Greta Garbo: Story of a Movie Star

“A great star with a rare power to charm.”

“She could make the character come alive and live before your very eyes.”

“Greta works almost to the point of exhaustion, and her capacity for work is contagious.”

These were some comments about Greta Garbo. Indeed, she was special.

Black and white portrait of Greta Garbo, featuring her with wavy hair, a pensive expression, and her chin resting on her hand.
Greta Garbo, circa 1930

Greta was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1905, where her early years came with much struggle, particularly with life in poverty. About the experience, Greta said,

“It was eternally grey—those long winter’s nights. My father would be sitting in a corner, scribbling figures on a newspaper. On the other side of the room, my mother is repairing ragged old clothes, sighing. We children would be talking in very low voices, or just sitting silently. We were filled with anxiety, as if there were danger in the air. Such evenings are unforgettable for a sensitive girl, but also for a girl like me. Where we lived, all the houses and apartments looked alike, their ugliness matched by everything surrounding us.”

Yet, amidst the challenges, she also spoke positively and lovingly about her parents. “My father had a sense of humour and always used to cheer people up. His motto was: ‘things will be better tomorrow,'” she said. And about her mother, “My mother was almost always in a good mood. She used to sing as well.”

From her earliest years, Greta was shy and spent much time alone. She wandered the streets searching for theatres, where she’d stand at the stage entrances to watch actors come and go. She, too, wanted to act.

At fifteen, Greta took a job in a department store to help support her family, as her father had recently passed away. The work she found fine. But it would change her life.

Greta received an opportunity to appear in a short advertising film for the department store where she worked. Small acting roles came after. Then, she met a film director who gave her a small part in a movie in 1922. This experience led to her enrollment at the Royal Dramatic Theatre’s Acting School in Stockholm, which was a significant step in honing her acting skills.

While studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, Greta caught the attention of the prominent Swedish director Mauritz Stiller. Impressed by her natural acting ability, Mauritz cast her in a major role in “The Saga of Gösta Berling” in 1924. This film was her first significant role and established her as a promising actress in Swedish cinema.

That performance caught the attention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer chief executive Louis B. Meyer. He brought her to Hollywood the following year, signing her to a short deal. For Greta, this meant much pressure to have great results immediately. Greta did just that. Making her Hollywood debut the year after, the film was a hit. One publication wrote about her acting in the debut: “She is not so much an actress as she is endowed with individuality and magnetism.”

Greta became a star and a huge box office draw. But besides being able to help her family financially, Greta wasn’t happy in her new life in America and with being a celebrity. In 1941, after a remarkable acting career that included many hits, much fame, and four Academy Award nominations, Greta retired. She lived out the rest of her years out of the spotlight, spending much time alone, taking walks, and being with some close friends. Greta passed away in 1990.

Notes:

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Sources:

  • Broman, Sven, and Garbo, Greta. Conversations with Greta Garbo. United States, G.K. Hall, 1992.
  • Genthe, Arnold, photographer. Portrait photograph of Greta Garbo. Between 1925 and 1942; from a negative taken 1925 july. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2018704280/>.