Thursday, November 6, 2008

Greta Garbo, an Enduring Image

Greta Garbo still sells, some 80 years on. By my calculations, her movies earn approximately $200,000 annually on Amazon, Borders and Barnes&Noble. What is more, her items have a high response rate showing resonance with the audience (see Signature Series ) In EBSCOHOST, there are 12,152 articles about her or that reference her, with 4,816 written in the past five years. The mystique is as much about her lifestyle as her films.

Greta Garbo had the resolute spirit that Ayn Rand, who admired Garbo, tried to capture in the fictional character John Galt. Unlike Galt, however, who ran away to work apart from the system, Garbo turned the system inside out and made it work for her. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that the other major stars of the era were overwhelmed by the system.

Three of the biggest were Clara Bow (the It girl), Rudolf Valentino and John Gilbert. Rhodes (1999, p 197) notes that both Valentino and Bow, stars of first rank, had no control whatsoever over their movies or the public presentation of their image. Garbo, on the other hand, ended up with complete control over all production – choice of director, writers, script, co-stars, schedule, all aspects of production, including release of image building communications (see for example, Vieira, 2005, pp 164,167, 173).

Hollywood was having difficulty establishing a continuing female role type that was attractive to women of that day. The virgins like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, the vamps like Gloria Swanson and the flappers like Clara Bow were losing traction at the box office (Paris,1994, p 112). Garbo did not play into stale role types but instead became the embodiment, as she is now characterized by feminists, of the “new woman” (See Fischer, 2001, p 90).

I have seen most of her movies and there is a triangle, a brand formula or theme in them all – she is married to an older, overbearing man and having an affair with a younger man (see for example Vieira,2005, p 8). When discovered in the act, she is neither embarrassed nor repentant but instead is contemptuous, weary or angry with her older husband. Conveniently for her character and to the relief of the audience, he is killed or dies off, leaving her to her virile suitor.

After her first films proved extremely popular and profitable, she challenged the MGM power structure. She ignored studio dictates, refused to participate in staged publicity and premiers, did not wear traditional foundational garments beneath her clothes, and was in general insubordinate, all of which created a growing tension. It reached the tipping point when she demanded seven times her salary to become the highest paid actress in the business and refused to do the film Women Love Diamonds because she thought it foolish (see Paris, 1994, pp127-8).

MGM finally detonated, finding her in breach of contract, and issued her a cease and desist letter. She went over their heads to Loews Inc., the parent company, and focused on the factual errors in the letter (see Vieira, 2005, pp 45-8). It was also observed that had MGM listened to her they would not have lost $30,000 with Women Love Diamonds (MGM went on with it using a different actress). Loews agreed, and MGM was forced to capitulate to the 21 year old girl. The humiliation of the best brains in a place like MGM rocked Hollywood (see Paris, 1994, pp 129-30). She was given the salary and creative license and for the next decade produced a series of extremely profitable films.

Eleanor Boardman who suffered the one-sided nature of Garbo's friendship, summed up the enduring interest: "You gave, Garbo took, she never said thanks, but she was fascinating."


Corbis (2008). Mysterious Woman Photo displayed under arrangement with the copyright holder.

Fischer, Lucy (2001) . Greta Garbo and Silent Cinema: The Actress As Art Deco Icon. Camera Obscura 48, Volume 16, Number 3.

Fischer, Lucy, et al (2002). The Feminist Reader in Early Cinema. Duke University Press.

Gaines, Jane (1989). The Queen Christina Tie-Ups: Convergence of Show Window and Screen. Quar. Rev. of Film & Video. Retrieved on October 22, 2008 from EBSCOHOST.

Noir Dame (2008). Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) - Clara Bow, Marguerite Courtot. Retrieved on October 27, 2008 from

Paris, Barry (1994). Garbo. University of Minnesota Press.

Rhodes, Chip (1999). The Star System and Modernist Identity Formation in the Silent Film Era. Strategies, Vol 12, Number 2. Retrieved from EBSCOHOST on October 27, 2008.

Vieira, Mark (2005). Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy. Henry A. Abrams, Inc.

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