Women’s History Month: Greta Garbo

By Alexandra Petrache

Greta Garbo started her career in Swedish cinema (her first notable role being the 1924 film “The Saga of Gösta Berling”), which brought her to the attention of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio, leading her to her first Hollywood role in “Torrent” (1926). From here on followed a suite of successful silent films and Garbo’s conquest of international acclaim began.

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

“Flesh and the Devil” is the film that launched Garbo to international success.  In it, Garbo plays Felicitas von Rhaden, a mysterious woman who meets Leo von Harden at a train station and later, at a ball, and with whom Leo starts an affair. She omits to tell Leo about her marriage to count von Rhaden, who, upon walking in on the illicit lovers, challenges von Harden to a duel, to which the latter agrees (a brief nod must be given to the duel scene, which is highly stylised in the film). After von Harden shoots the count, he is sent to Africa for five years, during which time he asks his close childhood friend, Ulrich von Eltz, to take care of Felicitas for him. Unfortunately for their friendship, von Eltz falls for Felicitas and marries her, unaware of von Harden’s love for her.

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Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Garbo masterfully plays with emotions- a lift of a brow, a discreet smile, eyes wondering about and drawing in, her performance is magnetic and intriguing. She takes Felicitas on a journey and cloaks the society woman into the flirty veil of a courtesan. Flirty, but calculated, as she juggles her passion for Leo and her marriage with Ulrich. Transformed, by the end of the film, Felicitas doesn’t want to stand between the two friends and in her run to stop their imminent duel she meets with a tragic ending. All those emotions look effortless on Garbo, as she navigates the tribulations of her character with talent and nonchalance.

“Flesh and the Devil” is the film that launched Garbo to international success…Garbo masterfully plays with emotions- a lift of a brow, a discreet smile, eyes wondering about and drawing in, her performance is magnetic and intriguing.”

“Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby!” (Garbo’s first line in “Anna Christie” (1930)

After a series of highly successful silent films, upon MGM’s transition to sound, Garbo continued her accomplished career with “Anna Christie”, where she plays a young woman coming to live with her estranged father after an emotional past. Perhaps similar to Garbo’s attitude to marriage in real life, her character is reluctant to marry when the man she is in love with proposes- John Gilbert, Garbo’s co-star in a number of motion pictures, proposed to her several times, and she always ended up declining, fearing that marriage will result in her losing her independence.

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Greta Garbo in Anna Christie (1930)

“Garbo’s talent suited a variety of genres, from romance and drama to comedy- her performance in “Ninotchka” (1939) is notable and the “smile scene”, where she holds off her laugh until the last second, in spite of a gentleman’s arduous efforts to make her laugh, is fantastic.”

Worthy of mentioning is Garbo’s performance as Marguerite Gautier in the film “Camille” (1936), where she plays the beautiful and sensitive high-class courtesan, who suffers from tuberculosis. Garbo helped confer Marguerite an air of modernity, as it was the vision of the producers to bring Dumas’ story, which was set roughly 80 years before work on the film commenced, into the 20th century.

Garbo’s talent suited a variety of genres, from romance and drama to comedy- her performance in “Ninotchka” (1939) is notable and the “smile scene”, where she holds off her laugh until the last second, in spite of a gentleman’s arduous efforts to make her laugh, is fantastic. However, her characters seem to be united by a certain underlying melancholy that lingers on Garbo’s face and is at times apparent. Perhaps a reflection of the artist’s personal life, or the touch she brought to her roles.

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Garbo won an honorary Academy Award for her work as an actor, and other accolades, cementing her status as one of the most dazzling stars of the 20th century.

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