“‘The Mystery Woman of Hollywood’: Greta Garbo, Feminism, and Stardom” analyzes feminism as manifested in Greta Garbo's life and career. It focuses on her European background; the media discourse on her; feminism in her films and in the United States in the 1920s; and Garbo's rebellion against Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, the heads of her studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). It also deals with her dress reform stance, her masculine femininity, the nature of her fans (especially the “Garbomaniacs”), and her friendships with the screenwriters Salka Viertel and Mercedes de Acosta. It concludes with an analysis of the 1933 film Queen Christina, characterizing it as the culmination of Garbo's feminism.
“She arouses fury, criticism, and admiration, but never apathy.”—karen hollis, “they say in new york,” picture play, april 1932
By the end of 1928, three years after she had come to Hollywood from Sweden at the age of twenty, Greta Garbo was Hollywood's top female star. “Nothing has taken the country by storm so quickly as the Garbo craze,” wrote the journalist Malcolm Oettinger in Picture Play.1 Fans hounded her for autographs; reporters for interviews. To elude them she invented pseudonyms and disguises, often dressing as a boy and wearing no makeup. When she did that, she looked ordinary, not like a glamorous star. By 1929 she refused to give interviews or appear at public events. Such actions were in keeping with her title, “The Mystery Woman of Hollywood.”2
Presenting Hollywood film stars as mysterious was a standard publicity ploy, but few masked themselves so consistently as Garbo, or were so often described as inscrutable. Attempting to penetrate her masks, I will investigate the feminism in her life and films, a subject largely overlooked by Garbo scholars.3 Her disguise as a boy suggests that she was not only cross-gendered but also rebellious. Removing her makeup in an era when American women had begun to wear it as a sign of femininity—and she herself had contributed to creating that dominant style in her films—was a further sign of rebellion.
Garbo neither called herself a feminist nor joined feminist organizations. But she lived a feminist life—that is, outside heterosexual family life, and financially independent in an era when a woman's financial situation was generally determined by the status of her husband. Sexually free, she had both male and female lovers. She succeeded in a difficult profession, rising to the top and becoming an icon for her era.
To further plumb Garbo's connection to feminism, I will examine a number of themes in her life: her European background; the media discourse on her; feminism in her films and in the United States in the 1920s; and her rebellion against Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, the heads of her studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). l will analyze her dress reform stance, her masculine femininity, the nature of her fans (especially those called Garbomaniacs) and her friendships with the screenwriters Salka Viertel and Mercedes de Acosta. Both were feminists and reformers; both were married but sexual adventurers; and both were connected to the international network of lesbian and bisexual women in the arts and theater of that era.4
In order to clarify my themes, I will discuss them separately, although they often intertwine. Each rose and fell in the wavelike pattern characteristic of historical change—hardly a unified process. Garbo stood in the midst of those waves, both creating and reflecting them. They came to a crescendo in Queen Christina (dir. Rouben Mamoulian), Garbo's 1933 biopic about the seventeenth-century queen of Sweden who was bisexual and transgender. That film, the high point of her career, was her major feminist endeavor as well as a revealing statement about herself.
FEMINISM IN SWEDEN: GARBO'S BACKGROUND
Garbo was born in 1905 as Greta Gustafsson to an impoverished working-class family in Stockholm, and subsequently raised in that city. It was Sweden's capital, as well as a center for Scandinavia's famed turn-of-the-century realist and symbolist playwrights and novelists, including Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Selma Lagerlöf (in 1909 Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize in Literature—she was the first woman and first Swede to do so).5 Recognizing that women were leaving the home for work in a modernizing society and demanding equal rights, these authors wrote about powerful women in the past and present. Many Swedish films in the 1910s and early 1920s were adapted from Lagerlöf's stories, including Garbo's first major film, The Saga of Gösta Berling, directed in 1923 by the world-famous Mauritz Stiller.
