Garbo’s Destiny (1934) 🇺🇸

Greta Garbo |

December 08, 2021

What is to be the future of the glamorous Greta? Will she become immortalized as another Bernhardt, or another Duse? Here are some answers from stars who have worked in pictures with her. Do you agree?

by Potter Brayton

Whether you call her “Greeta,” or “Grayta,” or “Gretta,” the glamorous Swedish star will always remain just plain “Garbo” to all the world.

You’ve noticed writers are coming more and more to refer to Greta Garbo by her last name alone. It’s a fact that when Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse first began to taste immortal fame, one of the earliest indications of their outstanding importance in the theatrical world was the insistence of writers and the theater-going public on dropping the “Sarah” and “Eleonora.”

I rattled off “Sarah” and “Eleanora” just like that. But I may as well confess I had to look up Duse’s first name in the dictionary just now. Some day, if Greta Garbo becomes immortal too, we’ll be looking up her first name in the dictionary.

If Greta Garbo becomes immortal — but that is a matter of destiny! And who are in a better position to predict that destiny than those men who have starred with Garbo in pictures, who have known her on and off the set, studied her, laughed with her, and worked with her!

Ramon Novarro, for instance, whose emotional Latin outlook usually disguises his opinions, is very clear and altogether original in his impression of Garbo’s power. “Working with Greta Garbo in Mata Hari was one of the most memorable and outstanding experiences in my life. I shall never forget it,” Ramon began with his customary exuberance.

We were sitting at lunch in the M-G-M refectory. He suddenly smiled and pushed back his plate. “But I didn’t mean to say that — that tells you nothing!” he laughed. “What I meant to say was that I had expected to find an artist — not just another actress — who would demand of me all the ability and experience which I possessed.

“I found that, and also I found one of the most sympathetic, human women whom I have ever met, a woman who, in spite of all her success and fame, is astonishingly self-conscious and modest. So much for her definable characteristics.

“As for her hold on the public, I say: Yes, Garbo is inspired. In the first place, she has the rare quality of agelessness. Off the screen she is a surprisingly young woman. On the screen she might be any age. Bernhardt had that quality. So did Duse. So have all great artists.

“And Garbo defies imitation. You can see that! Other women can copy her appearance, her clothes, her mannerisms, even the husky timbre of her voice. But they cannot copy the inner self which is the real Garbo and which the camera sees and photographs. There has never been a second Bernhardt or Duse. There will never be a second Garbo. They are immortals.”

John Miljan, well-known creen heavy who appeared with Garbo in Inspiration, Susan Lennox, and additional pictures, on the other hand is of the opinion that the Swedish actress is not great.

“Garbo is a product,” says Miljan, “of Mauritz Stiller’s advice, and of sure-fire publicity. When Stiller brought his protégée to America, he drilled into her one fact:

“‘In America,’ he told her, ‘you are an actress, a master of your art. Let nothing that would please or hurt you as an individual affect you; think only in terms of your career as an actress.’

“When Garbo found herself alone and baffled by American ways, she remembered Stiller’s advice. If people misunderstood her and frightened her, she would stay away from people; she would concentrate on acting in pictures. M-G-M found that the less people could find out about Garbo, the more they wanted to know, and the studio proceeded to spin a web of mystery around her.

“Duse and Bernhardt were constantly in personal contact with the public; and they were as dazzling off-stage as they were behind the footlights. They were truly great. On the other hand, Garbo would probably faint if she had to attend a reception for the newspaper and magazine writers.

“By saying she is not great, I do not mean that she isn’t a fine actress and a charming woman. She is just a wholesome, natural person. For instance, it’s difficult to think of the ‘mysterious’ Garbo as the giggly sort, isn’t it? But it’s a fact. On the “Inspiration” set, Bob Montgomery’s customary banter and ribbing among his fellow actors had Garbo in continual spasms of giggling — as much at home and having as good a time as any of the others on the set.

“Garbo herself doesn’t think she’s great; that’s why her fellow actors do not feel that she’s being high-hat when the prop boy places a black screen back of her during the shooting- of a scene. They understand that she is shy, and they realize that she can do her best work if a gang of extras, technicians, and actors aren’t watching her. And so they respect her and leave her alone as much as possible.

