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Biography of Greta Garbo, from the silent film years, was a true myth and conquered the hearts of those who worked with her (Clark Gable, John Gilbert, Robert Montgomery).
Over the years, she won the adoration of thousands of people who fell in love with her perfect and mysterious face.
Greta Garbo was, along with Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann one of the best Swedish actresses.
In her 16 years of film work, she was the big star in about 30 films, both silent (in the 1920s) and sound (from 1935).
She was nominated for Best Actress by the American Film Academy in 1930, 1932, 1937, and 1939.
Childhood and family life of Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo was the stage name of Greta Gustafsson.
She was born on September 18, 1905, in a humble neighborhood of Stockholm.
One day in 1919, she found her father lying in the snow, carried him on her back, carried him home, and carried him up the stairs to the apartment where they lived.
The next day, her father appeared dead; The mother and her three children were left alone.
Greta Garbo’s first works
Greta was already 14 years old, and had to drop out of school to help support the family.
She found work as a model in the advertising campaigns of a Stockholm department store.
In view of the popular acceptance that her exquisite beauty had in the newspapers, the managers chose her to also work on an advertising short for the same chain.
She had the opportunity to appear in another short film, in which she received applause from the public.
Greta Garbo’s beginnings as an actress
Soon, young Greta received a scholarship to study at a theater school in Stockholm.
In 1920, she appeared in two silent short films: “Mr. and Mrs. Stockholm Go Shopping” and “The Gay Cavalier”.
The following year, she worked on two other silent shorts: “Our Daily Bread” and “The Scarlet Angel“. And in 1922, she starred in the movie “Peter the Tramp“.
In 1924, a silent film was released in Sweden based on the famous novel “The Legend of Gösta Berlings” by Selma Lagerlöf.
The success of the film was overwhelming, due in large part to the attractiveness of the protagonist: an almost unknown young woman: Greta Gustafsson.
Mauritz Stiller, reputed and controversial Swedish director was the director of this film.
He decided to improve this young woman: he changed her last name, took her to have her teeth fixed and put her on a diet that made her ready for her first major film.
This film was the culmination of the golden age of Swedish silent cinema.
The performance of this rising dramatic star did not go unnoticed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer observers.
The Metro Goldwin Meyer discovered Greta Garbo
A few months later, the beautiful new star and the famous director left for Hollywood (California) with a succulent Metro Goldwyn Mayer contract.
Her first film in Hollywood was “Torrents” (1926), based on a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez.
In 1927, “Love” was released, based on a free adaptation of Ana Karenina, by León Tolstoi.
The leading man John Gilbert, a romantic couple in those days, of Greta Garbo acted as the protagonist.
The following year, 1928, “The Light Woman” was released. In the starring roles, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert starred.
As this third film was also silent, it gave a lot of margin to the splendid interpretive qualities of the already known as “divine” Greta.
In these years of intense filming of romantic movies, Greta and Gilbert started an idyll and decided to get married.
But Garbo did not show up for the wedding. Despite this love affair, the two continued to work together.
Since establishing in the United States, Greta Garbo has starred in 12 silent films.
Greta Garbo went from silent to sound cinema
On February 21, 1930, her first sound film was released: “Anna Christie” (based on the play by Eugene O’Neill).
The film was very popular in its time and was nominated for three Oscars.
For Greta Garbo, it was the first of her four Oscar nominations for best actress.
Until then, her beautiful face was known, those sad eyes with a romantic look, the lips that barely outlined a smile. But, her voice was missing.
Greta Garbo did not disappoint her fans, on the contrary, despite the Swedish accent, impossible to hide.
The arrival of sound films did not harm Greta Garbo, but rather increased the public’s interest in seeing and hearing her.
As of this date, she participated in 14 other films, in which she gave the best of her extraordinary dramatic talent, always working for the Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM).
Also in 1930, she worked on “Romance” with director Clarence Brown. She earned her second Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
In 1931, she starred in four other MGM films:
- “Anna Christie”, a German version of the film from the previous year.