A strong feminist movement existed in Stockholm when Greta was growing up. Stiller acknowledged its importance when in the 1910s he made short films about women's suffrage, dress reform, and femininity as a masquerade—a concept relevant to Garbo's later Hollywood career. According to Garbo's great-nephew, her childhood nickname, “Kata,” came from the Swedish feminist Kata Dalström, because of the girl's assertive side. Lagerlöf embraced feminism in a speech in Stockholm in 1911, while feminists worldwide adopted the ideas of the Swedish writer Ellen Key, who called for state support for unmarried women with children, as well as for men and women to combine masculine and feminine qualities in themselves to create gender-balanced “personalities.”6
In 1922, at the age of seventeen, Greta entered the acting school of the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater Academy in Stockholm. She studied the works of Ibsen and Strindberg there. With other students, she dreamed of creating a reform theater. Evidence suggests that she had a deep romantic friendship with her best female friend at drama school, while she also dated many men.7 At the end of her first year Stiller cast her in The Saga of Gösta Berling. Changing her last name from Gustafsson to Garbo, in 1924 he brought her to Berlin, where she played a major role in G. W. Pabst's Joyless Street (1925). Whether or not she participated in the sexually liberated culture of post–World War I Berlin, Garbo must have observed its cross-gendered prostitutes, its transvestite bars and theaters, and women dressed in men's suits, neckties, and shoes—an extreme assertion of cultural rebellion. Stiller negotiated contracts for both of them with Louis B. Mayer, executive head of MGM in Hollywood, and in 1925 they journeyed to the film capital on the West Coast of California.8
FEMINISM IN THE UNITED STATES
By 1925, feminism in the United States had entered a new phase. Five years had passed since the women's suffrage movement had finally succeeded, after a seventy-five year struggle, in gaining a constitutional amendment giving women the vote. The movement was influenced by the writings of Ellen Key and the post–World War I “revolution in manners and morals,” which focused on individual satisfaction. Thus many feminists stressed personal freedom in their agendas. Some continued to work for advancing legal and political rights. Some supported free love, free divorce, and “companionate marriage.” Pacifist feminists wanted to end wars, some by humanizing aggressive men.9 Garbo's life and many of her films reflected the feminist stand for women's independence, while she supported gender reform by cross-dressing and eschewing fashionable clothes in her private life. She was also a role model for lesbian and bisexual women, who were disregarded by feminists in this homophobic era.
Feminism existed in Hollywood as an attitude influencing the making of films. Mary Pickford played tomboy roles, while film flappers such as Clara Bow represented the new morality of the 1920s and its physical freedom through energetic movements and revolutionary flapper fashions: short hair, short skirts, bound breasts, a boyish silhouette. Those fashions eliminated the tight-laced corsets, long skirts, and long hair that had been the norms for centuries. Garbo distanced herself from the flappers, but her “new woman” films, a genre I have identified, reflected the feminist agenda of equality for women in relationships. Usually set in sophisticated present-day settings, they addressed issues such as free love and companionate marriage.10 Garbo made a number of such films, including A Woman of Affairs (dir. Clarence Brown, 1928), Wild Orchids (dir. Sidney Franklin, 1929), The Single Standard (dir. John S. Robertson, 1929), and The Kiss (dir. Jacques Feyder, 1929).
