Jennifer Kellow Fiorini
Greta Garbo - The Virtuous Vamp
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Today Greta Garbo is remembered for uttering one of the most famous quotes in film history, “I want to be alone.” She made only twenty-six films between her arrival in America and her abrupt departure from Hollywood in 1941, when she disappeared from the public eye. Her feminist spirit enraged censors and played a major role in forming the modern woman in the pre-Code era.
Greta Garbo was born into relative poverty in Stockholm, Sweden, on September 18, 1905. Her father died in 1920, and she worked hard to support herself. She dreamed of being an actress and was accepted on a full scholarship to Sweden’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Theater.
After seeing her Swedish films, and believing she had star quality, MGM head Louis B Mayer brought Greta to Hollywood. At first no one understood what Mayer saw in this strange, stoic, foreign actress. MGM didn’t put her in films right away. Instead, they sent her on publicity shoots to introduce their latest find to the public.
When Garbo was finally cast in the silent film, Torrent, her star power was on full display. In the silent era through the 1930’s, people were drawn to personalities and faces. It was the first-time humans could gaze at other humans close up, their emotions on full display, projected onto huge screens. Garbo was a mythical creature with a face that fascinated audiences. In 1926 she made her most famous silent film, Flesh and the Devil. Paired with matinee idol John Gilbert, their chemistry was palpable, and when their onscreen romance became a brief real-life affair, the public couldn’t get enough. A star, but stuck in vamp roles she didn’t want, she rebelled by telling journalists in interviews that she wanted to play “no more bad womens” and promptly went on strike for eight months. MGM caved in and found new roles for her.
Garbo and John Gilbert kiss while lying down in Flesh and the Devil, 1926.
As author Mick LaSalle wrote, “Out of that push and pull between Garbo and MGM came a new type, the virtuous vamp, the good-bad woman, the glorious, notorious woman that Garbo would play for the rest of her career.” A career in which she was her own creation, not just a creation of the men at MGM.
Garbo utters her iconic catch-phrase "I want to be alone." to John Barrymore in Grand Hotel, 1932. Many of the films she made were costume dramas, which sounds old fashioned, except for the strong, modern goddess at their center. Sacrifice and redemption were themes in all of her films. Her face imbued the beauty, pain, and suffering of pure love that made her “sins” to obtain that pure love, forgivable. Overwhelming passion depicted as pure love, cloaked in spiritual/religious overtones, subversively released sex from judgement.
The men in Garbo’s films were powerless in the face of her strength and beauty. In Mata Hari Ramon Novarro plays the young, idealistic lover who worships her completely. In one scene she asks him about the Madonna in his room. He explains it was a gift from his mother and that the candle to the Madonna is always lit. When she asks him to extinguish it before sleeping together, Novarro protests, she threatens to leave, and Novarro extinguishes the candle. In Garbo’s films she is the only goddess to be worshipped, and men do what they’re told.
Garbo, as Mata Hari, seduces the young, innocent Novarro in Mata Hari, 1931.
When Novarro shows up the next day to tell Mata Hari she should run away with him because they are "so in love." Mata Hari says - Last night was last night, but now I'm brushing my hair, and REALLY busy! A far cry from women who wait by the phone in films of the 1950s.
"I am my own master!" Mata Hari, 1931.
Garbo wears the pants in Mata Hari, and sets the fashion trends forty years in the future with sparkly spandex!
In 1933 Garbo filmed Queen Christina, a pet project she lobbied hard to make, based on the life of a bisexual Swedish queen raised from birth as a boy. The censors were furious, and though the gay storyline was toned down, it is obvious that the queen, who dresses in masculine clothes, has affairs with both sexes. When her chancellor tells her she must marry and produce an heir or die an old maid, Christina replies, “ I have no intention to, Chancellor, I shall die a bachelor!” Queen Christina is a feminist film depicting the Queen abdicating her power to liberate herself as a woman in order to live her own life. Christina laments being forced to live her life for the expectations of her dead father. In the end she makes an impassioned speech that she no longer can suppress this longing to be her own person. Breen, head of the Catholic censorship board, went ballistic, objecting to dangerous ideas of gender roles, among other things. He tried to suppress the film, but he didn’t have the power yet; within months he would.
Queen Christina questioned many traditional viewpoints that Catholic extremist Joseph Breen would find offensive and "dangerous."
Christina: "As for me, Uncle, all I can say is that I think marriage is an all together shocking thing. How is it possible to endure the idea of sleeping with a man in the room!"
On other countries having their own religious beliefs
Archbishop: This is not a normal war for treasure or conquest. It is for our faith and for our God!
Christina: God is being invoked in many lands, these days, your grace. What about the enemy's God?
Archbishop: When the enemy invokes God - that is blasphemy, your majesty!
Christina: I wish I had your confidence, Archbishop.
(Post-Code questioning the church in this way would be forbidden.)
On sleeping with Antonio
Christina: This is how the Lord must have felt when he beheld the finished world with all His creatures breathing... living.
Breen found this image offensive, saying- "Ms. Garbo should be kept away from the bed!" (image from pre-Code.com)
On how many lovers the Queen has had
Christina: [in disguise] I'll tell you the truth. Well, gentlemen, I have the truth as the Queen has had 12 lovers this past year. A proud dozen!
Crowd: Long live the Queen!
(image from pre-Code.com)
On living the way it makes you happy, no matter what society says
[on the street protests about her private life] Evidently my people, who are said to love me, do not wish me to be happy.
(image from pre-Code.com)
Queen Christina kisses her lady in waiting on the lips. (image from pre-Code.com)
Surely the most dangerous image of all, a fully realized woman, in control of her own life. The powerful final shot in Queen Christina. Three months later these images would disappear from movie screens.
Tired of Hollywood, Garbo took a break in 1941 and never returned. She also never married and though generally believed to be bi-sexual, Garbo supposedly cited co-star Gilbert as her true love saying to a friend who quoted her after her death in 1990, “I couldn’t marry him, I froze, I was afraid he would tell me what to do and boss me – I always wanted to be the boss.”
More on Greta Garbo
You Must Remember This Podcast
Complicated Women: Sex and Power in pre-Code Hollywood by Mick LaSalle
Greta Garbo; A Divine Star by David Bret
A great site with tons of resources
TCM is playing the Kay Francis/William Powell pre-Code classic One Way Passage on October 22
Lots of pre-Code horror films this month on TCM including
Mystery at the Wax Museum
The Mask of Fu Manchu
The Most Dangerous Game
Island of Lost Souls
The Vampire Bat
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
For a full list of pre-Code movies this month on TCM check out pre-Code.com