Sunday, January 25, 2009


This is all about one of my favorite actresses: the infinitely mysterious and intriguingly unknowable Greta Garbo. For years I only knew her through "Ninotchka" and "Queen Christina," which are fine films, but are not the ones you want to see if you want to understand the famous Garbo mystique.

If you want to understand the mystique, if you want to know why she was the subject of so many caricatures and parodies, you'll have to dig deeper than Ninotchka. 

You'll have to watch films like "Romance," "Grand Hotel," "Anna Christie," and "Camille."

Garbo was one of a kind, but she wasn't always like that. When she started she was just another pretty face who could act a little. When she came to Hollywood from Sweden she paniced because she realized the studios were loaded to the gills with pretty faces, who would all be obsolete the day they flashed their first wrinkle.

A documentary I saw credited her manager with the breakthrough idea that she should separate herself from the pack by carving a niche for herself as a mysterious vamp. I think a manager might have helped Marylin Monroe to create her identity. Boy, the right manager is worth his weight in gold!

She began to dress differently than the other girls, even differently than the other vamps. She picked a hair style that would emphasize her big forehead, rather than compensate for it. 

It was a big risk. If she failed she wouldn't even get the pretty young thing roles. 

Early on she developed the idea that she looked good in aspirational poses, and she liked to be photographed looking up, into the light. 

Somewhere along the line she got the idea that she looked good when brooding, so she brooded and brooded. She brooded so much that whole of Sweden started to brood in imitation. The Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergman made a career out of brooding. Now everybody expects Swedes to brood, and are disappointed when they discover they're mostly happy. 

I love her brooding poses.  She was the first of the great brooders like Peter Lorre and Brando. 

The idea is that life is pointless and horrific, and can only be answered with silent anguish. Garbo raised brooding to an art form.

Her look seemed to say, "How shallow happy people are! Look at them all, running around and laughing!! If they had any brains, if they realized how stupid the world really is, they'd brood just like I do!"

Actually she wasn't quite as one-dimensional as I portray her here. Her films are full of exquisitely happy moments too, even if the happiness is always crushed. 

Sometimes her brooding made her look sickly. Maybe that's what got her cast in the ultimate sickly film...

..."Camille!" Camille is a film about a dying woman who heroically declines to tell her fiance about her condition, for fear of depressing him.

She was always collapsing in his arms, and he thought she was just being emotional.

No matter how many times she dropped her food and fell like a rag doll to the floor, he thought it was because she was being refined and lady-like. Her boyfriend wasn't the brightest bulb in the box. 

Sickly and heroic: stars love roles like that! As Jennifer said in the comments, this is a flawed film that's only good when Garbo is in it. Even then, she was a little too restrained, a little too reluctant to take it over the top. I'll bet that was the director's doing. I like the film because I can easily imagine the performance that might have been, and because the plot is one of the funniest I've ever seen. I'd love to do a short cartoon parody of this!

Garbo also experimented with roles where the girls were too existential, too serious to dally with the silly men who pursued them.

At first Garbo preferred that her leading men take her in their arms and give her "The Look." Eventually she decided that it was better if she took them in her arms, and gave them the look!

Yes, Garbo picked her men! Unfortunately as she neared retirement she started to lose her confidence in the persona she'd so carefully cultivated, and attempted to play more conventional, less over-the-top roles.  Peter Lorre did the same thing. I wonder what it is about age that makes actors do that?



Hans Flagon said...

I think I played chess with her. Or maybe someone named max.

I just want to take this opportunity to rant though, that none of the basic tier of cable TV, no widely available broadcast channel, ever shows movies before 1940. Actually its more like 1990.

It is horrible! How do you expect our culture to be culturally literate, without the culture? I was lucky to grow up when TV signed off at night, and there were only 4 channels, and they had so much unprogrammed time that they showed an old movie at least twice a day.

An impressionist couldn't make a living today, because no one would know who he is doing half the time.

That being said though, I never saw Norma Shearer hardly, almost never saw Joan Crawford when she was a beautiful young starlet. Hardly if ever saw George Raft, Charles Boyer, Veronica Lakeand dozens of stars made popular in Cartoons drawings. and the human caraciature of impressionists.

I remember being shocked at the Guinness World Record listing of Fred MacMurray as either the wealthiest, or highest paid actor, when all he did was smoke a pipe on My Three Sons. I had not seen The Apartment, The Caine Mutiny, or Double Indemnity at the time. (maybe some flubber movies)

S0-- Marlene Dietrich was as close as I ever got to seeing Greta Garbo, and I have no idea if that was even close. Longwinded again. Sorry.