Hollywood directors and producers were overwhelmingly male, but women constituted one fourth of the industry's screenwriters. Many of them were highly respected and earned more than their male colleagues.11 Three women—Dorothy Farnum, Bess Meredyth, and Frances Marion—wrote most of Garbo's early screenplays, while from Queen Christina on, Salka Viertel was in charge of them. The experiences of Marion, described in her autobiography, provide insight into the situation of Hollywood women, including Garbo. Marion had participated in the pre–World War I women's suffrage movement. But her idealism retreated when she was hired by MGM and her screenplays had to please Mayer and Thalberg, as well as directors, actors, manuscript readers, and the censors who were in place by 1922. She hit a “glass ceiling.” Later in life Marion wished that a “women's liberation movement” had existed during her years in Hollywood to validate her feminism and spur her on.12
Women were the majority in film audiences in the 1920s and 1930s, and most of the writers for the movie fan magazines were women. Those magazines circulated in the millions of copies.13 Many members of the film censorship boards in cities and states nationwide were women, as were the members of the nationwide women's clubs. Concerned that Hollywood films, the nation's major entertainment, were spreading radical ethics, they aimed at furthering censorship. In 1922 they succeeded: the studio heads established the Hays Office, headed by the Republican politician Will Hays. With a subsidiary office at MGM, it had a major impact on Garbo's career.14
THE MEDIA DISCOURSE
Public reactions to Garbo as well as discussions of her life and image proliferated in movie fan magazines and general-circulation magazines and newspapers of the era. Although by mid-1929 Garbo was refusing to give interviews, she had talked to reporters before then, and they still found out a lot about her by interviewing her servants, neighbors, fellow film workers, and friends. In writing about Garbo, reporters didn't use the word “feminism”—they avoided it in all their writings—although they covered her activities relevant to it, such as her interest in holistic medicine and spiritual healing and her devotion to exercise: she swam, hiked, rode horseback, or played tennis for as much as two hours a day. They interviewed her doctor and discovered her chronic ailments: anemia, insomnia, depression. They chided her for excessive dieting. They called her “eccentric” because she avoided Hollywood parties and lived as she pleased.15
Many writers praised Garbo's beauty, femininity, and sex appeal. They marveled at her magnetism on-screen and her ability to cross categories of age to play childlike ingenues, seductive vamps, and sophisticated older women. The word they most frequently used to describe her was “exotic.” That categorization was in keeping with her European background and her facial features: high cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and near-almond eyes (figure 1). She was sometimes called a blond Oriental.16 In this era women from distant lands—Asia, Africa, or Europe—were often viewed as erotic and experienced in sex, in contrast to puritan Americans. In this representation Garbo was a heterosexual sex symbol.
On the other hand, many fan magazine writers criticized her. The criticism was extensive and sometimes nasty. In 1933 Louella Parsons wrote in her syndicated column that Garbo was “the most criticized and frequently ridiculed star in Hollywood.”17 The attacks centered on her body, her acting, and her ethnicity. She was disparaged as too tall for films (she was five feet, seven inches in height). Her thick figure, with large shoulders and thick legs, was often called “odd.” She dieted to slim down, and wore clothing in her films that concealed these features, but they were still frequently apparent (figures 2 and 3). She moved languorously for the camera. Many critics found such movements sensual, but others charged that they were a product of her anemia and insomnia. She was accused of sleepwalking through her movies and of being a “clinging fool,” draping herself over her male costars while they dominated the action. Her white face, according to her detractors, resulted from the “bad blood” produced by her chronic anemia and shouldn't, they said, be idealized as innocent or spiritual.18
There was more. In a decade of fierce anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, critics attacked her Swedish heritage, calling her “a peasant,” a “dumb Swede,” and a “square head,” all standard anti-Swedish slurs. Even the journalist Ruth Biery, usually sympathetic to Garbo, wrote in 1932 in Photoplay, the day's major fan magazine, “Fate played a weird trick on Garbo when it gave her the talent of a [Sarah] Bernhardt with the physique of a peasant.” She continued: “We can all recall pages upon pages of quotations from the tongue of Garbo—wisecracks upon her use of our language.” Those quotations were called Garbo-isms. Most of them were probably made up. They were written in an insulting dialect, like her famed remark, “I t'ink I go home.”19
Some of the disparaging remarks were made by journalists who were angry with her because she wouldn't give them interviews. In Motion Picture in 1932, Nancy Pryor called Garbo “high hat” because of her “mystery gag” and accused her of being ungrateful to the fans and reporters who had made her a star.20 Moreover, she didn't look like the reigning film stars when she came to Hollywood, and that was held against her. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, whose fame dated from early Hollywood, were tiny women, hardly five feet tall. Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Marion Davies—the other major MGM stars when Garbo was with that studio—weren't much taller. Film flappers like Clara Bow had large round eyes, round cheeks, small features, and small bodies. Only Gloria Swanson and Nita Naldi had faces like Garbo's, and even Pola Negri, Hollywood's first European siren, had round cheeks and eyes. Katherine Albert wrote in 1932 in Photoplay that Garbo's height and chunky body seemed worse in the world of Hollywood because most stars were “dainty and petite.”21
Before 1929, movie fan magazine writers rarely used the words “masculine” or “mannish” to describe Garbo. They interpreted the boy's clothes she wore offscreen as indicating athleticism and as a disguise to avoid fans and journalists—not as a sign of her gender orientation.22 The flappers of the 1920s, who bound their breasts to attain a straight, boyish silhouette, were viewed as akin to tomboys. When Garbo wore boys’ clothing, she fit the tomboy designation. Moreover, female cross-dressing had long been popular in the theater and in films; it was considered titillating and magical, and playing male roles had long been regarded as the ultimate challenge for actresses. But turn-of-the-century sexologists invented a connection between lesbianism and “mannish” looks and behavior. Anti-suffragists adopted this connection to attack suffragists as “mannish” and thus unnatural women. In the 1920s the connection persisted, and it continued to influence public perceptions.23 The Hays Office defined homosexuality as a “perversion.” Movie fan magazine writers—usually with ties to studio publicity departments—had to be cautious in writing about bodies and sexual behavior.
