Hollywood Icon

Greta Garbo, Siren of the Screen

To coincide with publication of a new book about Greta Garbo and as part of the Photo Oxford Festival – whose theme this year is ‘Women and Photography: Ways of Seeing and Being Seen’ – this online exhibition presents a selection of photographs of the Hollywood legend, who has become synonymous with cinema’s golden age of the 1920s and 1930s. Organiser Philip Grover introduces the material, while author and leading scholar of Hollywood photography Robert Dance writes a new essay on the extraordinary life and career of Garbo, with particular emphasis on the film star as photographic subject, accompanied by portraits of the Swedish actress chosen to demonstrate how her image and persona were created during those years when her star shone most brightly of all in Tinseltown:

Born Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm in 1905, Garbo’s star burst into life in mid-1920s Hollywood, when she appeared in a string of silent pictures for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. An immediate success, Garbo swiftly became MGM’s most important player, whose films with passionate storylines and racy titles propelled her to fame and fortune in her early twenties. Garbo arrived in the movies as the industry was changing, however, with the introduction of sound coming just a few years later, and her first film of the sound era was marketed to the public with the memorably simple line ‘Garbo talks!’ Watching this film today is instructive. Anna Christie shows Garbo as the most thoroughly modern of actors, speaking emotion with her eyes, whose subtlety and economy of movement reflect a different sensibility from those stage actors employing a false theatricality around her. Garbo was always an enigma, at once a solitary performer and someone whose acting hinted at great depth and personal feeling – and the studio’s promotion of her played on this duality. Her famous line spoken in 1932’s Grand Hotel – ‘I want to be alone’ – somehow mirrored her life, a star on the screen, of light and in silver, yet unknowable off it. Withdrawing from the limelight after her last film made in 1941, Garbo lived out her life to become the legend she remains today, the epitome of fame, and the representative of Hollywood’s golden age.

Clarence Sinclair Bull, Greta Garbo for ‘Inspiration’, 1930. © John Kobal Foundation
Ruth Harriet Louise, Greta Garbo for ‘The Divine Woman’, 1927. © John Kobal Foundation
Clarence Sinclair Bull, Greta Garbo for ‘Camille’, 1936. © John Kobal Foundation
Clarence Sinclair Bull, Greta Garbo for ‘Ninotchka’, 1939. © John Kobal Foundation

‘Garbo: In the Spotlight’, by Robert Dance

Those of us who love the movies, especially old movies, each have a list of favourite actors, whose films we might seek out at revival houses, on TCM, streaming, or in our piles of now old-fashioned DVDs. There are Chaplin fans, enthusiasts who claim Katharine Hepburn is tops in twentieth-century Hollywood, devotees of Cary Grant, Astaire and Rogers, Liz Taylor, Brando, and Bogart and Bacall. Joan Crawford’s reputation is enjoying something of a revival a half-century after the film Mommie Dearest almost ruined her legacy forever. And then there is Greta Garbo. She wasn’t always the audience favourite during the sixteen years she worked at MGM (1925–1941), but she was always considered Hollywood’s – the world’s – most beautiful woman. Her enigmatic personality and cool, remote detachment, along with an unwillingness to play the Hollywood game – she never gave an interview, or participated in any Tinseltown social life – kept her permanently removed and largely unknown to her peers. Yet nearly all considered her Hollywood’s premiere actress and greatest star.

Clarence Sinclair Bull, Greta Garbo for ‘Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)’, 1931. © John Kobal Foundation
Clarence Sinclair Bull, Greta Garbo for ‘The Painted Veil’, 1934. © John Kobal Foundation

There was little to like about Garbo until you watch her come alive, once again, in silver. Few could deny she was one of the most spectacularly photogenic actors ever to appear in films. She was a brilliant subject, and her face scored as well projected on screen as it did staring out from the pages of fan magazines. For she learned, right at the beginning of her American career, that it was as important to register well for the still camera as it was for the moving camera. And, as star portraits became increasingly essential to promoting and sustaining film careers, Garbo mastered the art of posing, and is now recognised almost as much for her portraits as for her screen portrayals. Certainly there are people today who have never seen a Garbo film but would instantly recognise some of her iconic images.