“She is almost as diffident today as she was five years ago. A suave, well-poised actor like Lewis Stone scares her to death. As far as I can see, Greta Garbo differs from any shy girl with an ability to act, only in that she has the gift of shaking off this shyness while being photographed.”

John Gilbert says, “I played opposite Garbo at practically the beginning of her career... ‘A Woman of Affairs,’ you remember. And now I have just finished playing opposite her in ‘Queen Christina’ her most recent picture. In the latter picture, I was aware, of course, that her screen technique had improved immensely. That is natural; she has become confident of her English and of her growing knowledge of American customs.

“What is generally called genius is not as mysterious as it is claimed to be. Every great person is great because he or she appeals to a large number of people through a remarkable ability to understand humanity. Greta is great, because shy as she is, she understands and deeply sympathizes with a wide range of human problems. Her ability to give understanding interpretation to her roles is not due to a self-imposed divine inspiration, but to the ease with which she can project herself in the part she is portraying. Her imagination is so limitless that she can — on the screen — be a disillusioned circus performer or a queen trapped by her own regal power and laugh or weep in either role with equal sincerity.

“When Garbo says to a camera all this great joy I feel now, Antonio’ she means it from the bottom of her heart. As she develops as a woman, so Garbo’s technique in interpreting the vast scope of her imagination will grow. To that extent, a thing which only the future can divulge, Greta Garbo will become a screen immortal.”

Clark Gable pulled in his belt a notch and leaned back reflectively against the sound stage. “East is East, and West is West, and ne’er the twain shall meet,” he said. “ — And neither shall the stage and screen. Miss Garbo is a screen actress; I can only talk about her in that light.

“When you think of the screen’s most enduring personalities, the people who have survived the years and all the changes, you think only of a small handful of men and women. And I sincerely believe that Greta Garbo will always be numbered among them. Each one of these so-called immortals has offered to the world something new and different, something which cannot be duplicated. That I believe, is the fundamental truth upon which her amazing success has been built.”

At this point Clark lighted a cigarette and puffed at it dreamily in silence. I began to think that in humpty-dumpty fashion he had finished with the interview, but suddenly he continued, frowning, as though arguing something out with himself, “She possesses something more than beauty and acting ability... I can’t name or define it... The word personality does not cover it — Suddenly returning to earth and smiling his good-natured smile — But everyone feels it, the people with whom she works as well as the audiences who see her on the screen. I don’t think that Miss Garbo, herself, is aware of it. As a co-worker she is always cooperative and cordial. She has a thoroughly human sense of humor and understanding. She has the strength of will to live her own life her own way. But, in spite of this humanness and this cordiality, she has Something — which must be spelled with a capital ‘S’.”

“It’s that capital ‘S’ that makes you repeatedly refer to her as ‘Miss Garbo,” I interrupted.

Clark grinned and nodded his head. “She’s an individual,” he concluded. No one else is, or can be, like her. And all immortals are individuals.”

Charles Bickford, Hollywood’s red-headed, two-fisted, he-man, who in Anna Christie played opposite Garbo at the most crucial moment of her career — her talkie debut — believes that the famed Swedish star has genius.

“Her power comes from within,” Bickford says. “She doesn’t know what her power is any more than she knows what makes her eyelashes so long — they’re the real thing, by the way. She only knows what I do, that when she goes before the cameras she is able to project herself into her role — forget shyness — live the role. That’s genius.

“Genius isn’t discovered. Genius just is. Stiller didn’t think he was bringing a genius to America. He had a good job in America; he was in love with Garbo; so he did what any man in love would have done. He said, ‘I have an actress friend; she’s good. If you want me, you’ll have to take her too.’ And so M-G-M took Garbo, and no one was more surprised, when the box office recorded her a smash hit, than Stiller, Garbo, and M-G-M!

