At one time, Greta Garbo was the biggest actress in the world. Everyone knew who she was and was fascinated by her. Now, people still talk about Katharine Hepburn or Carole Lombard or Bette Davis, but when was the last time you watched a Garbo movie or talked to friends about her? Probably never. Garbo has just sort of disappeared from our consciousness.
Partially, that was her own doing. Her filmography is relatively short—she only made 28 movies—and then she stopped making movies altogether in 1941 at the age of 35. She lived a quiet, anonymous life for 49 additional years, seeing friends, collecting art in her large Manhattan apartment, but never making another film.
Years after her death in 1990, it was revealed that she had been a spy for the Allies during World War II. Oh, wait. You didn’t know that? Yes, she was a spy during the war. Declassified documents from British intelligence indicate that Garbo, who was a Swedish national, was recruited in 1939 to work as a spy. Sweden was neutral during World War II but the nation became a hotbed for espionage and collaborationists due to the large Swedish steel industry. The courageous Garbo reportedly identified a number of Nazi collaborators in Sweden to British intelligence and helped obtain the release of the physicist Niels Bohr, who was being held in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Bohr went on to play a key role in the Manhattan Project, the group that developed the atomic bomb for the U.S.
If that isn’t enough, she was also a tough negotiator with the studios. Cole Porter even mentioned that in his song “You’re the Top”:
“You’re the purple light of a summer night in Spain
You’re the National Gallery
You’re Garbo’s salary
What happened was this: her MGM contract was about to expire and she let MGM know she couldn’t care less about making another movie. When they approached her with a new contract, she played hardball. Big time. She let the contract expire and then demanded a two-picture deal under a special production company she controlled at MGM, and then extended that to allow her to pick and choose the movies she would do. At the tender age of 26, she had parlayed her screen career into a net worth of more than $25 million (in today’s dollars). This was a level of freedom (and compensation) that no other star in the old studio system ever had.
In the 1920s, as Hollywood’s output rose and the popularity of movies came to dominate American culture, a number of scandals hit the industry and it was subject to a large amount of tut-tutting by moralists of all sorts. In order to shut down this criticism, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (the organization known today as the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA) hired a Presbyterian elder, Will Hays, to establish a code of guidelines to rein in racy movies. Now, don’t worry, this didn’t stop pornographers, but for respect-seeking Hollywood producers, the Hays Code became a sacrosanct set of rules they followed to avoid criticism of in their industry. It lasted, believe it or not, until 1968, a year when just about everything else fell apart as well. Films made prior to the Hays Code are called “pre-code” and that’s usually a sign that there’s going to be some fun and sexy elements.
Many of Garbo’s films are what are referred to as “pre-Code,” which means they were made before the Hays Code was implemented. That’s what gives her movies a saucier edge. And that didn’t seem to bother her in the least.
Over the course of her life, she had a number of love affairs but never married, living discreetly and on her own terms. Garbo’s film career happened long before the rise of modern American feminism, so for me, she is a sort of proto-feminist, particularly in her choice of roles. She always played complicated, interesting, and powerful women, as we’ll see below. Her body of work merits another look (or in many cases, a first look). If you’ve never seen a Garbo movie, here are the ones from the DVD.com catalog that I recommend you check out. She is utterly compelling, beautiful, and strong in every one of these—and defiantly herself.
This glorious, soapy melodrama tells the stories of a series of people staying at a grand hotel in Berlin. It is based on a German play Menschen im Hotel (which literally translated as “People in a Hotel,” which is yet another example of Germans being unintentionally funny by being bluntly accurate). Greta Garbo is paired here with John Barrymore. Here she plays a suicidal Russian ballerina who returns to her hotel room only to discover that Barrymore’s character (a down-on-his-heels aristocrat who lives on thievery and charm) is robbing her. This is a movie where you get to hear Garbo talk and talk and talk and talk. As I said, it’s a soapy melodrama and escapist moviegoing at its finest.
Garbo did not speak English when she first came to the U.S. to be an actress. This wasn’t a problem initially, because films were silent then, but she finally got an English-speaking role and the film was promoted as “Garbo speaks!” (A pretty great marketing idea, if you ask me). This film is an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s landmark play. Garbo plays the title character, a young woman with a haunted past who grew up on a farm in Minnesota, worked as a prostitute in a brothel in Chicago, and comes to New York to start a new life. Her very first line? She walks into an empty bar with a suitcase and plops down at a table. The waiter asks what she wants. “Give me a whiskey with ginger on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” Hah! This is a dark and brilliant drama, and her world-weary performance and that unforgettable husky voice makes every moment she’s on the screen utterly compelling to watch.
A case of art predicting life, Garbo plays Mata Hari, an exotic dancer who became a spy during World War I. Loosely-based on the life of the real Mata Hari, Garbo plays a woman in France who uses her role as a prominent exotic dancer to meet powerful men and use them for information to pass along to the German government. This is another Pre-Code film (portrayals of prostitutes or strippers were forbidden under the Hays Code). Unfortunately, only the censored version of the film is still available, so you’ll have to settle for that. But, man oh man, Garbo is sexy in this movie. I’d give up state secrets to spend a night with her. Garbo’s Mata Hari is a woman who will do what she needs to do regardless of conventional morality and lives her life in an uncompromising and defiant manner. It’s a role Garbo seems to have been born to play.
Here, Garbo plays Queen Christina of Sweden, who became queen at the age of 6 and grew into a powerful and influential queen. She refused, however, to marry the man chosen for her by the royal court and instead relinquished the throne to be with the man she loved, a Spanish envoy. Hmmm…another woman who refuses to live her life according to what is expected or seemingly required of her by her society. This is why I call her a proto-feminist. A tragic love story about a powerful and fascinating woman. Rent it.
This is one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time. This one was marketed as “Garbo laughs!” Here she plays a Russian envoy sent by the Soviet Union to Paris in order to retrieve some jewels and the thieves who stole them. Hijinks ensue. She plays it completely deadpan—a perfect comic choice, by the way—but breaks down once into an utterly charming gale of laughter. Billy Wilder co-wrote this absolutely hilarious comedy from Ernst Lubitsch. There’s an exchange she has with Melvyn Douglas, who is hopefully wooing her with sweet talk, and he asks her: “You like me a little?” Her perfectly delivered response is: “Your general appearance is not distasteful. The whites of your eyes are clear; your cornea is excellent.” Every time I hear her deliver that line I laugh out loud. She is perfect and the movie is perfect.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.