From this perspective the words used to describe Garbo's body—“odd,” “eccentric,” and a “peasant” type—may have been code words for “masculine” or “lesbian.” Even the attacks on her white face as the product of “disease” sound suspicious, given the tradition of defining homosexuality as a disease. Broad shoulders and a thick body defined a masculine physique in her day, as in our own. In fact, novelists had long used the word “odd” to describe strong-minded women with a “mannish” appearance. In private, Garbo called herself “he,” “the boy,” and “the bachelor.” Even when she was involved with John Gilbert, the screen's number one male actor and sex symbol, she cross-dressed and called herself a pal to him and his male friends, while he called her “a mountain of a girl.” In one extraordinary statement alluding to her lesbian affairs, Gilbert told a reporter: “When she walks into a room, every man looks at her. And every woman does, too. She is capable of doing a lot of damage … upending thrones, breaking up friendships, wrecking homes.”24
Indeed, Garbo's femininity in her films, a source of her designation as a heterosexual sex symbol, may have been a masquerade, a way to hide her masculine self. In her famed 1929 article “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” the psychoanalyst Joan Riviere contended that women taking up intellectual work in the 1920s were masquerading as feminine to gain favor from the men who dominated that work and to cope with their anxiety over challenging the men. Riviere's categories can be applied to Garbo. As an actress she assumed many guises, but like the screenwriter Frances Marion she had to serve many masters, most of them male. Her anxiety was often extreme, as was the femininity she assumed.25
In her films Garbo wore the heavy cosmetics favored by women in that era, and her personal look became the wider standard—long lips and lots of eye makeup, especially mascara. (In their natural state her eyelashes were white; to avoid looking strange, she put mascara on them every morning.) She invented the long bob, flirtatious and feminine. She turned her long stride into a feminine glide, and she bent her body into S-curves to look “willowy.” With a mimic's command over her facial muscles, she assumed the siren's half-lidded eyes, come-hither looks, and cool eroticism.26
Writing about Garbo in Liberty magazine in 1929, Adela Rogers St. Johns argued that she wasn't masculine. “She is simply big,” wrote St. Johns. “She is a big person, mentally and physically.” Then, contradicting herself, she asserted: “She eats like a man, plays tennis like a man.”27 Clarence Brown, who directed Garbo in many films, stated in an interview in 1932 that “she is delightfully and entirely feminine. This talk about a masculine complex is just poppycock.”28 Neither St. Johns nor Brown seemed to know that a year previously, in the summer of 1928, the director Fred Niblo had chided Garbo in Hollywood magazine for telling him that she wanted to play male roles. He called this desire of hers a “menace” to young women.29
In fact, by 1930 writers on Garbo often used the word “ultra-feminine” to describe her look in her films. When it became apparent that she was cross-dressing a lot in her private life—even wearing adult male clothing—they offered a compromise in describing her. On the screen, it was agreed, she was ultra-feminine and seductive. Off the screen, she was mannish. Writing in Motion Picture in 1931, Dorothy Calhoun stated: “Hollywood doesn't see Garbo as a strange and seductive enchantress but as a carelessly-garbed, athletic Swedish girl who tramps the Boulevard in stout shoes.”30 In her well-known analysis of Garbo's appearance, Michaela Krützen contended that MGM stylists created her look, requiring her to undergo extensive cosmetic surgery on her face to conform to the symmetry that was then in vogue.31 In actuality, her face was asymmetrical (see figure 1). Many fan magazine writers pointed that out and, after sketching a portrait of her, the director Jean Negulesco reached the same conclusion. One eyebrow is higher than the other, he wrote, while her lower lip “is much too liberal” and her perfect nose “is slightly on the side in full face.”32 In fact, a case can be made that symmetry wasn't the Hollywood standard of beauty in this era.33 Moreover, MGM's changes to her face were modest. They mostly included a “cosmetic dramatization” of her face using makeup, a softening of her permed hair, and dental work to close the gaps in her front teeth. MGM's cosmetic surgeons did nothing more than remove a small bump on her forehead.34
