In July 1925, a young Swedish actress disembarked at New York harbour. She was nineteen years old and unknown, with little to mark her out from any of that day’s other arrivals. In less than two years, she would not only have become one of the most famous women in the world but would have also created a legend, one that endures still.
Greta Garbo—the name has a mystery and glamour even yet. She was always more than just a movie star, with many facets to her complex image. In the end, the world saw what it wanted to see in her, or, more precisely, what she allowed them to see. More than any other movie star, she seemed to inhabit another world—only deigning to visit this one with an ever-increasing sense of weariness before, finally, turning her back on it for good. The word enigma could have been invented for her; it was also to be the name for her place of refuge before it became, instead, a prison cell.
Her screen persona was such that men inevitably fell at her feet whilst during the course of the plot she often “fell” as a consequence. Her films explored the darker recesses of the psyche—obsession and lust, desire and beauty, despair and tragedy. Needless to say, she made great box office, and then even when she didn’t, by the end of 1930s, the studios were still keen to make her films such was her power. Others filmed tales of romance; she specialised in the forbidden, the lost love, the unrequited—whether it was the wronged Camille, the unstable Anna Karenina, or the deposed Queen Christina, with her final Mona Lisa stare into the distance. Garbo was made for these parts, or more precisely created for them. Emotionally, however, all of these roles were to be a perpetually bleak Nordic winter brought to southern California, even if, from a distance at least, the ice at their heart appeared just as beautiful in the sun.
For all her power over men, there was something tragically alone about the woman who in real life no human love could ever touch. She had lovers, she was adored by millions, emulated in looks and manner, envied and courted in equal measure, and yet her private world was sealed from all this. The roles actors inhabit are telling. Her choice was to be the tragic outsider, the loved but not the one who finds love, the seemingly tragic presence at the never-ending party. To those around her it came as no surprise when she made her famous declaration—”I want to be alone” (she actually said “I want to be left alone”)—and headed to New York. Thereafter, that city would become for her a 20th Century cloister with, inevitably, only silence to follow.
Still, even today, her legend continues to reverberate, partly due to the fact that her films, and her screen presence, still hold up well even when other “stars” of that era have long since faded. Watching those performances now, it seems incredible that she was barely in her twenties when she made them. What’s not difficult to see, however, is why she became such a star in Hollywood’s Silent Era; and, unlike so many others, continued to be one even into the early Talkies of the 1930s. Yet stranger still, and here’s the thing, she seemed to become more attractive as she grew older, and not just in an obviously physical sense but in her luminosity, her “star quality” if you prefer. It continued to burn, brighter than ever as time moved on, before, like some dying celestial star, flaring and disappearing forever.
Garbo, more than most, understood the real power of the image she had created on screen, whilst always leaving just enough “space” for the audience’s ever-active imagination to expand into a vacuum of her choosing. “Screen magic” is a term oft used, but little understood. Hers was indeed a “magic,” and one that she wove with real craft; perhaps her private pre-occupation with the Occult was not such a passing interest after all…She wanted to know the future, consulting astrologers and the like—one wonders why? Surely the present was sufficient when one is a Hollywood star with few rivals? Nonetheless, she peered into the future so much so that she missed the present, and then by default realised she had created her own future before entering it alone. Those who crave knowledge of what is to come often become prisoners of that craving, before it becomes a cave in which they dwell by the twilight of its half-truths. Locked in her Manhattan apartment, the world below moved about its daily concerns whilst up above sat a woman who dwelt in the glories of the past and contemplated the vagaries of the future but, somehow, for many decades, had missed out on the present all around her.
It is ninety years since that young, unknown actress arrived in New York; it is now twenty-five years since her death in that same city. An aspiring movie actress in her home country Sweden, she had followed her star to the where “stars” were then manufactured: Hollywood. Superficially, Garbo was no different to so many other hopefuls who landed from Europe and then proceeded to take a screen test. In her case, those moments before a camera were to prove a revelation. Through it she was offered her first Hollywood role. After watching just a few minutes of her first day’s rushes, one veteran studio head turned to those assembled and pointing at the image of the then unknown European on the screen declared that this actress would either found a new religion or became a great movie star—perhaps, for all concerned, we should be grateful it was to be the latter.
Film after film a triumph, she could do no wrong at the box office, initially anyway. She soared to the heights, rapidly leaving this realm, never to return a mere mortal. The coming of sound made little difference. “Garbo speaks!” cried the billboards, and the world listened. Her still extant Swedish accent only added to the mystery and even the allure, providing an unexpected vulnerability to her screen persona. By the time of her last film, Two Faced Woman (1941), it was an unexpected case of Garbo laughs, and sings, and dances—none of which quite fitted, and the film bombed both critically and commercially—and then—not so unexpectedly—she disappeared from view.
It was not quite definitive, however. The door of isolation was closing but not yet closed. Discovered a few years back was an interesting artefact, a film canister containing some previously forgotten footage of someone who could never be forgotten.
It was 1949; she was now forty-four, another screen test, only this time for a film never made; it was also the last occasion Garbo was captured on film. Although, she had not appeared on screen for years, she was still every inch the movie star. She sits and waits for her cue, patiently, but with the air of a professional, fully conversant with what is expected of her. Action! Effortlessly, there comes a look, a beguiling smile, the eyes are magnetic, the mouth voluptuous, the charisma button has been pressed and the screen comes alive as once more she enchants all before her, and yet the camera is barely running…
These are the last images we have of her on film. A recluse would be caught on camera from time to time as she wandered the streets of New York City, but this was the last time Garbo was part of the world that she had helped to create and from which she disappeared for good after this screen test. There is no sound to the images. Apt, given that it was the Silents that made her and, thereafter, that it was to silence that she returned. In the screen test, she is alone on camera. Apt too, given that that is what she craved and that too was now to be the self-imposed sentence for the rest of her days. When she died, her fortune was left to a niece.
That last screen test proves a haunting testament to the secret of the movie star and the medium, the actress and the camera, the magic and the spell cast. In the end this dark alchemy was, paradoxically, to hold that actress in its thrall as much as she had held her audience. The only difference being that, eventually, the movie theatres would empty whereas for Garbo there was to be no such release from the camera’s spell. The legend continued to grow and in its shadow the woman grew old alone.
Otherworldly on screen, in real life she lived in a way few could countenance, never mind choose, but choose it, she did. And, in so doing, that choice held her until there was no other way to live. The “cloister” she entered had walls, high walls; but it had no “door” through which she could ever return, or, for that matter, enter, as in a real cloister, by it into new life.
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