- “Inspiration” co-starring Robert Montgomery, based on a novel by Alphonse Daudet and directed by Clarence Brown.
- “Susan Lenox” with director Robert Leonard. It was the only film in which she worked with Clark Gable.
- “Mata Hari” with director George Fitzmaurice, based on the life of an exotic dancer – Margarita Gertrudis Zelle, Mata Hari – accused of espionage during the First World War. It was Greta Garbo’s most commercially successful film.
Greta Garbo’s great triumphs
In 1932, she was the protagonist in “Grand Hotel“. Director: Edmund Goulding. Greta was already known as “the divine Swedish”.
The script is about crisscrossing stories of women, in a big Berlin hotel.
They had an outstanding performance: Joan Crawford and the brothers John and Lionel Barrymore.
Also in 1932, “As you wish me”, an adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s play and made especially for the brilliance of Greta Garbo, supported by an excellent cast and under the direction of George Fitzmaurice.
In 1933, “Queen Cristina of Sweden“, with the Director: Rouben Mamoulian.
Greta embroidered the fascinating role of Queen Cristina, that extraordinary woman who, at the age of 18, assumed the throne of Sweden in 1644 with a naturalness that surprised everyone who aspired to take command after the death of Gustavo II, in the 30 years war.
Greta Garbo starred in “The Painted Veil” in 1934. Director: Richard Boleslawski.
In 1935, “Ana Karenina“, based on the novel of the same name by León Tolstoy. Director: Clarence Brown. Divine Greta received the New York Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.
In 1936, “Margarita Gautier” (1936). Director: George Cukor. Based on the novel “The lady of the camellias“, by Alejandro Dumas.
John Gilbert and Lionel Barrymore were in the cast. Greta was awarded the Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
In 1937, “Maria Walewska“. Director: Clarence Brown. Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer starred in this film based on the story of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Polish mistress.
In 1939, “Ninotchka“. Director: Ernst Lubitsch, Screenwriter: Billy Wilder. Greta earned her fourth Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
Greta Garbo was known for being an actress who never laughed. In this comedy film, set in Paris, she charmed everyone when, in a scene from this memorable film, she suddenly laughed out loud.
The newspapers appeared with the headline “Garbo laughs“.
On November 20, 1941, “The Woman with Two Faces” was released.
Director George Cukor reunited Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in this romantic comedy. It was Greta Garbo’s last performance.
Greta Garbo was a contemporary of British actress Vivien Leigh.
She retired from the screens at the age of 36, when she was at the height of her popularity and was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.
Many of her followers found comfort, a few years later, upon discovering the beautiful face of Audrey Hepburn.
Greta Garbo’s life after 1950
She moved to New York; and in 1951 she became a U.S. citizen.
She was nominated for Best Actress by the American Film Academy in 1930, 1932, 1937, and 1939, but she never received an Oscar.
In 1954, she was awarded an “honorary” Oscar that she refused to collect, because “she did not want to see anyone’s face“. The trophy was sent to her home.
In the following 30 years of her life, she maintained contact with great personalities from the jet set, such as Aristotle Onassis.
The public’s interest in her never waned. But she did not fuel any type of advertising.
The rumors of her return to the cinema were never lacking.
On one occasion, she commented: “My life has been a journey of hiding places, back doors, secret elevators, and all possible ways to go unnoticed so as not to be disturbed by anyone“.
Thanks to wise real estate investments in the luxurious area of Rodeo Drive (Beverly Hills, Los Angeles), she always had comfortable financial means.
But, she lived simply, dressed very discreetly and had gray hair, undyed, to go unnoticed.
She spent the rest of her life in her New York apartment near Central Park, surrounded by works of art; she collected paintings by Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, and Kandinsky, among other teachers.
Her health began to decline in the mid-1980s.
On April 15, 1990, she died of kidney syndrome and pneumonia in New York City. She was 84 years old.
In June 1999, her ashes were deposited at the Skogskyrkogarden Cemetery in Stockholm.
Click here if you want to see this biography in Spanish translation.