Have a good rest Eddie

lastangelman said...

Fascinating observation. When I was a kid, there was a Chock full o'Nuts coffee counter she used to frequent in New York up to the time John Lennon was shot. Nobody bugged her, she'd get a cup of joe and a raisin bread sandwich ('untouched by human hands!') and people watch. The lunch counter people always addressed her as Mrs Gustafson, though she never married. I think she would have stopped going anyway as the counters were sold to the Riese Brothers in the eighties, the fast food moguls of Times Square and Forty Deuce (and the rest of Manhattan and tri-state area), and they changed the name, the quality of food, the coffee and the service just went in the basement.

Lester Hunt said...

Ever since I was in college, Garbo has been by favorite. I agree with pretty much everything you say here, Eddie, except for your suggestion that she projects the view that life sucks. I think part of her greatness is her ability to project joy in life and love. Especially love, of course. Naturally, the world often crushes her character in the end, because her films are often basically tragedies.

Trevor Thompson said...

Admittedly, I saw CAMILLE when I was much younger because I liked what I saw in ANNIE ( which was two minutes at best ). It's one of those films, like CASABLANCA where the incongruity and lack of reality of the situation ( not to mention the plot holes ) don't matter; you're still hooked based on the actor's performances.

I always thought that when she was caricatured, however, they made her look ugly. I figure if you're an attractive person, that's partly you're essence, and a caricaturist's job is to capture the essence and grow from there. Although some have made quite a name for themselves of making everyone, even the pretty folks, ugly.

What're you're thoughts on Katherine Hepburn? Another example one of the best actresses, and a real looker... rally, she was.

- trevor.

Hans Flagon said...

I think I remember seeing one Greta Garbo emotion that may have not been mentioned here, but it is the one that has stuck with me because I don't see actors use it much. I see Dogs use it all the time though.

With the face held down, a glance up of sad resignation that says Why? or Why me?

To those that have interest in faces, and animation of same, these mashups may entertain. Just click through for a new example on each page. From Boing Boing.
Warning, may induce seizures

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Hans: Great link! Thanks!!!

Last: Interesting!

Lester: I only meant to say that her brooding pictures seemed to carry that message. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that they conveyed accute depression.

Trevor: Hepburn's great, but she's still popular and needs no boost from me.

Jenny Lerew said...

I've never been able to much care for Garbo as a film actress, except for Ninotchka and a few others like Grand Hotel and Queen Christina (that might be her best drama). She can also be very watchable in her last MGM silents(not that she made them for any other studio!).

But while she was one of the very first movie stars I had a pictorial biography of( something I ordered from a book club at about age 12--I hadn't seen her films yet), I was stumped at the difference between the woman that was constantly described everywhere as "the most exquisite face in movies/beautiful actress/amazing actress/spellbinding--The Divine Garbo" etc etc etc etc...and the actual woman onscreen. Her face is TOO symmetrical, too masklike, too austere...too "perfect" perhaps to really grab me and interest me. I see very little emotion in it. Additonally she has no physical sex appeal IMHO. She definitely had a very androgynous vibe, not at all fleshly.
The shots here by Bull and others are lovely as photographic works of art, like Man Ray's or Steichen, but don't tell me anything about the human being in them.

The most appealing still images I've seen of Garbo are the ones Cecil Beaton(her sometime lover-believe it or don't) took in the late 40s after she'd retired...there she had expression and seemed to have an actual personality. In all the photographs here she's stunning, sure-but is in her usual art deco sculpture-like mannequin mode.

I also found that although her voice is very interesting-deep, with that accent--she always spoke her lines in a way that seemed very odd and weirdly sounded out, while at the same time her face seems virtually frozen. No sparkle.

That may be very against the mainstream opinion coming from a hardcore film lover, but there it is. I realize I'm in a small minority. : )

And with all of the above said, again: yes, I love "Ninotchka". I can even buy that Melvyn Douglas wants to tumble her. That's Lubitsch for you!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jenny: She IS a bit wooden (my word for it) but that doesn't bother me. So was Chester Gould and Gregory Peck. So was Abraham Lincoln, in his writing at least. The Gettysburg Address is as wooden a speech as you're likely to hear, but it's still great.

Being wooden is no bar to being a good actor, or a good writer. It's what you do with the wood that counts. For some actors it pushes them into developing a strong style to compensate.

Michael Sporn said...

