the great garbo

[…] On increasingly frequent occasions the two were seen together at the theater, in restaurants and at parties. To help her overcome her natural diffidence he would sometimes call upon her to entertain when they were out among friends. An acquaintance remembers a party at his house when Stiller abruptly asked her to get up and sing. “She had a pleasant voice,” the friend has said. “She sang until he told her she could stop.” Except on such occasions, Greta was inclined to be pitifully silent and retiring.

She did, however, speak with unusual frankness to a Stockholm journalist who interviewed her during the filming of Gösta Berling. Stiller “creates people and shapes them according to his will,” she said. “As for myself; I am a nice girl who gets very sad if people are unkind to her.” During the same period Stiller told a dramatic critic friend, “She receives instruction excellently, follows directions closely. She is like wax in my hands. Greta will be all right. I believe in her.”

By the time Gösta Berling had been completed, Stiller’s dominion over his protégée was secure. She did nothing without his permission, saw only the people he wished her to see and had legally become Greta Garbo. In name, at least, “The Star” had been born.

Neither Gösta Berling nor Greta Garbo’s role in it drew rave reviews at the Stockholm opening. But Stiller was optimistic about the future of both the movie and his protégée. After the Stockholm premiere of Gösta Berling he went to work editing it into a shorter version for a showing in Berlin, where a critical success would assure its future throughout Europe. He shrewdly contracted to sell the German exhibition rights to David Schratter’s Trianon Films for 100,000 marks ($25,000), a huge sum for that period, but he told Schratter there was one condition to the sale: Trianon must pay all expenses for himself and Garbo to attend the Berlin opening. She would, Stiller insisted, need some new clothes for the trip, for which he made Schratter advance 5,000 kronor.

Schratter had no cause to regret the deal. The Berlin opening was a triumph. The shy Garbo, on her first trip away from home, was disconcerted by all the fanfare. When she and Stiller entered their box at the theater, binoculars were trained upon them from all directions. When she pushed her chair back from the edge of the box, Stiller pulled it up again. When the showing was over the enthusiastic audience demanded that Stiller take a bow. He rose, pulled Garbo to her feet and propelled her to the edge of the box to acknowledge the applause. The German critics applauded Garbo’s acting, which appealed to them as “heartfelt,” “soul-revealing” and “touched with Weltschmerz.” The German exhibitors, who had figured on recovering their investment in four weeks, got it back in one. […]

The Great Garbo, by John Bainbridge; LIFE magazine, January 17, 1955.

(second of three parts)

Vicki Baum (the author of Grand Hotel) for Modern Screen:

If I say that Greta Garbo as the dancer is much better than I expected, that’s not of small consequence. For I expected the utmost. I expected that she’d be Greta Garbo and that would have been enough! But this time she did more than usual. She played, so to speak, two roles. First, the weary, lonely dancer, aching for success–and then the awakened woman experiencing a great love. I’ve always maintained that the ability to transform one’s self constitutes great acting.


Beautiful Actresses from the 1930s (no specfic order)
10.Greta Garbo

9.Ginger Rogers

8. Carole Lombard

7, Eleanor Powell

6.Joan Crawford

5.Loretta Young

4.Marlene Dietrich

3.Thelma Todd

2. Barbara Stanwyck :)

1…..Jean Harlow!!!

The troubled perfectionist

Whether dealing with film material that was shoddy or sublime, Garbo always approached her work with the single-minded purpose of the true artist. “She is so completely thorough in her art,” one of her directors, Richard Boleslawski, said, “that one finds her almost as marvelous as the camera itself.” Garbo’s Nordic efficiency impressed her directors almost as much as her genius before the camera. She unfailingly arrived on the set at 9 o'clock, dressed, made up and letter-perfect not only in her lines but in those of the other players who would appear with her. She had privately rehearsed the business of every scene–how she planned to sit in a chair, walk across a room–before reaching the set. “She knew just what she had to do and how she expected to do it,” the director Clarence Brown has recalled. “If the director suggested changes, she listened respectfully, sometimes arguing quietly but never angrily. She always wanted to give the best she had. Everything was for the picture’s sake.”