Krützen denies Garbo any agency in creating her look, although Garbo often did her own makeup and designed her hairstyles, with the help of Billy, her personal hairdresser. And, given the introduction of panchromatic film stock in 1924, which replaced the crude orthochromatic film stock used previously, actors no longer had to use heavy makeup to register their features on film. Thus they could project a more natural image. MGM makeup artists actually applied less makeup than Garbo had worn in her European films.35
Garbo read the criticisms directed against her in the fan magazines and complained about them to friends. “Those dreadful papers,” she asserted on one occasion, “always say I look so tired.”36 But, like the “mystery woman” image, the criticisms of her probably increased her popularity, as people went to her films to judge her appearance for themselves—and clearly liked what they saw. Her box-office receipts remained strong until World War II cut off her large European market.
Why did Garbo stop giving interviews in mid-1929? That action is important to understanding her. In March of that year she and John Gilbert broke up. She lost a mentor, a skilled lover, and a heterosexual cover for her bisexuality. Several months later she recruited Salka Viertel to take over the mentoring role. Her last interview before shutting down was with Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times. She told him that she wanted to play new kinds of roles, roles that no one else had played. She was tired of “silly love making.”37 She told others that she wanted to play Hamlet, and Dorian Gray in a film version of Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890). A major reason for enforcing her mystery-woman image was to hide her bisexuality. Under the terms of her contract, she could be fired if that behavior became known publicly.
Louis B. Mayer wanted his stars to dress in the height of fashion offscreen, but Garbo didn't obey. In the process she furthered dress reform, which had been part of the feminist agenda for decades. The screen star Pola Negri, her close friend, wrote: “She was the dowdiest girl in Hollywood, the town of well-dressed women, where smartness and an air of being well-groomed is almost a religion with even the poorest extra girl.”38 Rejecting the vogue for high heels, Garbo wore flat shoes. She didn't bind her breasts, as flappers did, or wear their girdles, as she couldn't stand to have her body confined in any way. She wore neither makeup nor jewelry in her private life, and she didn't often curl her straight hair offscreen. By 1930 she was dressing as a “mannish lesbian.” She told Raymond Daum, her episodic walking companion in New York from 1963 on, that she was proud of having introduced women to polo-necked sweaters, worn by jockeys and boxers, and of having “fought for the right of women to wear trousers.”39
In 1928 Gilbert Adrian (known simply as Adrian) became MGM's head designer and began creating Garbo's film costumes. He brought dress reform to her career. Homosexual and inventive, he liked to spoof current fashions. He began designing for Garbo with A Woman of Affairs, her first “modern woman” film. His creations were innovative variations on flapper styles, including a cloche hat resembling a military helmet. The design swept the fashion world, and initiated his practice of designing hats for Garbo to match the new hairstyles she created for each film. On the screen, Adrian asserted, Garbo wanted to be original in her clothing. She would try any outfit he suggested, no matter how unusual.40 His designs for her influenced Paris couturiers, who set the styles for women worldwide. In New Movie Magazine in 1933, Virginia Schmitz wrote that Garbo's influence on these designers “goes deeper and is more comprehensive than the rest [of the Hollywood stars].”41 Adrian emphasized Garbo's broad shoulders in his designs, challenging the widespread criticism of them. He initiated that feature in A Woman of Affairs and made it even more pronounced in late 1928 in Wild Orchids, her second new woman film, set in Java. In one scene Garbo wears a Javanese costume with shoulder extensions made of stiffened fabric. Adrian copied them in other designs he did for her. They caught on; by the 1930s Paris designers were featuring broad shoulders for women. Seen as a symbol of women's power, they became a mass-market fashion.42
Wild Orchids was one of two Garbo films in which she cross-dressed. The penultimate scene in the film occurs in a threatening jungle, as her husband hunts her lover, a Javanese prince, who, it turns out, is interested only in her body. In that scene she wears men's trousers, jacket, and shirt as she tries to stop her husband from killing the prince. She also wears men's pants in several scenes in The Single Standard, filmed in the spring of 1929, another new woman movie.
