Born September 18, 1905 in Stockholm, Sweden to a mother who later worked in a jam factory and a father who was a laborer, Greta Gustafffson (later Garbo) was the middle of three children in an impoverished family that lived in a slum. Her father became ill during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1919, began missing work and lost his job. Young Garbo, who left school at 13 to work, would take him to his doctor’s appointments. He died in 1920 when she was 14.
Garbo had several jobs leading to becoming a fashion model for the department store in which she worked. That experience led to her being cast in a commercial for women’s clothes. In 1922, she was given a part in the short comedy, Peter the Tramp which began her acting career.
Having attended the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s Acting School from 1922-1924, Garbo was given a small part in 1924’s The Saga of Gosta Berling starring Lars Hanson. From that she was given the second lead in G.W. Pabst’s 1925 film, The Joyless Street that led to her discovery by Louis B. Mayer. Brought to the U.S., she waited six months in New York and when she didn’t hear from MGM, paid her own way to Hollywood where she continued to be ignored. On the verge of returning to Sweden, a friend helped get her a screen test with Irving Thalberg and the rest, as they say, was history.
Starring in three films in 1926, the third, Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil opposite both John Gilbert and Lars Hanson cemented her stardom. Edmund Goulding’s 1927 version of Anna Karenina opposite Gilbert solidified it. More great successes followed including Brown’s 1928 film, A Woman of Affairs again opposite Gilbert; Sidney Franklin’s 1929 film, Wild Orchids opposite Nils Asther and Jacques Feyder’s 1929 film, The Kiss opposite Lew Ayres, which would be her last silent film.
Garbo was presented with great fanfare by MGM surrounding Brown’s film version of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, her first talkie which was advertised with the slogan, “Garbo talks!” That and Brown’s follow-up film, Romance, earned her dual 1930 Oscar nominations. Success followed success with such films as 1931’s Mata Hari opposite Ramon Novarro; 1932’s Grand Hotel in which she led an all-star cast that included John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford; 1933’s Queen Christina opposite Gilbert for the last time; 1934’s The Painted Veil opposite Herbert Marshall and George Brent and the 1935 remake of Anna Karenina opposite Fredric March for which she received the first Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics, but no Oscar nomination despite a field that included six nominees for the first and only time.
A second New York Film Critics award for 1937’s Camille finally led to another Oscar nomination. Although she was favored to win, she lost to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth. Two years later, she was again nominated for her first comedy, Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. A second comedy, 1941’s Two-Faced Woman, directed by George Cukor, was a critical and box-office disaster and Garbo retired from acting at 35. Although numerous offers were made to bring her back over the years, she turned them all down.
Garbo finally received an Oscar, an honorary one, for her legendary performances, at the 1954 ceremony. She was not present. Actress Nancy Kelly accepted the award in her behalf.
Despite some well publicized romances, Garbo never married and lived in relative seclusion in New York for many years before dying at the age of 84 on April 15, 1990.
ANNA CHRISTIE (1930), directed by Clarence Brown
Clarence Brown’s film of Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 Pulitzer Prize-winning play was the film that finally earned Garbo an Oscar nomination in her first talkie. Advertised with great fanfare – “Garbo talks!” – Garbo plays the former prostitute and estranged daughter of alcoholic barge captain George F. Marion (recreating his stage role) who makes room for her on his barge by kicking out his old hag drinking buddy, played with immense gusto by Marie Dressler. Charles Bickford is the sailor who comes between father and daughter. Immensely popular, the film insured that Garbo’s career would not end with silent films.
QUEEN CHRISTINA (1963), directed by Rouben Mamoulian
Garbo originally requested Laurence Olivier to be her leading man, but screen tests showed the two had no chemistry together. She then asked for and got former co-star and onetime lover, John Gilbert, whose career had faded. Playing Sweden’s bachelor queen was one of the highlights of her career, but MGM did nothing to promote her for an Oscar nomination. In fact, the film released in New York at the end of 1933 was not released in Los Angeles until early 1934 and was pretty much forgotten by the end of 1934, allowing the studio to promote Norma Shearer in The Barretts of Wimpole Street instead.
ANNA KARENINA (1935), directed by Clarence Brown
Garbo won the first Best Actress award of the New York Film Critics for her second portrayal of Tolstoy’s heroine. More faithful to the novel than its 1927 predecessor renamed Love, this version was less romantic and more dramatic with the unforgettable final scene left intact, unlike in the first version which had two release versions, one happy, one sad, the happy one receiving wide distribution in the U.S. after the original sad one was first shown in New York. John Gilbert, Philippe de Lacy and Brandon Hurst in the original were succeeded here by Fredric March, Freddie Bartholomew and Basil Rathbone.
CAMILLE (1937), directed by George Cukor
MGM’s shameful neglect of promoting Garbo for an Oscar for either Queen Christina or Anna Karenina was finally righted when she was nominated for playing the doomed Parisian courtesan opposite Robert Taylor in the role that won her the second of her New York Film Critics awards. Considered the front-runner for the Oscar, she was shockingly left in the dust by Luise Rainer who won her second Oscar for playing O-Lan, the Chinese peasant wife in The Good Earth the year after she won her first for playing Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld.
NINOTCHKA (1939), directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Lubitsch’s sophisticated comedy presented another highlight for Garbo, this one advertised with the slogan “Garbo laughs!” She plays the stern Russian envoy whose reserve melts when she falls in love with playboy Melvyn Douglas on her mission to Paris to investigate three errant emissaries. The razor-sharp Oscar nominated screenplay by Walter Reisch, Charles Bracektt and Billy Wilder before he became a director, is pure genius. Remade as Cole Porter’s musical, Silk Stockings filmed in 1957 with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, the original didn’t need music. It had Garbo at her incandescent best.
GRETA GARBO AND OSCAR
- Anna Christie (1929/30) – nominated – Best Actress
- Romance (1929/30) – nominated – Best Actress
- Camille (1937) – nominated – Best Actress
- Ninotchka (1939) – nominated – Best Actress
- Honorary Award (1954) – For her unforgettable screen performances.