husband. In “Love”, the husband is an evil, one-dimensional sadist. This time, he is the movie’s most eloquent and confident character, giving its most energetic performance. He is supposed to be the bad guy, but his feelings of anger and betrayal feel so much more real and urgent than anything said by Garbo or March. His level of passion cannot be matched. His angry, indignant, guilt-tripping speeches to Anna are ferocious. It takes a hell of an actor to steal a picture from Greta Garbo. Rathbone proves he can.
#25: “Camille” (1936)
“Like parents crowing over Baby’s first steps, MGM announced “Garbo talks!” (for “Anna Christie”) and “Garbo laughs!” (for “Ninotchka”), but they missed out on this one, when they should have crowed “Garbo acts!”
Under George Cukor’s direction,
She gives a warm, yet ironic performance
that is possibly her finest.”
– Pauline Kael, Film Critic
Greta Garbo has been both praised and criticized for being ‘simple’. John Barrymore meant it as a compliment. I think some people like Garbo’s simplicity because it makes her more inviting and accessible on screen. Others think of this simplicity as a negative, arguing that she’s too obvious, mannered, and artificial. I think Garbo’s performance in “Camille” is the best proof that she can be much more than a ‘simple’ actress of ‘simple’ performances.
In her first scenes, Marguerite Gautier doesn’t seem more complicated than anyone else Garbo played. She appears to just be a very cheerful and happy person, frequently smiling and laughing with a radiant glow. It becomes clearer as the movie goes on that there’s more to this woman than what she shows the world. She is dying of tuberculosis, but the only hint of her ailment is an occasional soft, brief cough. In this performance, Garbo shows that she understands the potential power of subtlety and contrast.
Marguerite’s sorrow is jarring because she’s introduced looking strong and full of life. No actress has ever made me care about her suffering as much as Greta Garbo, and I don’t think any of her characters have suffered as tragically as Marguerite Gautier. Her transition from poised, lighthearted woman to sickly outcast is devastating because Garbo makes it so.
I find Garbo’s co-stars in “Camille” rather problematic. Robert Taylor was relatively new to acting at the time. I think his performance as Armand is okay, but his lack of experience shows. Lionel Barrymore plays Armand’s father. I thought his performance was too modern. As in “Grand Hotel”, the man’s distinctive speaking style turned me off. Henry Daniell is the only person who gives a performance that I like as much as as what Garbo does. Like Basil Rathbone in “Anna Karenina”, I think he fits into the movie’s period better than most of its cast. He’s a terrific villain.
“Camille” is a very melodramatic movie. I could understand some people being turned off by its plot machinations and melancholy tone. Since I have so much instinctive sympathy for Greta Garbo and stories of tragic/forbidden romance, “Camille” really got to me. Alfred Hitchcock has said his goal in making movies is to ‘play the audience like a piano’, causing them to feel tense and anxious as they run through different emotions. With “Camille”, Greta Garbo and director George Cukor played me like a piano. The movie broke my heart, wringing copious tears from my eyes. That’s why I can’t watch “Camille” often, even though I admire it very much.
#26: “Conquest” (1937)
“Conquest” is about how French general Napoleon had a love affair with Polish Noblewoman Marie Waleska. A man with his political goals would obviously have difficulty maintaining a romantic relationship. I like the idea of a story about him being torn between love and political ambitions. I wasn’t satisfied with how the movie explored either side of Napoleon’s life. This movie’s performances were more memorable to me than its plot.
I like how Garbo played a character who is attracted to a man before he’s attracted to her for once (he catches up pretty quickly). Upon meeting Napoleon, she’s like a swooning fan girl seeing a celebrity heartthrob. Charles Boyer got an Oscar nomination for his performance. I believe he deserved it. His appearance, voice, and attitude make him exactly how I’d expect the short, yet imposing conqueror to look and sound in real life.
I couldn’t take Boyer seriously when I first saw him in movies. That’s because I knew his voice was inspiration for the cartoon character ‘Pepe LePew’. I took Boyer seriously in “Conquest” (even with that voice) because he played his role well. He is convincingly determined, calculating, authoritative, and sincere, whether he’s courting Waleska or dealing with his military responsibilities. I think this movie is worth watching for the lead performances. It’s just a shame that they’re in service of a rambling story.
#27: “Ninotchka” (1939)
Like many people before they trust someone, Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka character is cold and defensive on the surface. All people are mysteries until we get to know them. Ninotchka is the kind of person that I hope to find behind the mystery. Beneath a dull, repressed exterior, she is smart, tough, strong, independent, and faithful to noble morals. Deep down inside, Ninotchka has the capacity to be affectionate, accepting, and fun. She just needs someone who is charming and clever enough to draw out her softer side. As Count Leon D’Algout, Melvyn Douglas has what it takes.