Ruth Harriet Louise, Greta Garbo for ‘The Mysterious Lady’, 1928. © John Kobal Foundation
Edward Steichen, Greta Garbo, 1928. © John Kobal Foundation

Greta Garbo (1905–1990) was born in Stockholm, Sweden, the third child of working-class parents. Her father died when she was only twelve and by necessity she left school and went to work, first as a barber’s assistant and later as a department store clerk. When a small-time actor/director came to the store to select costumes for an upcoming short film, Garbo brashly asked him for a part. He hired the teenager, who made her screen debut in Peter the Tramp (Swedish: Luffar-Petter) in 1922. She then applied to the acting school of Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre and, remarkably, was accepted. In her second year renowned director Mauritz Stiller came to the school seeking actresses for an upcoming epic film, The Saga of Gösta Berling (Swedish: Gösta Berlings Saga), based on a Nobel Prize-winning novel. Garbo landed a secondary role and proved her worth in front of the camera. She left the academy and accompanied Stiller to Turkey, where an intended production collapsed due to lack of funding. From Constantinople she was sent to Berlin to make a film with G. W. Pabst, The Street of Sorrow (German: Die Freudlose Gasse). While they were in Berlin, Stiller met with MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer who was in Europe scouting talent. Stiller was offered a Hollywood contract, and he asked that Garbo be given one as well. Mayer agreed since he was always looking for attractive actresses to populate MGM’s films, and there was little risk paying her $350 weekly when he could cancel the deal after six months. He never spoke about Garbo, but it turned out to be the second-best deal which Mayer ever made – the first being when he accepted theatre owner Marcus Loew’s offer to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, placing Mayer in command of the Hollywood studio.

Photographer unknown, Greta Garbo for ‘Gösta Berlings Saga’ (The Saga of Gösta Berling), 1924. © John Kobal Foundation
Swedish film magazine Filmjournalen (11 September 1927), Cover photograph of Greta Garbo by Arnold Genthe, 1925. © Author’s collection

Garbo arrived in America in the summer of 1925, and by autumn she was working on her first Hollywood film, Torrent. Those who were on the set recalled that something magical happened when Garbo appeared before the camera. She was attractive, taller than most actresses, but at first did not seem to possess the qualities that predicted motion picture stardom. That is, until the camera started to roll. She was terrific in Torrent, even better in The Temptress, and at the release of her third film, Flesh and the Devil, made as she turned twenty-one, the public declared her a star. Soon MGM was forced to renegotiate her contract, and before long she was one of the highest-paid performers in the movies.

Ruth Harriet Louise, Greta Garbo for ‘Torrent’, 1925. © John Kobal Foundation
Ruth Harriet Louise, Greta Garbo for ‘The Divine Woman’, 1927. © John Kobal Foundation

Garbo’s screen career has been well documented, but the evolution of her portrait work is less well-known, although an image captured by Edward Steichen in 1928 has entered the canon of photographic works of the last century. Similarly, a session with Arnold Genthe in the summer of 1925, when the actress first arrived in New York (before continuing on to Los Angeles), produced extraordinary and now famous images, but had little influence on the way MGM would style Garbo. She had been photographed in Sweden and Germany, but the hard work started as soon as she reported to the studio. Long before any actor stepped in front of the motion picture camera, portraits were made to determine how he or she appears in photographs, what the good and bad sides are, and how to set the lighting. MGM was an efficient movie-making factory, turning out a new film every week, so expensive hours could not be spent making these decisions on the set. Instead, the laboratory was the portrait studio. Garbo’s first portrait photographer was Ruth Harriet Louise, the sole woman working behind a still camera in Hollywood in the 1920s (or 1930s). Like Garbo, New York-born Louise was hired by MGM in the summer of 1925. Two years older than Garbo, the women shared youth and a determination to succeed as newcomers in the strange Hollywood milieu.