Jenny, Greta Garbo, as you know, belonged to a different era. Her style predated Stanislavsky's effect on film or the entrance of the Group Theater to the movies. Back then, everyone had a theatrical and stilted acting style. Some like Katherine Hepburn's was more acceptable to modern audiences, others like Greta Garbo's were less so. She acted with her body more than her face; her face was just beautiful.
I found her in the 70's when the gay audiences mooned over her, and brought about her reemergence. It took a while for me to accept and enjoy what I saw. I can understand your comments.

When I did the title sequence for Sidney Lumet in Garbo Talks, he got, literally, hundreds of film stills for me from the the archives at MGM. They were a treasure to own. Unfortunately, they're in storage or I'd post some.

Jennifer said...

I LOVE Greta Garbo! Yes, a number of her contemporaries could act circles around her (ex: Bette Davis), but there was something about her that made her appealing. Even if she was in a picture that wasn't really good (ex: Camille), she made the picture watchable.

I think that she could act if she wanted to, though. She was really funny in Ninotchka and sympathetic in Grand Hotel.

I started to appreciate Garbo when I watched a documentary on her. When she started to become established in the States, she became a real rebel!

I never understood why caricature artists made her look so bad. I always thought that Garbo was one of the most beautiful women in the 20th century. (No, I don't have the same reaction to Garbo as Joan Crawford did when she met Garbo! ;D) Those photos of her are breathtaking.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Michael: Interesting! For a long time I've had it in mind to post on pre-Stanislavsky acting. I just didn't have a grab program that would allow me to put up examples. None of the scenes I was interested in are currently on YouTube.

I prefer the pre-Stanislavsky styles. Stanislavsky gave us great films like "On the Waterfront," but it took away as much as it gave. It made rhetorical and poetic performances like Lugosi's in "The Raven," Lorre in "Stranger on the Third Floor," Lionel Barrymore's in "It's a Wonderful Life," the drunkard's in "Nightmare Alley", and the bed-ridden old lady in "Old Dark House" seem out of place. It also favored Ibsen-influenced stories, which are not to my taste.

Hans Flagon said...

Snapz Pro X might allow you do snag some video to post.

Thad said...

Fascinating stuff. Admittedly, I haven't seen much of Garbo (the only two movies I've seen recently are the two you seem to hold in disdain!), but your post makes me eager to see more of her films. When I first discovered classic movies, I glommed onto and immediately pegged favorite directors (Hitchcock, Wilder, Ford, Lubitsch) and actors (Grant, Laurel, Monroe, Cagney), and sought out everything of there's. Now I need to find more people to get excited about. That's the best part about discovering film: nothing's set in stone!

Jenny Lerew said...

Eddie,I didn't use the word "wooden" and I wouldn't use it. It may seem pure semantics, but actually I find her style somehow florid although she didn't move about all that much...well, dman-that's not quite right either...and she did have a peculiar grace, her languidness.
Michael: I have a tremendous love for the vast breadth of 30s acting styles, believe me. ; )

I'm hardcore: I might be one of the only ones who thinks Bette Davis isn't a scene chewer...or perhaps I just love her scene chewing. You're eright, of course--and within the more stylized peramaters of 30s acting there are so many types--as many as there are actresses, it seems. It's actually fascinating how GOOD all of them are, too--it takes seeing the rare B or just poor film to catch what I'd consider a genuinely "bad" actress...styles have changed, but those many different perfs--from the comedic snappiness of Joan Blondell in the Berkeley films to Luise Rainer or my god, Marlene! They all have their varied genius to me. And appeal. It's like spoken ballet.
Actually after I wrote the previous long long comment I pondered and realized that Marlene in her von Sternberg classics is to me what Garbo is for Eddie. Perhaps an unfair comaprison, but both were exquisitely lit "foreign women of mystery" with a distinctly gay appeal(male & female)...I just think Marlene had a warmth(yes!)and sense of humor in there that Gabro utterly lacked in her epics. I wouldnt have barged in if the disconnect between her photgraphic self and the one on film didnt disappoint me...of course, it's all subjective, ultimately--and again, boy oh boy am I in the minority on her.

For the record my always-watchable top 30s actresses(just a few off the top of my head as I love hundreds) are:
Claudette Colbert, Stanwyck, Maureen O'Sullivan in the Tarzans, Myrna Loy in the Thin Mans, Bette, Lombard in almost anything post 1934(she had a few dramatic clunker perfs in there where she tried to "act" and it shows), Hepburn(ditto the Lombard gaffes), Frances Farmer(quite ahead of her time), Jean Arthur, Ginger Rogers(it doesn't get much more stylized than Ginger in the 30s), Jeanette MacDonald in her Lubitsch & San Francisco, not Eddy, phase, Lillian Roth, Judy Garland as a young teen, Olivia De Havilland, Gail Patrick, and Miss Dietrich.