Garbo's influence extended beyond dress to include physical appearance. With her height, high cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and long arms, she replicated the “new look” in women's appearance that took over by 1930, as fashion entered one of its periodic cycles. The female silhouette became longer, as did hair and hemlines, dethroning the flapper, who disappeared as a model for women's appearance.43 The 1930s fashion ideal was an elegant, sophisticated woman. Garbo matched that look, prompting many Hollywood stars to copy her appearance through makeup and hair, including Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Tallulah Bankhead.44 By 1930 producers were searching Europe for actresses who looked like Garbo, and holding contests to find look-alikes.
As the increased copycatting of Garbo's look was occurring at the end of 1929, Garbo was spending a lot of time with Salka Viertel—and preparing to make her first sound film, Anna Christie (dir. Clarence Brown, 1930). Garbo must have known what was happening in the world of fashion; her influence was everywhere in Hollywood, even at MGM, where both Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer were copying her look. It was out of this context that Anna Christie emerged. It was a feminist tour de force, in which Garbo held men responsible for victimizing women and played Anna Christie as very masculine.
FEMINISM IN GARBO'S CAREER AND FILMS
How did Louis B. Mayer, the executive head of MGM, and Irving Thalberg, head of production, react to Garbo's influence on high style? Did they cast her in new kinds of feminist films? The answer is no; they had other stars to consider. Thalberg, who was more sophisticated and educated than Mayer, respected powerful women and liked to feature them in films. In 1927 he married Norma Shearer, who was very ambitious—and who wanted to take over Garbo's new woman roles. Mayer and Thalberg had cast Garbo in such roles early in her career; that was a major concession. They allowed her to have other victories. Mayer released her from having to pose for commercial advertisements tied to products used in her films. Appearing in such ads, she believed, would identify her with commerce, damaging her status as an artist.45 In fact, she was almost entirely absent from ads in movie fan magazines during her career, except for ads for her films. She was allowed to reject George Hurrell, the new chief photographer at MGM in 1930, as her portrait photographer because she didn't like his clowning. She was permitted to leave her movie sets at five in the afternoon. She didn't have to rehearse scenes with other actors in her films.
Garbo was always an innovator in her characterizations. In both The Saga of Gösta Berling and Joyless Street she played ingenues—innocent young women who brought spirituality to flawed societies and flawed men. In early 1926 Mayer and Thalberg typecast her as a vamp-siren. She hated playing a vamp, but she later came to terms with siren roles (the vamp was purely destructive, whereas the siren mostly seduced men for sex). Determined to play more mature dramatic roles, she tackled the vamp-siren type but added spirituality and increased sexuality to the figures she played. In The Torrent (dir. Monta Bell, 1926), her first MGM film, she started out as an innocent Spanish farm girl and ended up a seductive Paris opera diva, a prototypical woman of the world.
The last scenes of The Torrent constitute one of the most striking moments in her films. Her hair is dyed black, cut in an Eton, or butch, haircut, and slicked down with pomade.46 Wearing a white fur robe with a large black-and-white collar, tall and commanding, she looks like a 1920s high-style lesbian. She rejects her adolescent sweetheart when he returns to her after a long absence—fat, balding, and married. Sitting in a cab, staring ahead in an extraordinary close-up, she looks both sad and triumphant, a new woman on her own terms (figure 4). That scene would be replicated in the famed ending of Queen Christina, as Garbo/Christina stands at the prow of a ship with a similar look on her face.
