After seeing her in only two films - "The Torrent" (1926) and "The Temptress" (1926) - critic Robert Sherwood, who was well-acquainted with the many beautiful stars of Hollywood - dubbed Greta Garbo "the official Dream Princess of the Silent Drama Department of Life."
Sherwood was "taken," "enamored," "smitten," or, in his own words - "knocked for a loop" by this heavenly creature who suddenly graced movie screens across America. "The Torrent" failed to leave a deep impression, and "The Temptress" had "shortcomings" in his opinion. He also made it clear his elevation of Garbo was not due to her dramatic talents. He commented, "She may not be the best actress on the screen," adding, "I am powerless to formulate an opinion on her dramatic technique" - yet he affirmed, ". . . there is no room for an argument as to the efficacy of her allure."
Sherwood's experience rings so true to the early encounter so many of us had with Garbo - an allure, possibly even a bewitching as we viewed the final credits on the film that marked our first rendezvous with this "dream princess" - not the most original or descriptive term for someone with the eloquence of Sherwood - but I'm sure even he, like the rest of us, was at a loss for words to describe this star fallen from the heavens.
We can't help but ask ourselves "why?" - Why are we mesmerized just watching her on the screen - not just in the emotional or poignant scenes - but doing anything - slowly raising her eyes to look into the camera - glancing to the side in a haughty manner - looking lovingly into her leading man's eyes? Why do we think so highly of some of her movies when we know it is a mediocre story and would no doubt be forgotten had anyone else been in the lead? Why is her beauty so unique and appealing? Why is it that she can be photographed from any angle, with any expression, with any style of dress or hair - and her beauty is no less remarkable? Why are photographs of her so much more than just a picture - they are more akin to works of art -- too other-worldly to be real?
Author Gary Carey (Cukor & Co., New York Graphic Society, 1971) also saw her beauty in an artistic sense. "One can't discuss Garbo without touching on her beauty because it is the cornerstone of many of her performances. She is herself a work of art," he said.
"To watch her face is like contemplating a masterwork - it becomes an experience that strikes both the heart and mind," biographer John Bainbridge (Garbo, Doublebday and Co., 1955), quotes an anonymous source. However, Bainbridge goes on to make some very insightful comments regarding Garbo's beauty. Quoting others who espouse "She is as beautiful as the aurora borealis," or "It needs a work of fiction to invent a face to approach hers," or "Garbo manages, because she is a supremely beautiful woman, to make beauty look like a mark of religion," he concludes, " . . . Garbo, like any other thing of beauty, is indescribable."
The impact of her beauty, though, is also evident to Bainbridge. As he notes, "Garbo has probably had a greater influence on the appearance of women today than any other person." Even though Bainbridge wrote this in 1955, it is still an astounding statement. He points out that if one looks at pre-Garbo photographs of stars such as John Crawford, Tallulah Bankhead, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and others, their "portraits show a collection of rather plump and perky young women with sort, fuzzy bobbed hair, thick eyebrows, fussy make-up and wearing expressions that were either fatuous or coy. In their post-Garbo portraits, the same young women look startlingly alike - their hair is now worn in the long, plain page-boy style, their eyebrows are mere pencil lines, their eyelashes have been artificially lengthened, their cheeks look as if they are being determinedly sucked in, their make-up is of the simplest, and their expressions are uniformly languorous and inscrutable . . . ."
Consider the year of 1926, when Garbo's face first graced American screens in "The Torrent" and "The Temptress." Compare the Garbo of these films with Dolores Del Rio in "What Price Glory," Merna Kennedy in "The Circus," Joan Crawford in "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," Clara Bow in "Kid Boots," Jobyna Ralston in "For Heaven's Sake," Eleanor Boardman in "Tell It to the Marines," Sally O'Neill in "Battling Butler," Mary Brian in "Brown of Harvard," Laura La Plante in "Skinner's Dress Suit," Marie Prevost in "Up In Mabel's Room," Alice Terry in "Mare Nostrum," and the list could go on and on. Without a doubt, Garbo is the antithesis of the "look" that moviegoers were so accustomed to in 1926.
The Garbo feature that has by far received the most attention is her eyes. Bainbridge notes that the most commonly used adjective to describe her eyes is "haunting," although others such as "sad," "quizzical," "languorous," "melancholy," and "omniscient" have been used with regularity. Her eyes were blue, but more accurately described by many others as an "unforgettable blue" indicating the uniqueness that belongs to every aspect about Garbo. Bainbridge described her eyes as "arresting," an excellent description of what one feels especially when she is shown for the first time in each of her silent films.
In at least three of her silent films, the effect of that first glimpse of the Garbo beauty is very well illustrated. In "The Temptress" (1926) we see Garbo early on, but she is wearing just enough mask to be discreet. However, later, in the garden, when leading man Antonio Moreno asks her to remove the mask, we see her reach behind to unclasp it, and then the camera moves behind her so we see Moreno's face. His expression changes from one of grinning merriment to one of awe. Then the camera moves so we see Garbo's face, but, realizing the effect of the Garbo eyes, director Fred Niblo has her looking down and then slowly raising her eyes to look at Moreno. Moreno exclaims, "You are - beautiful!" The title card is sufficient for the moment.