Ruth Harriet Louise, Greta Garbo for ‘The Temptress’, 1926. © John Kobal Foundation
Ruth Harriet Louise, Greta Garbo for ‘Love’, 1927. © John Kobal Foundation

It was Louise who worked out how Garbo should be photographed. In their first session together Garbo appears uneasy with tightly curled hair and a mannered pose and expression. Louise quickly intuited that Garbo was best photographed simply, with soft lighting bringing out her features. She did not need props or dramatic clothing or backgrounds. Sit her on a stool, bring the equipment up close, and let the camera do its job. They worked together for four years before Louise lost her position in 1929, when Norma Shearer (wife of the studio’s chief of production Irving Thalberg) wanted to bring on a new photographer, George Hurrell, whose pictures flattered her. But the collaboration with Louise created an indelible body of work that crystallised the image of the youthful Garbo, and it continues to define her silent work.

Ruth Harriet Louise, Greta Garbo for ‘The Divine Woman’, 1927. © John Kobal Foundation
Ruth Harriet Louise, Greta Garbo for ‘Wild Orchids’, 1929. © John Kobal Foundation

Clarence Sinclair Bull was the second Hollywood portraitist who worked with Garbo, and he recorded her in his gallery just as talking pictures were coming into vogue. Bull had been with MGM since its inception in 1924, as the head of the still photography department. Although he sometimes made portraits, he was also busy managing the dozen or more still photographers who worked on the sets as films were being made. He photographed Garbo in late 1929 for her last silent picture, The Kiss, and early the next year for her first talkie, Anna Christie. By this time Garbo was a masterful subject, and in these first two collaborations they worked well together. Bull drew from his former colleague Louise’s use of soft focus, and paid careful attention to Garbo’s moods. For her second talkie, Romance, Garbo went to George Hurrell’s studio, and the results were not successful. Hurrell is generally acknowledged as Hollywood’s premiere photographer – then and now – and there is little question that his work with Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and, most impressively, Joan Crawford has come to define Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, the fertile interwar period. But he didn’t work well with the studio’s most glamorous actress. She froze before his lens and there was nothing he could do to penetrate the cool Swede’s icy exterior.

Clarence Sinclair Bull, Greta Garbo for ‘The Kiss’, 1929. © John Kobal Foundation
George Hurrell, Greta Garbo for ‘Romance’, 1930. © John Kobal Foundation

Garbo was back working with Clarence Sinclair Bull again in 1931, and thereafter he would be the only photographer she would allow to make her portraits. Where Ruth Harriet Louise had recorded the youthful Garbo, Bull’s images show her at the peak of her mature beauty and artistry. He was able to synthesise the characters she was playing into still images. In Anna Christie, Garbo played a working-class prostitute, and there are images from this session that show her reclining on the floor appearing slightly drunk. As the femme fatale Mata Hari, she is dressed in spectacular (even outrageous) costumes, documenting the exotic spy’s career as a dancer. Later, Bull portrays Mata Hari, who has been sentenced to death for treason, walking to the firing squad clad in a simple black smock with her hair combed back dramatically. No matter the characters she portrayed, she was always Garbo first, and by the mid-1930s Bull was no longer simply photographing an actress at work; rather, he was burnishing the legend which the studio had worked so hard to create and promote.

Clarence Sinclair Bull, Greta Garbo for ‘Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)’, 1931. © John Kobal Foundation
Clarence Sinclair Bull, Greta Garbo for ‘Mata Hari’, 1931. © John Kobal Foundation

Hollywood portraits formed the basis for the hundreds of thousands of 10 x 8 inch glossies that the film studios sent to fans around the world. They were also the images widely circulated for use in fan magazines and newspaper articles. Fan magazines are almost as old as the film industry itself: Photoplay and Motion Picture, for example, both started in 1911. It wasn’t long before their covers were devoted to a single, colourful image of a popular screen player. By the 1920s, being featured on the front cover of one of the dozens of fan magazines – with millions of copies in circulation every month – was a key gauge of a performer’s popularity. These covers typically featured paintings that derived from the studios’ black and white portraits. Furthermore, the magazines would often devote as many as a dozen full pages to star portraits. To keep up with this demand, every Hollywood studio from the late 1920s to the 1950s created in-house departments dedicated to still and portrait photography. What began as simple headshots developed into an art form, and soon studios were employing camera artists to make alluring portraits that would create and sustain the images of the greatest stars. Greta Garbo’s brightly painted portrait on the cover of a fan magazine guaranteed brisk sales.