Just for fun: I think the genuinely worst actress in 30s "A" films I can think of was Ruby Keeler. My God! But she did have a strange charm--even if she read her lines less convincingly than June Marlowe as "Miss Crabtree" in those early 30s Our Gangs! Wow.

Jenny Lerew said...

One more thing--! The Gettysburg Address-wooden? I can't agree with you there at all. It isn't the 2nd Inaugural, true but it's a perfect little speech, concise and strong and full of emotion when spoken by I think anyone.

I'm surprised to hear you say it-but by now I probably shouldn't be surprised by anything you opine!

Anonymous said...

I love those cariactures! Great, post, Eddie!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jennifer: I answered by changing the article a little to fit what you said. Thanks!

Jenny: I didn't like Garbo for a long time, so I know what you mean, but the day will come when it hits you, and you'll not only change your mind, but be a true believer!

Lincoln wrote like a lawyer. I saw an extensive re-enactment of the Lincoln/Douglas debates and Lincoln came off as wooden as they come. It's no accident that nobody ever quotes the Emancipation Proclimation. His best speeches were still good. The quote from the letter in Saving Private Ryan was good in spite of its woodenness, maybe even because of it. He turned a liability into an asset!

Hans: Thanks for the Snapz advice!

Anonymous said...

Edward Everett was the big public speaking draw the day Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. Today no one remembers Everett, with good reason. He had a bladder condition that caused the construction of a special outhouse for relief every twenty minutes of his three hour delivery. This was the true birth of performance art but everyone remembers Lincoln.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Eddie. Sorry for being off topic. Your IMDB page says you were the inspiration for Pinky of Pinky and the Brain. Is that true or did some schmo think it would be funny to slip that in there? Couldn't find anything searching your theory corner.

Great post. And Lincoln definitely was wooden, without a doubt.

Fulle Circle Productions said...

What a great post! I love how you never know what could possibly turn up on your site next, thank you for all the great "theories"! :)

Anonymous said...

E M Darbyshire,

Uncle Eddie's IMDB page states he was the inspiration for Pinky and was auditioned as the voice for the character. Half of this is untrue and some schmo put it there.

Jenny Lerew said...

I didn't update any info on Eddie's IMDB page, and whether or not I'm a schmo is debatable, but--

a) He was the inspiration for Pinky, if by "inspiration" you mean that someone decided to try out a couple of characters based on Eddie and his friend Tom Minton in their caricatured form. Human characters turned into mice characters complete with Eddie's glasses, then the "Pinky" mouse was altered so that it's really not a direct resemblance apart from "Narf" etc.

b) Someone did have the idea to have Eddie read("audition"-record) for the part of Pinky. That's a fact. I was there(not at the recording, but at the studio) when he did it.
That he didn't get it isn't surprising; a professional voice actor got it--one of the same handful of voice actors who were cast as all of the characters on "Animaniacs". That's how the business works, usually. In those days especially it was incredibly rare for any artists to ever get a voice gig as anything other than a one time in-joke.

So, whoever you are, other "anonymous", you're mistaken. I'm always puzzled by wy this question comes up again & again and why there's any debate about it. Is it really so hard to believe?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jenny!

It was believable, but people put false information about super-celebs, like Eddie, on there all the time. Who knew!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jenny, Darby, Anon: Thanks Jenny, for putting that straight. Sure, I was the inspiration for Pinky, and as Jenny said, Tom Minton was the inspiration for The Brain. Tom Ruegger created the show.

The early designs for Pinky looked like me, but were eventually skewered in a different direction when someone expressed the fear that I might sue...which of course I would never have done.

I used to say "Narf!" and "Egad!," and things like that all the time. Tom Ruegger called it, "emotional punctuation." I stopped saying Narf when I heard the cartoon characters doing it, but I still say Egad all the time. Tom had me audition for the voice, but I didn't get the part.

I never updated my IMDB article (I didn't write what's on there) because that would have taken a lot of time, and I didn't think anyone would ever read it. That piece contains only about 5% of the jobs I've had. It would be a chore to do a re-write, but maybe I should.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Eddie

According to Retro Junk, it looks like you had a cameo role on one of those Spielberg shows. Did you work on this caricature of yourself?