“As for her immortality, I don’t believe that Garbo will ever rest in a niche beside Bernhardt and Duse unless she follows her screen career with a stage career. An in-the-flesh role, uninterrupted by repeated mechanical changes of scene, or breaks in continuity, such as is only possible behind the footlights, is the only medium by which an immortal characterization can be performed. If in the future, Garbo overcomes her dread of public contact — which I doubt greatly she will do — and gets a few good stage roles, I would be the first to predict her immortal triumph.

“Garbo’s present hold on her public isn’t all due to the ‘mystery woman’ publicity which has been built up around her. Other screen actresses have tried to be retiring and silent, but in no case have they succeeded in mystifying the public, for the obvious reason that they weren’t altogether sincere. Garbo is shy from the very bottom of her heart. She dreads and dislikes to be noticed or touched by strangers. She is simple and honest and direct with her friends and associates on the set. And through the medium of the silver screen she brings a lot of pleasure and fine interpretation to the movie-going public. With these things in her favor, I can’t understand an attitude that begrudges her the right to be shy and retiring off-screen, if it so happens that it isn’t in her nature to be otherwise.

“Garbo is an artist. She isn’t waiting to amass a great fortune and then scuttle back to Sweden with her American dollars. She loves every minute on the set. She was born with that love of acting, seldom so pronounced in women of this age — I mean acting, not just showing off — which enables her to give the inspired performance you see on the screen. What she is off-screen is of no importance — a mystery woman — a myth created by writers for the sake of sensationalism — in reality, a natural girl who wants to be let alone.”

Robert Montgomery’s ten-league legs had carried him half-way across the M-G-M lot before I caught up with him. “Aw, for the love of Mike!” he puffed. “Why don’t you ask me something easy — I don’t understand the woman — I was so nervous and excited when I was assigned that role with Greta Garbo in “Inspiration” that I was practically inarticulate. And I still don’t know what there is about her... I don’t know what to say!”

“She affects me that way too,” I encouraged. “What is it Garbo has that other actresses lack?”

“Well,” Bob resumed, “I don’t know what I expected Garbo to be, certainly not just an ordinary woman, or, comparatively new in pictures though I was, I wouldn’t have been quite so jittery. And what did I find? —” lifting his eyebrows in one of his arch smiles “— A gal who did everything in her power to make it pleasant and easy for me, and a swell actress to get along with! Needless to say, I soon got over the jitters, and in fact had a lot of fun kidding with her. Nothing gets by Garbo — she has a great sense of humor!

“About this immortality business, I believe that my first feeling, that strange mixture of awe and excitement, that belief that she is more than an ordinary woman, is the secret of Garbo’s hold on the publics of the world. She has built about herself a wall of mystery and inaccessibility, People, watching her on the screen, feel that. While other actresses are warm, flesh and blood women with human feelings and frailties, Greta Garbo seems made of different clay.

“Of course she’s shy and justifiably silent about her private affairs — but that isn’t what I mean by calling her ‘mysterious.’ I mean that certain something that makes Garbo an enigma even to herself. Bernhardt and Duse were open books, compared with Garbo! Yes indeed!... Garbo will rank with the immortals, with Bernhardt and Duse of the stage, not because she is a greater actress than many other women of motion pictures, but because she has this personality that is so outstandingly unique and undefinable.”

And thus the men in her American picture career predict the stellar destiny of the one and only Garbo. “To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die,” said some scribe. And with that the case, whether or not we ascribe greatness to Garbo’s repeated screen triumphs, it is safe to say that her destiny lies the way of the Immortals. 

Ramon Novarro (in “Mata Hari”) says: “She has the rare quality of agelessness.”

John Miljan (in “Susan Lennox”) feels she is “shy,” and Gilbert (in “Christina”) “Her imagination is limitless.”

Clark Gable (in “Susan Lennox”) believes: “She possesses something more than acting ability.

Left: Charles Bickford (in “Anna Christie”) says: “Her power comes from within.”

Below: Robert Montgomery (in “Inspiration”) says: “She is an enigma.”

On the right: Mauritz Stiller, who brought Greta to America from Sweden and who also believed in her immortality.

The New Movie Magazine, July 1934