She had, to be sure, a number of idiosyncracies. When studio executives felt obliged to escort friends or business associates to Garbo’s set, she simply broke off the scene and retired to her dressing room, where she remained until the visitors had departed. More than once, when doing scenes involving hundreds of extras, she stopped work to remark to the director, “There are people here who do not belong here.” Usually it was discovered, sure enough, that one or more Garbo admirers had mingled with the mob in the hope of seeing their heroine at work.

“Why do you mind people looking at you?” George Cukor, who directed Garbo in two pictures, once asked her. “When people are watching,” she replied, “I’m just a woman making faces for the camera. It destroys the illusion.” To help Garbo preserve the illusion, the sets on which she worked were sometimes surrounded by black cloth screens. Though directors generally like to work near the camera, Clarence Brown often found himself in the highly unusual situation of directing Garbo through a crack in one of these screens. […]

The Great Garbo, by John Bainbridge; LIFE magazine, January 10, 1955.

(first of three parts)

Stories of her elusiveness were legion and much enjoyment was extracted from the names, “Gussie Berger” and “Harriet Brown,” under which she booked hotels and travel arrangements. The great Garbo quote “I want to be alone” was probably never uttered by her, but there was no question that she was a loner– painfully shy with people she did not know and preferring her own company to that of most people. “Making a film with Garbo,” said Robert Montgomery, another star at MGM, “does not constitute an introduction.” Garbo had an icy look in her eyes when anyone sought to impose upon her, as, according to studio gossip, Groucho Marx discovered one day. He saw a well- known figure approaching in slacks and floppy hat, waylaid her, bent down in his famous crouch, and peek under the brim. Two prisms of pure Baltic blue stared down at him, and he backed away, muttering, “ Pardon me, ma'am. I thought you were a guy I knew in Pittsburgh.”

- David Niven (Bring on the Empty Horses)

A post wherein film writer Kimberly Luperi celebrates how a teen Lauren Bacall survived Howard Hawks’ acting training to earn a celebrated spot among greats like Greta Garbo & Marlene Dietrich.

“You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”

Lauren Bacall cemented her spot in film history with quite a conspicuous Hollywood debut in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (’44). She skyrocketed to fame and captured the hearts of America and co-star Humphrey Bogart in a tale worthy of the screen itself. 

Bacall’s first big break came in March 1943, when Howard Hawks’ wife Slim spotted Bacall’s Harper’s Bazaar cover and pushed the director to give her a screen test. David O. Selznick, Howard Hughes and Columbia also came knocking, but Bacall chose Hawks. Charlie Feldman, Hawks’ agent/partner who proved an early confidante of Bacall’s, arranged for the teen to come to Hollywood. (Hawks later downplayed this story, stating his secretary ‘accidently’ sent for Bacall when he merely wanted to gather information about her.)

Bacall’s test came with the works: a dressing room, stand-in, and director Hawks for two to three pages of material. Hawks immediately signed her to a personal contract, and then… nothing. He kept Bacall under wraps so as to maintain an air of mystery, and Feldman assured her Hawks was waiting for the right time for her debut.

In the meantime, Hawks put Bacall through what he called “four months of the toughest kind of training.” He encouraged her to toughen up - one method was to insult men at parties, which she tried on Clark Gable - and required her to perform scenes in different languages. Hawks also instructed Bacall to train and sustain her low voice; to this end, she drove into the hills, found a secluded spot and read The Robe aloud.

Hawks tailored everything “to complement what he wanted me to be,” Bacall said. He thought she would pair well with Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart. Grant excited her; Bogart not so much.  When she snagged the role in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (’44) and finally met Bogart, there were no fireworks. However, her opinion of him soared after he did all he could to put her at ease on set. Even so, nerves still racked Bacall, and a future trademark came of it: “I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart. It worked, and turned out to be the beginning of The Look.”

