Garbo As Garbo

#3 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

For Greta Garbo, Anna Christie was only the beginning.  She followed it up with a string of talking hits, and became the most powerful movie star in the world.  Her success at the box office gave her unprecedented power over her contract, her roles, and her co-stars.

It wasn’t just her movies that fascinated her public—it was Garbo herself.

Dubbed the “Swedish Sphinx” by the media, Garbo shunned publicity.  More than shunned—she had absolutely no desire to interact with fans or the press.  She didn’t answer fan mail, rarely gave interviews, and never attended an Oscars event.  It wasn’t just fans—Garbo didn’t really like people. She didn’t attend parties, didn’t socialize with Hollywood regulars, and kept to herself on set.

While there are some current stars who shy away from the spotlight, there is really no modern equivalent to Garbo’s reclusiveness.

And as is the way of the world, her want of privacy made her the most elusive and desirable woman in the world.

While her solitary nature was undoubtedly sincere, the studio heads soon realized that playing hard to get was always a winning strategy for attention when you’re young and beautiful.  Thus, they leaned in and cast her in movie after movie where she played a version of her public persona.

In the three films I watched this week, she plays a series of beautiful, unknowable Ice Queens whose hearts are finally melted by the love of a good man.

Let’s start with Mata Hari, where Garbo plays the real-life World War I exotic dancer and spy who is ultimately executed by a French firing squad.  We are introduced to Mata Hari as she is dancing seductively on the stage for a group of soldiers.  While watching, I couldn’t help but think how this same scene has echoed throughout movie history. A powerful woman using her sexuality to seduce and destroy men.  Most recently, we see a version of this scene in Hustlers, when Jennifer Lopez’s character is introduced doing an extremely athletic strip tease.  (Even if you didn’t see the film, you got a taste of it during this year’s Superbowl Halftime Show.  Huge sporting events…remember those?)

The more things change….
…the more they stay the same.

Garbo as Mata Hari uses and discards men, until she falls in love with a soldier whose purity cuts through her cynicism and pierces her heart.  

But as Mata Hari’s boss reminds her, “A spy in love is a tool that has outlived its usefulness.”

Mata Hari’s love for her soldier ultimately has disastrous consequences for them both.

In Queen Christina, Garbo plays another historical figure:  Queen Christina of Sweden, who took the throne at the age of six and ruled during a long war.

Though Camille is often considered her best performance, Queen Christina was my favorite of the Garbo films.  It is the sad tale of a woman who has more interest in literature, art, and sculpture than war.  Queen Christina longs to escape her endless duties and impulsively dresses as a boy and takes off for a few days.

She meets a man, Antonino, who first believes her to be a man.  He soon discovers she is a woman and they share a passionate night together.  He is a Spanish Ambassador, and does not know he has spent the night with the Queen he is on a diplomatic mission to meet.

In one of my favorite old movie scenes, after they spend the night together, Queen Christina knows (as he does not) that they can never be together.  She walks around the room, longingly touching the desk and the walls. She lays on the bed and puts her head on the pillow. Then she gets up, studies the painting on the wall and finally presses her face into the bed post.

“What are you doing?” Antonio asks, amused.

“I have been memorizing this room,” she says.  “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”

After she returns to her palace and Antonio learns of her true identity, they cannot deny their love.  But as Queen, Christina is not free to follow her heart. Her people desire her to marry her cousin Charles, a war hero, and to continue fighting for the glory of Sweden.

But Christina is tired of war and duty.  She longs for peace and love.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.

In a scene that truly shocked me, instead of doing her duty, Christina abdicates her throne and dramatically places her crown on Charles’ head, giving up her kingdom for Antonio.

For love.

And if that doesn’t melt your heart, you probably aren’t going to enjoy this series.  The Golden Age of Hollywood is nothing if not melodramatic.

Finally, I watched Camille, Garbo’s last great film.  Garbo plays Marguerite Gautier, a woman who hides her frail health, poverty, and desire for love as she charms and laughs her way through society on the arms of rich men.

(Old movies can be tricky for modern audiences.  We’re used to having everything spelled out for us, and they’re often quite subtle.  I was about three quarters of the way through the movie before I understood Marguerite was a courtesan—a prostitute with wealthy clients—and not just a woman who had pulled herself up by her bootstraps.)

Armand Duval sees through Marguerite’s masks and the two fall deeply in love.  But the circumstances of her position in society make it impossible for his family to accept her, and she sacrifices her love for him at great personal cost.

All three of these movies end in the tragic death of one of the leads.  So while each Ice Queen is melted by love, she never gets her happy ending.

Greta Garbo’s heart never melted—she never married, never had children, and lived most of her life alone.  She had a romance with her Queen Christina co-star John Gilbert but refused his marriage proposal. 

Garbo retired abruptly in 1941.  She was only thirty-five, and had made twenty-eight successful films.  She spent the rest of her life—nearly fifty more years—without any occupation.  She disguised herself and took long walks in New York City, and spoke in letters discovered after her death of long periods of melancholy.

But she remains an object of public fascination, nearly eighty years after her last film.  Like James Dean, we’re left to mourn all the films she never made. Though unlike Dean it was not death but her own reticence that cut her career painfully short.

It is unclear if she got her happy ending—she did often say she wanted to be alone, so perhaps she did.

But we’ll never stop wondering.

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