Greta Garbo's 100th Birthday: An Appreciation

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Screen legend Greta Garbo would have been 100 on Friday. Karen Grigsby Bates offers an appreciation of the enigmatic actress, famous for not giving interviews or signing autographs.


I'm Alex Chadwick. This is DAY TO DAY.

This would have been the 100th birthday of screen legend Greta Garbo. If she were alive today, says NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates, we'd be begging her to school current celebrities on how a movie star should behave.


In an era when even B-movie actors want A-movie publicity, Greta Garbo might seem a little unfathomable. Today most actors spend time preening for the camera in their off hours, but Garbo usually ran away from it.

(Soundbite of "Grand Hotel")

Ms. GRETA GARBO: I want to be alone.

Unidentified Man #1: Where have you been? I suppose I can cancel the Indiana contract(ph).

Ms. GARBO: I just want to be alone.

BATES: How come J. Lo and Pam Anderson never say that? Whether she was the jittery prima ballerina from that clip from "Grand Hotel," the temptress Mata Hari, or Swedish heroine Queen Christina, audiences were drawn to Garbo's luminous beauty, fluid movement and sultry voice. Some people considered her sexy, but not everyone. Writer Gore Vidal.

Mr. GORE VIDAL (Writer): Women liked her. Men hated her. She wasn't their idea of a real woman, 'cause she was androgynous. And that didn't appeal, and she was too grand and too elegant for Joe Sixpack, though his wife quite liked her.

BATES: One thing Mr. Sixpack and his wife might have agreed upon was "Ninotchka," the first movie in which Garbo was allowed to laugh. Film historian Barry Paris in the Turner Classic Movie biography "Garbo."

(Soundbite of "Garbo")

Mr. BARRY PARIS (Film Historian): It took until 1939 for Garbo to link up with Ernst Lubitsch and to make what is one of the most delightful comedies of the whole period and the most perfectly cast role for Garbo.

BATES: That role featured Garbo as a Communist undercover agent, Ninotchka, sent to the decadent West to observe the capitalist system. In this scene, Ninotchka is greeted at the beginning of her assignment by fellow spies who want to know about the latest purges back in postwar Russia.

(Soundbite of "Ninotchka")

Unidentified Man #2: How are things in Moscow?

Ms. GARBO: (As Ninotchka) Very good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

BATES: That droll humor gets full reign in "Ninotchka" along with pratfalls and belly laughs. It's a side of Garbo audiences hadn't seen before then, although the actor's relatives remember it well. Here's Garbo great-nephew Derek Reisfeld from the Turner documentary.

(Soundbite of "Garbo")

Mr. DEREK REISFELD (Greta Garbo's Great-Nephew): She was one of the funniest people I ever knew, and she loved to ham it up and joke and, you know, pull people's legs. And you see that coming through in "Nanotchka." She was a great comedienne.

BATES: And she was the first of a new kind of female actress, says Reisfeld.

Mr. REISFELD: Up until Garbo, no one could be feminine and assertive at the same time. And with Garbo, it was a revolution.

BATES: Part of Garbo's allure is that she left film so young. She was only in her mid-30s when she made her last movie. And having retired, she kept to herself in Manhattan, but she wasn't, as was often rumored, a hermit. Biographer Karen Swenson.

Ms. KAREN SWENSON (Biographer): Almost any New Yorker from that era can tell you some kind of story about seeing Garbo on the streets of New York.

BATES: Like sister celebrity Jackie Kennedy would in later years, Garbo was often seen strolling the streets of the Upper East Side, but she would vanish in a moment if a fan--She called customers--approached. She didn't want to be alone. She just wanted to be left alone. Garbo's star has remained undimmed, even for people too young to remember her in her heyday, because an aura of mystery still clings to her. And at a time when mystery and celebrity don't co-exist, that's a nice thing to remember. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: Thanks to Warner Bros. home DVD for the clips Karen used in that story.

DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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