She was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Actress and received an Academy Honorary Award in 1954 for her “luminous and unforgettable screen performances.”
Mr. and Mrs. Stockholm Go Shopping
The Gay Cavalier
Our Daily Bread
Peter the Tramp
The Saga of Gosta Berling
The Joyless Street
The Divine Woman
The Mysterious Lady
A Woman of Affairs
A Man’s Man
The Single Standard
Anna Christie (German)
Anna Christie (English)
Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)
As You Desire Me
Greta Garbo, one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic stars, was born Greta Lovisa Gustafson on September 8, 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden to Anna Lovisa (née Karlsson, 1872–1944), a housewife who later worked at a jam factory, and Karl Alfred Gustafsson (1871–1920), a laborer. To her parents, who already had two children, Greta came as a surprise arrival, further straining the family’s already tight finances. Greta’s father was an unskilled laborer who was often out of work and in poor health, which forced his family to live with the constant threat of poverty.
Garbo was a shy daydreamer as a child. She hated school and preferred to play alone. Yet she was an imaginative child and a natural leader who became interested in theatre at an early age. She directed her friends in make-believe games and performances and dreamed of becoming an actress. Later, she would participate in amateur theatre with her friends and frequent the Mosebacke Theatre. At the age of 13, Garbo graduated from school, and, typical of a Swedish working class girl at that time, she did not attend high school. She later acknowledged a resulting inferiority complex.
In the winter of 1919, the Spanish flu spread throughout Stockholm, and Garbo’s father, to whom she was very close, became ill. He began missing work and eventually lost his job. Garbo stayed at home looking after him and taking him to the hospital for weekly treatments. He died in 1920 when she was 14 years old.
Following her father’s death, Greta landed job as a salesperson at a Swedish department store. To help promote the men’s clothing line, Greta starred in a pair of advertising shorts, modeling the attire. Her natural instincts in front of the camera soon led her to a role in her first film, a comedy called Peter the Tramp (1922).
A bigger opportunity followed when Greta earned a scholarship at the prestigious Royal Dramatic Theater, Sweden’s premier school for aspiring actors. But Greta cut her education short after meeting director Mauritz Stiller, Sweden’s leading silent film director, who wanted the young actress to star in his new film, The Legend of Gosta Berling (1924).
The film’s success in both Sweden and Germany made Garbo famous. Stiller became her mentor, training her as a film actress and managing all aspects of her nascent career. She followed her role in Gösta Berling with a starring role in the 1925 German film Die freudlose Gasse (Joyless Street or The Street of Sorrow), directed by G. W. Pabst and co-starring Asta Nielsen.
The film also caught the attention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) production chief Louis B. Mayer. Mayer wanted Stiller, who worked on the film, to work in America. The flamboyant director agreed to a contract with one condition: Garbo was to come with him. Reluctantly, Mayer inked her to a deal, too.
In 1925, Garbo, then 20 and unable to speak English, was brought over from Sweden at the request of Mayer. Both Garbo and Stiller arrived in New York in July 1925 after a 10-day trip on the SS Drottningholm. But they remained in New York for more than six months without any word from MGM. They decided to travel to Los Angeles on their own, but another five weeks passed with no contact from the studio.
A Swedish friend in Los Angeles helped by contacting MGM producer Irving Thalberg, who agreed to give Garbo a screen test. According to author Frederick Sands, “the result of the test was electrifying. Thalberg was impressed and began grooming the young actress the following day, arranging to fix her teeth, making sure she lost weight, and giving her English lessons.”