When Greta Garbo moved to the United States to become a contract player at MGM, the studio dubbed her “the Swedish Sphinx.” She was one of the few silent film stars to successfully transition to talkies. You saw The Artist, right? That wasn’t all make-believe.
Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born on September 18, 1905, into abject poverty; she lost her father at a young age then quit school at fourteen to help support her family. Rising to fame as a silent film star in Europe, she went on to become one of the highest paid Hollywood actresses of her time, along the way garnering a reputation for being demanding and wary of the press; perhaps inevitably, given her “Swedish Sphinx” moniker.
Known for playing “fallen women,” she broke out of that mold in comedies like Ninotchka. After multiple critical and box office hits, and four Best Actress Oscar nominations, Garbo abruptly retired in 1941, remaining private and reclusive until her death in 1990. In honor of her birthday, we’ve chosen our five favorite Garbo films essential to every film buff’s arsenal.
Director: Clarence Brown
Garbo’s first talkie, for which MGM launched the famous “Garbo Talks!” ad campaign. It was marketing made simple; no action figure necessary. Garbo plays a former prostitute in this adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play, who reunites with her father and falls in love with a sailor, who she’s terrified will leave her if she reveals her past. The studio took a risk in allowing the last of its silent film stars to talk onscreen and it paid off. Audiences loved her husky, Swedish accent, her first line the classic, “Gimme a visky with a ginger-ale on the side and don’t be stingy, baby.” The roll earned the star her first Oscar nomination.
Director: Edmund Goulding
Garbo stars alongside John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Wallace Beery in
this classic ensemble piece about the intertwining lives of the denizens of the Grand Hotel: a lonely ballerina, a noble thief, an ambitious stenographer, a dying man on a last fling, and a ruthless industrialist. When Garbo’s fading ballerina
Grusinskaya delivers the famous line, “I want to be alone,” it cemented her status as one of the era’s bona-fide screen goddesses. The film won the 1932 Academy Award for Best Picture.
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Garbo’s performance as the 17th century Swedish monarch is one of her most beloved. Garbo demanded that John Gilbert be her co-star; the fourth and final film they made together. Like a precursor to a Game of Thrones character, Queen Christina balks at the thought of an arranged political marriage, so she sneaks away, wanders about in men’s clothes, and winds up falling in love with the Spanish ambassador. Garbo’s famous close-up at the end of the film fills the screen, becoming one of the most talked about and analyzed moments in cinema.
Director: George Cukor
It’s high drama as Garbo takes on the role of Marguerite Gautier, a woman who, despite being raised in poverty, becomes a famous Parisian courtesan. After spending several years as the kept woman of a wealthy baron, she falls in love with the less-moneyed Armand. Though not exactly a laugh riot—Marguerite winds up alone, dying of tuberculosis—Garbo turns in a great performance in a fantastic film, earning her an Oscar nomination and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
To herald Garbo’s switch to comedy, the studio employed another creative marketing slogan with “Garbo laughs!” The film, co-written by the great Billy Wilder, is a fun satire of Stalin-era Russia. In the wake of Soviet economic problems, a trio of Russian delegates are sent to Paris to sell the imperial jewels for cash. But when Grand Duchess Swana, one-time owner of the jewels, sends boyfriend Count Leon to retrieve them, he succeeds in turning the trio into capitalists. Moscow then sends humorless Comrade Ninotchka (Garbo) to retrieve both the delegates and the gems, and cultures clash as she enters the tempting world of decadent Paris. The roll showed the world a new side of Garbo, and it earned her a fourth Oscar nomination; the screenplay was nominated as well.
If you haven’t seen any of Garbo’s films, take some time and check them out. “If only those who dream about Hollywood knew how difficult it all is,” she once said. Maybe that’s why she retired from the spotlight so early, content to be alone, far away from the press.