American film magazine The New Movie Album (1930), Cover artwork from a photograph of Greta Garbo by Ruth Harriet Louise, 1928. © Author’s collection
Ruth Harriet Louise, Greta Garbo for ‘A Woman of Affairs’, 1928. © John Kobal Foundation

Garbo, like all other actors, was also shot on the set by still photographers who recorded the action of films as they were underway. At MGM the best of these were James Manatt, William Grimes and Bert Longworth, and all photographed Garbo working under the lights. These images continue to be published widely but almost never with a credit to the photographer.

Bert Longworth, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert for ‘The Temptress’, 1926. © John Kobal Foundation

Garbo did not intend to abdicate her throne after the release of her last picture, Two-Faced Woman, in December 1941. She planned a return to work in 1943, and when that prospect fizzled out made another, unsuccessful attempt in 1949. Just after the war ended she allowed Cecil Beaton to photograph her one afternoon in New York. Thinking about returning to work, she must have wanted to see how she looked after so many years away from the camera. Beaton’s results were splendid. When no film projects worked out during the 1940s, though, Garbo decided that her movie-making days were over. She agreed to have one more portrait session with a British photographer visiting Los Angeles in 1950. Antony Beauchamp was a leading London society photographer and son-in-law of Winston Churchill. He had been asked to shoot the world’s most beautiful women for a feature in McCall’s magazine. A mutual friend arranged an introduction, and Garbo agreed to a brief session. Beauchamp made a half-dozen exposures in colour, and after one appeared on the front cover of McCall’s, these photographs graced the covers of other magazines worldwide.

Cecil Beaton, Greta Garbo, 1946. © Sotheby’s
French magazine Paris Match (2 April 1955), Cover photograph of Greta Garbo by Antony Beauchamp, 1950. © Author’s collection

Whether finally it was bad luck or good strategy, Greta Garbo’s career ended when she was only thirty-six. For the next forty-nine years she attempted to live a quiet, private life. But that proved to be impossible. Each year, for no immediately discernable reason, her fame increased. On the day she died in 1990, photographers were still stationed outside her apartment in New York hoping for another glimpse of the magnificent visage, by now lined with age. She had become a star, and then a twentieth-century legend, and finally a myth. Louise Brooks wrote of Garbo: ‘She knew her genius, knew that she was queen of all movie stars – then and forever.’

Clarence Sinclair Bull, Greta Garbo for ‘Anna Christie’, 1930. © John Kobal Foundation

Acknowledgements and Credits

Online exhibition organised by Philip Grover.

Essay written by Robert Dance.

Photographs reproduced courtesy of the author, the John Kobal Foundation and Sotheby’s.

Organised in collaboration with Photo Oxford Festival 2021.

Special thanks to Simon Crocker and Robert Dance; and to Danielle Battigelli and Hannah Pye.

Robert Dance is author of a major new study of Greta Garbo, which charts her rise to fame in Hollywood of the mid-1920s, when at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer she became the number one box office star, and it examines the career strategy which ensured she has remained the epitome of glamour and female beauty, and ultimately one of the last century’s most recognisable faces: Robert Dance, The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2021). You can read more about the book and also order it online here (University Press of Mississippi). He is the author of another recent book, published in collaboration with the John Kobal Foundation, which features photographs of Garbo and other actors of Hollywood’s ‘golden age’ by leading photographers of the period: Robert Dance, Hollywood Icons: Photographs from the John Kobal Foundation (Woodbridge, Suffolk: ACC Editions, 2016). You can read more about this book online here (John Kobal Foundation). You can order the book online here (ACC Art Books).

The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood
Hollywood Icons: Photographs from the John Kobal Foundation