Marking a Garbo Centennial One hundred years ago, the actress Greta Garbo was born. She became Hollywood's biggest star in the 1920s and '30s. Library of Congress film historian Mike Mashon recounts her memorable roles.

Marking a Garbo Centennial

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Greta Garbo was many things in her lifetime--Hollywood's highest paid starlet in the silent films of the '20s, the personification of a strong and intelligent femininity, and finally the Scandinavian sphinx. Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born in Stockholm 100 years ago, a centenary we wouldn't want to miss. After starring in a number of silent films, she was one of the few actors able to make the transition to talkies, despite or perhaps because of her deep voice and her heavy Swedish accent. This is the first line movie audiences heard her utter from the 1930 film "Anna Christie."

(Soundbite of "Anna Christie")

Ms. GRETA GARBO: (As Ninotchka) Give me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don't be stingy, baby.

WERTHEIMER: `Don't be stingy, baby.' In that film, she played a streetwalker searching for her father, a barge captain. Ms. Garbo became the leading lady of the early sound era and that continued until her abrupt retirement in 1941 at the age of 36. She spent the last five decades of her life in determined seclusion. Mike Mashon is a film historian, head of the moving image section of the Library of Congress. He joins us here in the studio.


Mr. MIKE MASHON (Film Historian, Library of Congress): Lovely to be here, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now watching a Greta Garbo performance today through 21st-century eyes, what strikes you? Do certain things about her still stand out, do you think?

Mr. MASHON: The only way that I can answer that is with a quote from Kenneth Tynan, who wrote, "What when drunk one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober." Can't say it any better than that. She had such a lovely face to begin with, but the range of emotions that she's able to portray just with raising an eyebrow or--I'm not even entirely sure how she does it, but it's quite remarkable.

WERTHEIMER: She was the sort of--not the girl-next-door kind of actress, and so many people in that period were just incredibly perky.

Mr. MASHON: It would've been nice if she'd have been the girl next door, but she was rather unattainable. And certainly MGM, the studio with which she spent her entire American career, marketed her that way. They did not want audiences to think of her as a girl next door. They wanted to think of her as somebody who was sort of beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have a favorite Garbo film?

Mr. MASHON: Yeah, my favorite Garbo film is "Flesh and the Devil," a silent film from 1927.

WERTHEIMER: John Gilbert was in that, right?

Mr. MASHON: You're absolutely right. And John Gilbert is known as one of Garbo's great loves. And they fell in love during the making of this film. And it's quite obvious. It's...

WERTHEIMER: A thumbnail sketch of the plot would be...

Mr. MASHON: Two friends who are both in love with her. One goes away in the Army and tells his best friend, `Please look after my girlfriend while you're gone.' The friend marries the girlfriend, Garbo. When the guy comes back, they're going to have a duel to the death. And before she is able to stop them from having their duel out on an island, she is running across the frozen lake and falls through the ice and drowns as the two men are making up and declaring their love for each other. So it's a happy ending for them, maybe. Anyhow, it's an absolutely gorgeous film. And one thing we sometimes tend to forget, films really regressed in the way that they looked in the early sound era. These late silent films with Garbo--"Flesh and the Devil," "The Kiss," "Wild Orchids"--are absolutely stunningly gorgeous just in the way that they're done.

WERTHEIMER: And relatively erotic...

Mr. MASHON: Oh, my...

WERTHEIMER: ...compared to the films of the '40s.

Mr. MASHON: Absolutely.


Mr. MASHON: Well, "Flesh and the Devil" is just carnal.

WERTHEIMER: We do have a clip from a comedy, "Ninotchka." This was in 1939. Was this first time she did comedy?

Mr. MASHON: It was.

WERTHEIMER: The idea is that a repressed Bolshevik, Garbo, goes to Paris to sort of corral these wandering comrades of hers who have fallen prey to the attractions of the city, but then she falls in love with Melvyn Douglas.

Mr. MASHON: Who wouldn't?

(Soundbite of "Nanachka")

Ms. GARBO: (As Ninotchka) Must you flirt?

Mr. MELVYN DOUGLAS: (As Count Leon d'Algout) Well, I don't have to, but I find it natural.

Ms. GARBO: (As Ninotchka) Suppress it.

Mr. DOUGLAS: (As Count Leon d'Algout) I'll try.

Ms. GARBO: (As Ninotchka) I have heard of the arrogant male in capitalistic society. It is having a superior earning power that makes you that way.

Mr. DOUGLAS: (As Count Leon d'Algout) A Russian! I love Russians! Comrade, I've been fascinated by your five-year plan for the last 15 years.

Ms. GARBO: (As Ninotchka) Your type will soon be extinct.

WERTHEIMER: Garbo was--she was very funny in this. At one point, she tells him that `Your appearance is not entirely revolting.'

Mr. MASHON: It is an absolutely wonderful, delightful film from top to bottom. Her performance is just so note-perfect.

WERTHEIMER: Now she retired in 1941 and she was only 36 years old. Did the studios think she was too old at that point or was this her decision?

Mr. MASHON: Well, her star had begun to wane throughout the late 1930s. And also you have to consider this was right at the time America was entering World War II. She was always very reliable box office for Hollywood overseas, but the overseas market was completely dried up during World War II and there just was nothing after World War II really for her to do. I mean, when she said, `I want to be alone' in "Grand Hotel," I don't think that she was lying. She didn't want to be isolated, but, from everything I understand, was perfectly content to live those last 50 years in New York.

WERTHEIMER: You know, in that period of time when she was in retirement, I saw her on the street.

Mr. MASHON: Well, I mean, she wasn't a hermit. She had friends who she enjoyed spending time with; she walked for hours every day. Sometimes it's hard for us to believe that somebody who experienced the sort of fame and notoriety that she did could just pick up and leave, but she did.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much.

Mr. MASHON: It was my pleasure, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Mike Mashon is a film historian at the Library of Congress, where he is in charge of the section on moving images.

(Soundbite of "Grand Hotel")

Ms. GARBO: I want to be alone.

Unidentified Actor: Where have you been? I suppose I can cancel the Vienna contract?

Ms. GARBO: I just want to be alone.

Unidentified Actor: You're going to be very much alone, my dear madam. This is the end.

WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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