The Temptress (dir. Fred Niblo, 1926), her second MGM film, introduced a subversive theme that was to be repeated in her movies: male responsibility for women's bad behavior. The husband of Elena, the female protagonist, pimps her to other men. Men's overactive sex drive, not her morality, is the problem. She brings chaos to a company of men building a dam in South America. Many of the men lust after her body, although she tries to resist. The film ends with Garbo as a drug-addicted streetwalker in Paris, being punished for her behavior even though she was earlier exonerated for it. Garbo's films often end with a return to conventional attitudes that were earlier questioned in the body of the film, offering concessions to both the Hays Office censors and the conservative moralists of the day.
In Flesh and the Devil (dir. Clarence Brown, 1926), her third MGM vamp film, she is desired by two men who are soldiers and best friends. They preserve their love for each other through her, as she falls through the ice covering a lake at the end of the film and drowns. They are now free to remain comrades and marry variations on the typical, deferential sweet young woman. Such characters in Garbo's films offered a contrast with the powerful Garbo. In Flesh and the Devil she plays opposite John Gilbert, who was then her lover offscreen. Her character displays a sophisticated knowledge of sex techniques. She lies on top of Gilbert and erotically beside him, suggesting a variety of sex positions, while they engage in open-mouth kissing. That behavior had never previously occurred in a film, although the Hays Office would soon forbid it.47
A sexually emancipated woman in many of her movies, especially in her vamp films, Garbo showed Americans how to “do” sex, which was part of the feminist project. This was the Roaring Twenties, and young adults were rebelling against the Victorian morality of their elders by drinking, dancing the new “animal” dances such as the Black Bottom, and engaging in long bouts of kissing without intercourse, often in the new closed automobiles. This behavior was called “necking” or “petting,” but the individuals involved didn't always know how to do it effectively. They could learn from Garbo, especially the ways in which women could take the lead in sex. “Often she is the aggressor in lovemaking, reaching first,” asserted director George Cukor. And, he commented, this was “very original.”48 Judge Ben Lindsey, head of the Denver juvenile court and an authority on adolescent behavior, praised sex scenes in the movies for “teaching the Art of Love.”49
Garbo brought sex “to every hamlet, village, and farm in the land,” according to Malcolm Oettinger.50,Variety's reviewer of Flesh and the Devil wrote that “the girls get a heavy kick out of the heavy love stuff. They come out of these pictures with their male escorts and an ‘I wonder if he's learning anything’ look.”51 Delight Evans, editor of Screenland, wrote: “Ecstatic audiences stayed through the movie twice to see these scenes, and we wrote our own dialogue for the Gilbert-Garbo kisses.” Garbo and Gilbert, Evans asserted, “didn't leave much to the imagination.”52 Flesh and the Devil made Garbo into a major Hollywood star.
After completing that film, Garbo engaged in a seven-month sit-down strike against MGM. Between October 1926 and May 1927 she refused to appear at the studio until she was given a new contract with a higher salary, fewer films per year, and a guarantee of dramatic roles. This was her strongest action against Mayer and Thalberg. Because of the huge profits from Flesh and the Devil, released in January 1927, Mayer capitulated, although in the final contract he retained control over the choice of director, cameraperson, and script for her films. That concession was to have consequences for Garbo.
Her strike had feminist implications. The film star and Hollywood memorialist Louise Brooks wrote: “The victory of one friendless girl in an alien land over the best brains of a corporation rocked all Hollywood.”53 Garbo wasn't “friendless”—that's another myth about her. John Gilbert helped her plan her strike. And her successful struggle against MGM, widely reported in the press, offered a model of action to other working women who were underpaid and oppressed in their jobs.54
Acknowledging her victory, Thalberg cast her in a number of modern woman films, beginning with A Woman of Affairs in 1928 and continuing in 1929 with The Single Standard and The Kiss. A Woman of Affairs was based on Michael Arlen's 1924 novel The Green Hat, in which the female protagonist, Iris March, was “the most sexually emancipated woman in any novel of this era.”55 The Hays Office forced MGM to remove the novel's allusions to venereal disease and abortion, but retained were its references to free love and the portrayal of Iris (renamed Diana Merrick in the film) as strong-minded.
