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TNR Film Classic: Greta Garbo (September 28, 1932)

Since Miss Greta Garbo came to America some years ago, her fame has grown and grown. In her last picture, a Hollywood and rather nursery version of Pirandello’s “As You Desire Me,” she has come to the end of her contract and to her highest success; the piece has passed from one end of country to the other in triumph, and Miss Garbo has gone back to Sweden, to return or not to return as the case may be. During all this time her position has steadily advanced. As to her drawing capacity I know very little, these are delicate and falsified matters on the whole, and what drawing power means, crowded box offices, I am still uncertain. I remember once, coming back from Italy, half an hour after Gibraltar, and just as we were passing the coast of Spain, with a vista magnificent and ever changing, how most of the passenger list had hastened below decks to see Jackie Coogan. There is no proverb about the ears and eyes of people being the ears and eyes of God. Miss Garbo’s box-office realities, nevertheless, are very great and, I feel sure, have steadily increased, or there would not he so many pictures of her promulgated or efforts at spreading news, such news, that is, as can be snappily concocted, about her, all of which costs the producers money.

Certainly it can be said that Miss Garbo is unique among Hollywood ladies and curiously untouched by its vulgar silliness of report and its obvious and intimate Kodak and journalism. Meantime she supplies an odd comment on our public, with regard to its popular philosophy, its esthetic theory and its soul. Both satire and poetry and common dream are involved.

By Miss Garbo’s being a comment on the popular philosophy of a great people and a great democratic legend, I mean two things. The first is in a lighter vein The managerial publicity for Miss Garbo, based soundly enough on facts, has created unceasingly the theme of her solitude. She does not make a part of crowds; she has moments when she likes to be alone; she flees publicity; she likes to live privately. In general this is a thought that almost strangles our average citizen. What, not go to a committee, not ride forth, not take a part in the community; if you can sing, not do it on the radio; if you are blessed with a motor, not speed somewhere; if you have a house, not create a swarming for it; if you have emotions, not carry them and tell! At any rate, conceive of someone who stays in when he could go out, who could see people but thinks it a kind of communion, peace, rest or right to be alone sometimes! This has made Miss Garbo almost a national puzzle. It could have been explained away by making her a freak or a high-hat. But she is neither. She is not even sick; Swedish people are athletic. We must swallow it, then, as a cosmic mystery, this successful star really likes at times to be alone.

In the course of democratic thought another point, much more serious, has arisen. What are artists? Are they any different from anybody else? To this challenge many of our artists of the theatre have arisen. They are as every day as everybody. I was told in Grand Rapids once of a singer from the Metropolitan who, at a Rotarian dinner in his honor, told the diners that he was just like the rest of them, no different, singing was his business just as bonding, banking, running a laundry, was theirs. This was no doubt true, but it does not affect the question. One of the things to ponder in the theatre now, in the opera especially, is the vast melee of fallen stars. They are not fallen from fiscal stardom, they are fallen from glamor. As stars they are known for their hits, their successes, their salaries and contracts, sometimes for their personalities, real or created by their agents and managers; they remain just folks like the rest of us. That is the great balm. But they are not the glamor and wonder of the heart, not any longer. As the dramatist tells us in “The Swan,” royalty, like swans, should stay well away from the bank; seen close at hand they are apt to be at best but waddling animals. So it is in the theatre ultimately, but not in democratic theory.

The sarcasm of all this is that Miss Garbo contradicts the whole business. We know very little of her, not really. Visitors to Hollywood do not see her. Junior League conventions, given a dinner by the producers, with all the screen stars lined up as hors d’oeuvres and flashlights as souvenirs, miss this one relish in the lot; they see everybody but Greta Garbo, and though they like the haircut of some great artist, they depart with a certain awe about this refusing Swedish player. A little actress, renting Miss Garbo’s house, may get a picture published of Garbo’s bed, renting publicity. Nor do we see photographs of Greta Garbo meeting someone at the train or drinking Swedish punch with a millionaire, or buried in the midst of a pile of books (wooden movie properties) or any other blessed fiddledeedee for the popular heart. There were tricks in plenty among the old stars. Patti was not without her special coaches and her parrots and imperial gems, nor did the Barnum method leave untouched the great figure of Bernhardt, who carried in her his soul’s epic. But when all was said and done, their splendor and ability shone at the proper shining time. These ancient tricks are tired now, overworked, and most stars are starry in long-runs, incomes, romances and scandals. It can be said that to Miss Garbo some of the glamor, old-style, baffling, full of dreams, imaginings and wonder, has returned. If nothing else, in many instances, she is a blessed rebuff to the back-slapping and personal-friend-of-mine citizens that appropriate the artists of the theatre, who in their turn are too scared of their positions, too greedy or too mediocre themselves to do anything different. It would be a sad day in our midst if our great ticket-buying public should learn one chief and simple fact about art, which is that a great artist is like everybody else but is not like anybody else. Alas, equality and the folks!