Originally, the script called for Bogart to divide his affection between Bacall and Dolores Moran, but halfway through, Hawks & crew decided that Bacall should receive Bogart’s full attention, and she became the co-lead. “You can’t beat chemistry,” Bacall proclaimed. No, and you can’t prevent two people from falling in love, though Hawks, jealous because he was infatuated with Bacall, threatened to send her to poverty-row studio Monogram. That obviously didn’t work. 

After production wrapped, Bacall’s publicity built up steam for her grand entrance. WB publicity chief Charles Einfeld remarked: “Nothing like Bacall has been seen on the screen since Garbo and Dietrich. This is one of the biggest and hottest attractions we have ever had.” Newspapers and magazines had a field day with her “auspicious launching,” commenting on everything from Bacall’s sultry looks to box office appeal to fashion sense.  Oblivious as to the power of publicity, Bacall had no clue what the launch would bring. Lucky for her, she remained grounded. The rest, as they say, is history.

    […] Stiller died on November 8, 1928, at the age of 45. (Victor) Seastrom cabled the news to Garbo.

The wire was delivered to her on the set of Wild Orchids, where she was playing a love scene with Nils Asther. One of the men on the set remembers the scene clearly. “She turned deathly pale,” he has reported. “I thought she was going to faint. She walked slowly away from all of us, as if she were in a trance. When she got to the other side of the building, she stood there leaning against the wall with her hands pressed against her eves for several minutes. Then she pulled herself together, came back and continued the scene. She didn’t say a word to anyone about what was in the wire.”

Garbo did go home to Stockholm that Christmas. One morning she went to the office of Hugo Lindberg, who was executor of Stiller’s estate. Garbo asked Lindberg for permission to look at Stiller’s possessions, which were in storage awaiting auction. “I went with her,” Lindberg said recently, “and I remember vividly how she walked about the room touching this item and that. She seemed very upset emotionally and talked about Moje in a hushed voice, almost a whisper. “This was the suitcase he took to America”, she said, picking up the bag. “And these rugs - I remember when he bought them in Turkey.” We stayed for quite a time while she walked around among the furniture and paintings and all the other things… Then we started back to my office. As soon as we were on the street people recognized her and began to follow us. Greta walked faster and faster as the crowd grew bigger and bigger. Finally it got to be enormous and we were practically running. When we were back in my office at last, Greta seemed almost on the verge of tears. She sat down in a chair, took off her hat and threw it on the floor. “People are mad!” she exclaimed.

Garbo asked Lindberg for directions to Stiller’s grave. He told her where to find it in the Jewish section of the North Cemetery on the outskirts of Stockholm and offered to accompany her there. “Thank you,” she said. “I will go alone.”

The Great Garbo, by John Bainbridge; LIFE magazine,  January 17, 1955.

(second of three parts)

End of the affair

It was while on location at Catalina Island during the shooting of The Single Standard in 1929 that Garbo learned of Gilbert’s sudden marriage to the well-known actress Ina Claire. Garbo got the news from an eager reporter who chartered a plane and flew to Catalina carrying the first edition of the newspaper with its headline “John Gilbert Weds Actress.” Finding Garbo on the set between takes, the reporter handed her the paper. She glanced at the headline, scanned the story and returned the paper. “Thank you,” she said. The reporter began firing questions. “I hope Mr. Gilbert will be very happy,” she said, and walked away.

One day several months later Garbo was driving down Sunset Boulevard when Gilbert passed her in his convertible. “Gott, I wonder what I ever saw in him,” she said to her companion. “Oh well,” she added, “I guess he was pretty.”

The phenomenon that had so enhanced Garbo’s career – talking pictures, simultaneously ruined Gilbert’s. His decline started with his first sound picture, His Glorious Night. When the great screen lover first said “I love you” in his high, thin voice, audiences snickered. Some laughed cruelly and uproariously. From then on, a movie oldtimer remembers, “he was worth less at the box office than a bag of popcorn.” Probably no man in Hollywood ever fell so far so fast.

