Friday, September 3, 2010

Monthly Muse: Greta Garbo

It's a few days late as I have my sister visiting so we have been doing all the sights and sounds of Sydney but here is this months muse. Its Greta Garbo.

Greta Garbo was born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on 18th September 1905 in Stockholm, Sweden. She was the youngest of three children born to Karl Alfred Gustafsson and Anna Lovisa (née Karlsson. Greta's parents had migrated from the farming country of southern Sweden drawn by the hope of work and housing in the capital. The family lived in a small tenement.

Greta was a shy, daydreaming child, who hated school, did not play much but was drawn to the theatre at an early age. Greta graduated from school age 13 and did not pursue further education. Despite the fact that the family lived in poverty Greta still dreamed of stardom. When Greta was 14 her father died. Her first job was as a soap-lather girl in a barbershop. One day a young man by the name of Kristian Bergström, son of the founder of PUB department store, Paul U. Bergström, entered the barbershop for a shave. He offered Greta a job as a clerk at PUB. She accepted and started to work for PUB in July 1920, where she also modeled for newspaper advertisements. She appeared in two short film advertisements, the first for PUB, and they were eventually seen by comedy director Erik Arthur Petschler. He gave her a part in his upcoming film Peter the Tramp.

For two years Greta studied at the The Royal Dramatic Theatre's Acting School in Stockholm. There she met director Mauritz Stiller who gave her the stage name Greta Garbo and cast her in a major role in the silent film The Saga of Gosta Berling. She followed this up with a part in the 1925 German film Die freudlose Gasse.

Greta and Stiller were bought to MGM by Louis B. Mayer when The Saga of Gosta Berling caught his attention. Greta moved to Hollywood and was cast in The Torrent in 1925 for which she received good reviews. Greta then got cast in a similar vamp role in another Ibáñez adaption, The Temptress, this time getting top billing opposite Antonio Moreno. It was during the filming of the Temptress the Greta received news that her sister Alva had died at the young age of 23. However MGM would not permit Greta to go back to Stockholm for the funeral.

Greta's next and most well received silent movies were Flesh and the Devil (1926), Love (1927) and The Mysterious Lady (1928). Having achieved enormous success as a silent movie star, Garbo feared that her Swedish accent might impair her work in sound, and delayed the shift for as long as possible.

Garbo is among the actors and actresses who successfully made the transition to talkies; publicized with the slogan "Garbo Talks!" her voice was first heard on screen in Anna Christie (1930), Garbo next appeared as the World War I spy Mata Hari (1931). She was subsequently part of an all-star cast in Grand Hotel (1932) in which she played a Russian ballerina.

After a contract dispute with MGM, she eventually signed a new contract with the studio in July 1932, which gave her more control over her parts and her private life. She exercised her new control by visiting Sweden the same month and by having her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), Laurence Olivier, replaced with Gilbert. In 1935, David O. Selznick wanted to cast her as the dying heiress in Dark Victory, but she insisted on doing Tolstoy's Anna Karenina instead. Although Anna Karenina was arguably one of her most famous roles, Garbo regarded her role as the doomed courtesan in George Cukor's Camille (1936), opposite Robert Taylor, as her finest performance.

She then starred opposite Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka (1939), directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Ninotchka attempted to lighten Garbo's somber and melancholy image. The comedy, Garbo's first, was marketed with the tagline, "Garbo laughs!", playing off the tagline for Anna Christie, "Garbo talks!" The follow-up film, George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman (1941), attempted to capitalize on Garbo's restyled war-time image by casting Garbo in a romantic comedy, where she played a double role that featured her dancing, and tried to portray her as an ordinary girl. The film, Garbo's last, was a critical, although not a commercial, failure, and Garbo referenced to the ill-fated Two-Faced Woman as "my grave".

Although it is often reported that it was this films failure that forced Garbo to retire but by her own admission, Garbo felt that after World War II the world changed, perhaps forever. She was offered many roles over the years, and showed serious interest in about half a dozen but either she eventually turned them down or the projects failed.

Grabo made a comeback when in 1948 she signed a contract for $200,000 with producer Walter Wanger, who had produced Queen Christina in 1933, to shoot a picture based on Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais. Garbo made several screen tests, learned the script and in the summer of 1949 arrived in Rome, where the picture was to be filmed, but the plans for this film collapsed when financing failed to materialize, and in the end the project was abandoned.

Italian motion picture director Luchino Visconti had actively been working on a film adaptation of Proust's colossal work Remembrance of Things Past since 1969 with a breathtaking prospective cast including Silvana Mangano, Alain Delon, Helmut Berger, Charlotte Rampling, Laurence Olivier and Garbo in the small part of Maria Sophia, Queen of Naples. Reportedly Garbo went to Rome and did a color screen test for the role in 1971 and Visconti esclaimed:

I am very pleased at the idea that this woman, with her severe and authoritarian presence, should figure in the decadent and rarefied climate of the world described by Proust.

Visconti's dream of making his Proust film came closest to realization in 1971, but with its length of almost four hours, the budget turned out to be astronomical, and the project never came to fruition.

In 1951 Greta became a citizen of the USA. She lead a quiet and secluded life. She was known for taking long walks through the city's streets dressed casually and wearing large sunglasses, always avoiding prying eyes, the paparazzi, and media attention. Garbo did, however, receive one last flurry of publicity when topless photos, taken with a long-range lens during her vacation in Antigua with her niece, Gray Reisfield, were published in People in 1976.

Garbo lived the last years of her life in relative seclusion. She died in New York Hospital on 15 April 1990, aged 84, as a result of pneumonia and renal failure.

Garbo received praise from many industry colleagues:

Her instinct, her mastery over the machine, was pure witchcraft. I cannot analyse this woman's acting. I only know that no one else so effectively worked in front of a camera. —Bette Davis

She had a talent that few actresses or actors possess. In close-ups she gave the impression, the illusion of great movement. She would move her head just a little bit and the whole screen would come alive — like a strong breeze that made itself felt. —George Cukor

Robert E. Sherwood observed in 1929:

She is one of the most amazing, puzzling, most provocative characters of this extraordinary age. She definitely doesn't belong in the 20th century. She doesn't even belong in this world

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