Garbo’s Secret

Brenda Maddox

  • Garbo by Alexander Walker
    Weidenfeld, 191 pp, £10.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 297 77799 8

Why did the most beautiful and adored of early movie queens walk out at the height of her career and become a virtual recluse? Alexander Walker treats Garbo as a mystery to which he at last can offer an answer. Indifference to the prize, he says; the same detachment that enabled her, at 20 and just arrived in Hollywood, with little English, to defy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most powerful of Hollywood studios, and win.

Yet from the vantage-point of 1980, Garbo looks less wondrous than MGM. Yesterday’s studio is more mysterious than yesterday’s star. The prima donna who fears crowds, the temptress who never finds true love, the crazy-mixed-up beauty, are always with us: but the Hollywood studio of the 1920s is almost unimaginable in today’s world of civil liberties, fair employment acts and independent production companies. MGM was a gold-plated satanic mill. With its contracts and options, its suspensions and morals clause, it held absolute power over its photogenic hirelings. Garbo got away with her civil disobedience only because giving in was to MGM’s financial advantage.

In 1925 MGM sent contracts to Stockholm for both Garbo and her director, Mauritz Stiller, an oversized, orphaned Jew (who was probably homosexual). Stiller had discovered Garbo, a drama student in Stockholm, and recognised under the puppy fat the face in a million that was meant for the cameras. Their first picture together, Gösta Berlings Saga, was so successful that Hollywood beckoned without needing to see more.

When they got there, however, MGM loved her, hated him. It was as deft at splitting winners from losers as it was at getting teeth capped: soon Garbo was leaning on the studio and the movie idol, John Gilbert, for her props, professional and emotional. (She was glad to meet a real American.) Stiller found himself with no films to make and an expiring visa. Before he knew it, he was back in Sweden, where he died a few years later.

It was at this point that Garbo displayed what Mr Walker calls her ‘weapon of not caring’. Discovering that her lover, Gilbert, was getting $3,000 a week to her $600, she went home and refused to work. MGM dealt its never-fail punishment: suspension, which not only cut off a star’s salary but added the time off the payroll onto the end of the contract, thus pushing further into the future the day of escape from the studio’s clutches. It did not budge her. She stayed home. In the end, Garbo won her rise, backdated to cover her six months’ leisure. She would not have minded returning to Sweden, it is true, but MGM was not one to stand on principle: the box-office returns of Flesh and the Devil. Garbo’s third American film, made caving in sensible.

No interview with Garbo went into this book; she has not given more than a few curt words to the press since an interview with Photoplay in 1928. The new information that does appear has come from the archives of MGM. MGM invited Mr Walker in: from the way he runs on about his ‘never before’ opportunity you would think he’d been given Dead Sea scrolls rather than the files of a publicly-listed American company as glad as any to get its name in the papers. The book carries the flawed advantages of being ‘authorised’: there are no anecdotes here about what Louis B. Mayer may or may not have done to the pubescent Judy Garland, or others in his thrall. The worst that is said of the man many still speak of as a monster is that he was a ‘part-affectionate, part-retributive tyrant’.

Where Mr Walker excels is where he hardly needed MGM’s dusty papers – that is, in his ability to share gracefully his own vast knowledge of the early cinema. His dramatic account of Garbo playing various scenes to perfection is beautifully complemented by photographs, with subtitles, flickering across two-page spreads, like frames of a silent movie. The photographs are superb. They show that Garbo was more than what the critic Roland Barthes called ‘a face-object’, belonging to that moment in cinema ‘when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into deepest ecstasy’. Yet the swift movements of her angular body were an equal part of her fascination, and reveal, now, how she paved the way, pre-Hitchcock, for a succession of scrawny, eager, aggressive blondes that included Bacall and Kelly. Pulling the man toward her, encircling his head in her lap or bending over him, she seemed to favour what the Sacred Roman Rota of the Vatican once deplored in an annulment case as ‘the position and actions of the male’. Poor Lew Ayres. Poor Robert Montgomery. Even John Barrymore looked a bit unready beside her.

Androgynous? Castrating? Lesbian? Who cares. The fascination with the home lives of the stars always misses the basic point: they are actors, wearers of costumes, speakers of other people’s words. What they seem to be on the screen is the most interesting thing about them.

Like many stars, Garbo as a child was a determined and bitter daydreamer; later she opened up this fantasy world for the camera, gazing into it as if it were a person. She could wear supremely elegant, sexy clothes, for the camera. But when she was at the ‘home’ to which she was always thinking of going, her identity faded. She was gauche and penny-pinching, clumsily and mannishly dressed. Like many actresses also, she was a fag hag, comfortable with homosexuals, who were not going to jump her, and who made her laugh. Cecil Beaton proposed to her. Turning him down, she said: ‘You wouldn’t like to see me in the mornings in an old man’s pyjamas.’ He replied: ‘I would be wearing old man’s pyjamas too.’ She remained unpersuaded, unmarried, childless.

The public, as well as being curious, wanted to think she had enjoyed a little of what she gave. Of her performance with John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil, Mr Walker says: ‘There are few scenes in American films, silent or talkie, in which two fully clothed people generate so much sexual desire through simple physical contiguity.’ Why did she let her sex appeal lie dormant in her private life? Her un-Americanly open affairs with Gilbert and Leopold Stokowsky suggest that, however briefly, she may have had some fun.

Garbo didn’t actually retire after 24 films: she faded. Why? She had had a flop (Two Faced Woman) in 1941, a bad year to flop. Her reputation had lost its power. In national loyalty as well as in gender, her message was too ambiguous for wartime. (She refused, although a naturalised American citizen, to do a broadcast in Swedish to tell her neutral former countrymen how much the United States admired Sweden.) As time passed, the right scripts didn’t appear; she had become ‘unbankable’ – Hollywood’s cruellest epithet. Away from MGM, she was restless, unsure of herself. The photographs show her cowering behind hats, gloves and scarves – terrified at the fading of her beauty. As her face lost its elegance, her flaws stood out especially her hands, big and gnarled as a farmer’s. She leaned on her friends. They, as Mr Walker perceptively notes, were always of her own age. She never managed to cross the generations.

Until now. This book has a newspeg – Garbo’s 75th birthday – but does not need it. Garbo’s erotic style is back in fashion, as it three decades of war, baby-boom and big-boobed heroines had never existed. Thanks to the sexual revolution and the insatiability of the television screens, Garbo’s beauty is an anachronism no longer.