So when, four years after his marriage to Ina Claire, Garbo suggested that Gilbert play opposite her in Queen Christina, touching stories went around that she had made a generous sentimental gesture. The fact was that careful consideration had been given to a number of more likely candidates, and Laurence Olivier had been definitely chosen for the part. After Garbo had rehearsed some love scenes with him, it was decided that he wouldn’t do. It was then that she suggested that Gilbert be given a chance.

Gilbert and Garbo had not appeared in a film together in five years. Meanwhile he and Ina Claire had been divorced, and he had taken as his fourth wife Virginia Bruce, who bore him a daughter a few days before the filming of Queen Christina began. The reunion of Garbo and Gilbert was the occasion for considerable publicity about their “stormy, historic and once glorious romance.” Garbo’s attitude toward Gilbert on the set was friendly but professional. At one point the script called for a love scene of the uninhibited kind that had done much to make the two famous, and Gilbert began to enact it with his old enthusiasm. Garbo thereupon suggested to the director, Rouben Mamoulian, that the scene be played with somewhat less intensity. “Mr. Gilbert is a married man now, with a wife and baby,” she remarked.

When Queen Christina was released, not only Garbo’s performance but the scenario, direction, supporting cast and nearly everything else in the production were extravagantly praised–all except the work of John Gilbert. After Queen Christina Gilbert appeared in but one other film, an inconsequential work called The Captain Hates the Sea. Divorced by his fourth wife, his fortune disappearing, Gilbert died of a heart attack in 1936, at the age of 38.

His death aroused no visible emotional tremor in Garbo. For several years before this she had been beset with a growing, almost somnambulistic, moodiness that pervaded both her personal and professional lives. Once a director approached her on the set where she had been working for several hours. “You look tired, Miss Garbo,” he said. “You’d better go home. You must be dead.”

There was a long pause before she replied. “Dead?” she finally said. “Dead? I have been dead many years.”

The Great Garbo, by John Brainbridge, LIFE magazine, January 10, 1955.

(first of three parts)

[…] Because of her fear of strangers, Garbo insisted that the technical crews on her pictures always be made up of the same people. The studio permitted her to choose her own cameraman; her favorite was William Daniels, who photographed all or part of 22 of her 24 American movies. Between Garbo and Daniels there developed a great fondness and professional respect. Whenever possible, Garbo wore an old pair of carpet slippers on the set for the sake of comfort. Before a scene was shot, she always asked Daniels, “Is the feet in?” If they were out of camera range, she kept the slippers on, regardless of what luxurious Adrian creation she was wearing.

Though the usual quitting time in Hollywood studios was 6 o'clock, Garbo refused to work a minute beyond 5. At that hour, even if she was in the middle of a scene, she abruptly left the set. Despite this abbreviated working day, the actual shooting time on Garbo’s films was considerably shorter than that of most other comparable productions. Because of her painstaking preparation, retakes were seldom necessary. She also saved time because she was not burdened with what Ernst Lubitsch called. “a slavish devotion to the mirror,” a common failing, he once remarked, of women stars. “They are so much concerned about their looks,” said Lubitsch, “that they exhaust their vitality. Some of them take a terribly long time to powder and make up.” Off the set Garbo’s only beauty routines were the application to her face of an ice cube or an occasional dab of powder.

Garbo’s directors credit her with an almost unique ability to strike the proper attitude before the camera. The most moving scene in Queen Christina is the finale when the queen, taking leave of her homeland after the death of her lover, stands gazing from the bow of the ship that is to bear her on what promises to be a long and lonely pilgrimage. Here, according to one student of the cinema, Garbo’s performance is marked by “a symbolism brushed with poetry.” Director Rouben Mamoulian achieved this result, after the scene had been shot again and again, by finally telling Garbo to make her mind a blank, completely vacant, to think of nothing; then the memorable scene was shot.

The Great Garbo, by John Bainbridge, LIFE magazine, January 10, 1955.

(first of three parts)