On top of everything else that makes her special, Ninotchka is an original character that seems like both a departure from Garbo’s other roles, and a natural evolution from them. Long-time Garbo fans can get a kick out of seeing her do something different. People who have never seen Garbo can just enjoy the freshness of her character and performance. I see its influence on many performances. Arnold Schwarzenegger modelled his dour Russian character in “Red Heat” after Ninotchka and I recently realized there’s a bit of her in Leonard Nimoy’s ‘Mr. Spock’ from Star Trek.
“Ninotchka” was advertised with the tagline ‘Garbo Laughs!’, as if she hadn’t laughed in past movies. It’s not that she’d never laughed before. Her laughter had just never meant so much in other movies. Garbo’s performance is remarkably controlled and modulated. She enters the movie with a permanent frown on her face and speaks in a consistently monotone voice. Her emotionless precision and stubborn resolve look impossible to break.
That’s why it’s a monumental event (as advertised) when Garbo smiles and laughs. The plot’s central conflict is a dispute over jewelry between Leon’s side (a vain aristocrat named Grand Duchess Swana) and Ninotchka’s side (three bumbling goofballs named Iranoff, Bulanjoff, and Kopalski). I was never very emotionally invested in the fate of those jewels.
I was in suspense during the movie just from wondering when Ninotchka would smile and what it would be like to see her smile. Early in the picture, I thought to myself, “It’s gonna be amazing when she finally smiles.” It was. Mere minutes after Greta Garbo first appeared in “Ninotchka”, I was in love with an actress and performance like never before. I still am.
#28: “Two-Faced Woman” (1941)
“Two-Faced Woman” has a talented director who guided Greta Garbo through her most triumphant drama (“Camille”). At the same time, I believe it doesn’t have a story worth telling or a good character for her to play, even though she plays two! Garbo stars as a woman who wants to see if her husband would cheat on her, and the fake twin sister who could seduce him into cheating.
I don’t like this plot. It’s not funny to me. There are moments I enjoyed for the novelty of Garbo doing things she never did in other movies. I liked watching her do a fast dance, go skiing, swim, and make a big deal out of nail polish. That stuff is cute. Constance Bennett is a consistent positive. She is gifted at comedy. I think she fits into the story much more than Greta Garbo.
I hate how foolish Garbo looks and acts in this movie. Her character is loud, impulsive, and reckless. She looks awkward overacting to be hyper and manic like a screwball comedy heroine. This does not suit her aura and energy on screen. Garbo tries to be something she is not, never could be, and shouldn’t try to be. Her performance makes me cringe. She often doesn’t look very attractive either. Other movies wisely draw more attention to her face. This one has too many unflattering body shots. Garbo also has an ugly curly hair-do.
If Garbo had made more movies after “Two-Faced Woman”, I might not mind it so much. I hate this movie largely because I know it significantly influenced her early retirement. The movie’s failure (along with World War II) scared her from even attempting to make movies for awhile. She has referred to “Two-Faced Woman” as “My grave”. I agree with her. How ironic that such a silly movie could be so painful for me to watch. This quote unquote comedy is a living document of career suicide. There’s nothing funny about that.
Garbo Quits! – The Retirement Years (1941-1990)
“La Duchesse de Langeais” (1949)
In 1949, Garbo went to Italy and did a screen test. She had agreed to make her comeback in a film based on the novel “La Duchesse de Langeais”. Max Ophüls planned to direct, with James Mason as her co-star. The movie was never made after producers could not get financing together. Garbo’s screen test has been preserved and was included in the 2005 documentary “Garbo”. The screen test makes me happy and sad. I’m happy to see how beautifully Garbo aged. I’m sad that this didn’t lead to a movie, when she looked SO ready for a comeback. In her mid 40s, Garbo obviously still had the magic quality that made her such a luminous screen presence.
“Adam & Yves” (1974)
For 1974’s “Adam & Yves”, Greta Garbo was recorded walking down the street without her permission or knowledge. I don’t approve of the filmmakers doing this, but I can appreciate how naturally they fit Garbo footage into their film’s narrative. The movie is about two men whose names are in its title. At one point, Yves wants to play a game in which he makes a movie reference and Adam guesses it. Yves does something that Garbo did in “Queen Christina”. Adam responds by saying, “Oh, man. Now I understand. She was the greatest…” Then he starts narrating, “And I saw her once in New York…” over grainy footage shot from a rooftop.
Elderly Greta Garbo can be seen power walking through the streets of New York. The force and speed of her steps at 69 years old is impressive. She chats and shakes hands with someone, then keeps aggressively marching along. Adam calls her “A Living Legend”. Please note that “Adam & Yves” is pornography. I don’t recommend watching the whole thing to see approximately one minute of Greta Garbo walking. It’s not worth the irritation of enduring everything that happens before and after this minute!
I am not an expert on these types of movies. Whether you like them or not, I don’t think “Adam & Yves” is a shining example of its genre. It’s poorly lit and incoherent, and I don’t like watching explicit sex. The only positive I could find was laughably pretentious dialogue comparing the male sex organ to architecture of a Byzantine Temple. I didn’t watch much before I couldn’t take anymore and skipped to Garbo’s scene. Strange context for Greta Garbo’s last (unofficial) appearance on film.