In "Flesh and the Devil" (1927) John Gilbert is a Austrian officer greeting his family at the train station when he happens to look over and see a beautiful woman disembarking from the train. We are only given a view from his somewhat distant vantage point, but follow her as she walks quickly to a waiting carriage. She drops a bouquet of flowers, and Gilbert rushes over to pick them up. He holds them for a moment, unblinking, unmoving -- gazing on her exquisite beauty, and we, for the first time, see the face up close and empathize with his character's reaction.
"Love" (1929) gives the best example of this. Gilbert, as a Russian officer, happens upon Garbo who is stranded in her sleigh during a heavy snowstorm. She wears a hat and veil, so, of course, he is unable to see her face. Being very chivalrous, he takes her to the closest inn. She sits on a bench by the fire, and he turns his back as he continues chatting. We see her lift the veil first, then, still chatting, Gilbert turns and sees her face for the first time. Stunned by her beauty, he stops talking and can only stare as if momentarily paralyzed.
Certainly, one cannot talk of Garbo's beauty without talking about the eyes - eyes for which adjectives are difficult to conjure. However, the Garbo eyes were so much a part of her superb acting ability, as well. Sherwood may have been "powerless to formulate an opinion on her dramatic technique" - which could be because he was unable to get past her incredible beauty or maybe it was because he had only seen two of her films, or both - but her acting, like her beauty, appears to be an anachronism for the silent era as well. Always restrained, always underplayed, her eyes said more than any number of animated gestures could. Screenwriter Frances Marion said, "It was always fascinating to watch Garbo; her economy of gesture, constant changing of moods revealed by her luminous eyes that never played the little physical tricks used by so many actresses." Director Clarence Brown ("Flesh and the Devil" and "Woman of Affairs") said, "Garbo had something behind the eyes that you couldn't see until you photographed it in close-up. You could see thought. If she had to look at one person with jealousy, and another with love, she didn't have to change her expression. You could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other. And nobody else has been able to do that on the screen. Garbo did it without the command of the English language." (Kevin Brownlow interview, The Parade's Gone By, University of Berkeley Press, 1968).
Garbo as an actress has been compared to Bernhardt or Duse, something that at least on one occasion caused her great embarrassment. At a party, someone commented that her recent role in "Camille" (1936) was finer than Duse's. She immediately got up from her chair and left the party. According to Bainbridge's biography, one guest recalled, "Her face was white as chalk. She valued the compliment, of course, but her very great modesty made hearing it unendurable agony."
Silent actress Louise Brooks commented, "She's so perfect that people say she can't act. People would much rather see someone like Peter Sellers performing than see real acting, which is intangible. People are pretty good judges of dancing, because they've all tried to dance a little. They recognize a technique. They're judges of singing, because they've tried to sing, and they recognize a technique. So they must have some visible technique in order to judge acting, and there isn't any. Acting is completely a personal reaction. That is why I get so inflamed when people tell me Garbo can't act. She is SO great." (Kevin Brownlow interview, The Parade's Gone By, University of Berkeley Press, 1968)
It is a tribute to Garbo's acting greatness that her technique was so different, so unique to the period of cinema history in which she arrived. It is no wonder that with the combination of beauty and acting being so unconventional for the time, so prescient of the style that was to come (maybe not so much prescient as the one who set the standard), and all of this so beguiling to the picturegoer, she swept the world off its feet. It is also a tribute to her acting greatness that she moved so effortlessly from silent film to sound - without changing her technique or worrying about "adapting" the the new medium. Garbo was already perfect for it - and who else was so perfect in both mediums?
Garbo's silent films are works of art in a sense. No, she wasn't given the best stories - instead she was given the popular novels of the day - basically soap operas with elegant backgrounds. However, we must be thankful that she was a part of a studio such as MGM where quality was revered and expected. Therefore, although the stories themselves may not be masterpieces, the visual experience alone makes them an aesthetic gratification equal to the viewing of a great painting. Add to that the beauty of emotion and motion - Garbo moving across the screen, expressing joy or sadness, smiling, gazing with her impenetrable eyes - and you have an artistic experience that touches the heart and moves the spirit.
Biographer Barry Paris (Garbo, University of Minnesota Press, 1994) explained, "For the denizens of the first half of the twentieth century, when such images still counted, Garbo was the moviegoing experience - theory and practice alike. Some quirk of Nature and Art created a face, a personality, and an erotic presence unprecedented in history. . . Garbo was an anomaly, not a mystery. She as something to be experienced rather than adored, but people did both."
One only need look at the sheer presence of Garbo in the twentieth century and the fact that her presence continues just as memorably in the twenty-first century. The number of books on Garbo is remarkable. Her films still attract large audiences on television or in theatres. Her image is constantly being reproduced and sold in photos, posters and in books of photographic collections. With the celebration of her 100th birthday, there are special remembrances and the release of films that have never been available for the home video market. In the 1960's, Clarence Brown declared that Garbo and Rudolph Valentino were the only two stars who would endure through posterity. One may argue that others should be included on the list, but no one can deny that Garbo will endure.
As Sherwood noted in his 1926 Life article, " . . . there is no room for an argument as to the efficacy of her allure," and, although words are inadequate to explain why, without question that allure continues to this day.
Copyright 2005 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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