Esthetically the case of Miss Greta Garbo is a kind of joke on the whole theatre public. The realism-democracy theory that the great public holds concerning the theatre tells us that acting is just being natural, being the character, things as they are, none of the spouting and artificiality of the old fellows. Down deep, this prose-nature business is the last thing wanted; most people, however flat, want art to be art, without offending them by being anything different from anything else. The lurking dream is there, nevertheless, the desire for creation anew, the fresh world of fiction, flux or ideality. What they think they want would be best found in the zoo, since nothing so acts like an elephant as an elephant. What they really want is the difference between the moon in the sky and the moon in the water; they want a new birth with a nameless difference; they want resemblance with escape. What they declare and actually seek is what they won’t like when they get it. The public arrives by things outside of its declarations, and obeys constantly forces it could never understand. In whatever style, what people want in acting is acting. Miss Garbo solves this problem without seeming to, and, for that matter, even when she is not acting at all. At the very start her foreign accent gives her a certain removal. It is not necessarily a style, a treatment, a definite elevation or distillation; it is primarily a physical fact that removes her from the ordinary and makes possible the illumination, unreality and remoteness that we thirst after. That remote entity of her spirit, a certain noble poignancy in her presence, a certain solitary fairness, a sense of mood that is giving and resisting at the same time: these defeat and break down the poor little common theory of naturalness and prose method. This player is not hoity-toity or highbrow or any of that, the public feels; she is not unnatural; she is like somebody, they don’t know just who, but still—. Her mere physical factual distance from the audience parallels the distance that style in art assures and that instinct expects, so that what they would deny in theory they now run after in fact.

This is leaving out of account the side of the public’s relation to Miss Garbo that is so much to its credit. People’s souls sense in her some concentration or magnetism that they value. There is a muteness, inaccessibility and beauty that attracts both men and women. She presents an instance of the natural and right progress of the poetic: from the concrete toward ideality. There is in her work no cheapness of attack, it is clear that her services could not be obtained for such effects. Her mind is not patently technical, her spirit not easily flexible, so that it is mainly a larger something that comes off to the audience, and in the future there will be a fuller development and radiance of her natural resources according to her own study, training and the influences to which she is subjected.

As to Miss Garbo’s performances, her creations of the roles assigned her, they have been variable. Such a role as Mata Hari, in a silly play, with a cast made up largely of lollipops and a brindling, venal atmosphere of Hollywood danger and war, was not for her, though the piece could have been written for her particular qualities. "Romance" was a cruel venture to subject her to, not because she could not have played some Nordic artist, beautiful, absorbed, passionate and changing, but because she was burdened with creating a child of the sun, rich, impish, swanlike and typical, cosmic as legend, and this had no relation either to her realm of feeling and beauty or her external technique. In Pirandello’s “As You Desire Me,” Miss Garbo for the first time came, in my opinion, into her own, so far forward indeed that this discussion of her must remain inadequate. For the first time she seemed to me to show in her playing an inner delight and happy dedication to the love and joy of it. Her stage movement has grown lighter and more varied; the line of her hands has taken on a new and vivid life; and the diversity in technical attack and in the player’s vitality seemed to me much greater. The secret luminous center of such playing cannot be conveyed, of course, any more than its shining fluency can be forgotten. Something is given in this playing of Miss Garbo’s that I have not seen given before, and from the moments of her playing it seemed to me something radiant returned to her; she seemed to me not another person but a new artist in her art.

This article originally ran in the September 28, 1932, issue of the magazine.