Greta Garbo — The Virtuous Vamp

by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini

Greta Garbo is remembered for uttering one of the most famous quotes in film history, “I want to be alone.” She made only 26 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.
Garbo was born into relative poverty in Stockholm, Sweden in 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 the 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, so 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. During the silent era through the 1930s, people were drawn to movie personalities. It was the first-time humans could gaze at other faces close up, see 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 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.
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 notorious woman that Garbo would play for the rest of her career.” Her career was her own creation — not just a creation of MGM’s men.
Sacrifice and redemption were themes in all of her films. Many were costume dramas, which sounds old fashioned, except for the strong, modern goddess at their center. Her face imbued the beauty, pain and suffering of pure love that made her “sins” to obtain that love, forgivable. Overwhelming passion was depicted as pure love, cloaked in spiritual/religious overtones, and subversively releasing 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 her is always lit. When she asks him to extinguish it before sleeping
together, Novarro protests, she threatens to leave, and he extinguishes the candle. In Garbo’s films, she is the only goddess to be
worshipped and men do what they’re told.
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!” This 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.
Tired of Hollywood, Garbo took a break in 1941 and never returned. She also never married, but cited co-star Gilbert as her true love, saying, “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.”

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Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.

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