In The Single Standard Garbo plays the wealthy and rebellious Arden Stuart, who sails the South Seas for many months with her lover, a famous painter, before going back to her boring husband because they have a child. A reviewer in Variety stated that Garbo/Arden “throws off the cloak of conventionalism for free plunges claimed so common in spots here and on the continent.”56 (“Free plunges” refers to free-love practices.) The film was based on a novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns. Even the title (taken from the title of St. Johns's novel) had feminist implications. Under the “double standard of conduct,” enshrined in European law for centuries, men could have sex with whomever they pleased, while women were supposed to constrain their desires within marriage. In the 1920s “the single standard” meant that women should have the same sex rights as men.
In The Kiss Garbo gives up her gentle and liberated lover to stay with her husband, who is unreasonably jealous and violent. In this she seemingly bows to convention, as she does at the end of The Single Standard. But when her husband savagely attacks a young man she has kissed, she shoots the husband and kills him to save the young man. At the end of the film, on trial for murder, she states from the dock: “I am indifferent to public opinion.” Judged innocent, she returns to her lover, a much more liberated man than her deceased spouse.
Garbo played her first talking role at the end of 1929 in Anna Christie, adapted from the Eugene O'Neill play of the same name. Anna is Swedish American; her ethnicity justified Garbo's Swedish accent, which wasn't an issue in her silent films. Anna is a prostitute trying to leave the trade. Garbo portrays her as harsh and masculine, a bitter survivor. She damns men for having forced her into prostitution by raping her and leaving her no other choice. Anna Christie contains Garbo's harshest condemnation of male violence and patriarchal privilege of any of her films. To underscore the point, both Anna's father and her putative lover frequent prostitutes with impunity.
Anna Christie had a startling element: Garbo's voice. At a time when most women had high-pitched voices, appropriate to the childlike flapper, Garbo's was low, almost baritone in pitch. Given her masculine portrayal of Anna, critics acknowledged that she could play more types than the feminine ones she usually took on. In the Los Angeles Evening Herald, the critic Harrison Carroll wrote: “The deep quality of her voice seemed to have given her personality a masculine quality.”57
Anna Christie marked a divide in Garbo's films. Mayer and Thalberg had to respond to her masculinity, which was now obvious. Norma Shearer, Thalberg's wife, was lobbying to take over Garbo's modern woman films. Shearer was even giving interviews advocating sex outside of marriage and equal rights for women.58 Garbo had never articulated such ideas in print. By 1930 the movie fan magazine writers were hinting at her lesbian involvements; in 1931, in a masterpiece of indirection, Rilla Page Palmborg subtly revealed them.59 Spurred by Catholic bishops, the Hays Office had produced an even more draconian moral code for the movies: regulating sex behavior, requiring that violence be punished, forbidding race mixing, and maintaining that homosexuality was a perversion. Although the Production Code wasn't strictly enforced until 1934, Hollywood producers operated under its shadow from the beginning.60
Responding to these developments, Mayer and Thalberg cast Garbo in Romance (dir. Clarence Brown, 1930), a drama in which she played an Italian opera diva and woman of the world who improbably falls in love with an Episcopal priest. He lectures her so much about the virtues of domesticity and conventional behavior that she converts to his beliefs, abandoning her career and her diva lifestyle. She also renounces the stand for women's independence that she had taken in her new woman films. When the priest, overpowered by sexual desire, violates his own moral standards and tries to rape her, she retreats to a Catholic nunnery. Romance is set in the nineteenth century, and Garbo wears the corsets and crinolines of Victorian dress. That style set the tone for the remainder of her films. After Romance she was cast in Inspiration (dir. Clarence Brown, 1931), in which she played a Parisian courtesan, the “toast of Paris,” who gives up her young lover for his own good.
Garbo didn't want to do these films, but she didn't want to go on strike again, as she had in 1926. Under the terms of the five-year contract she had signed in 1927, Mayer had some control over her films. So she waited for that contract to expire in 1932. Meanwhile she kept working, waiting to be completely financially independent when she finally left Hollywood, which she intended to do. Salka Viertel introduced Garbo to Mercedes de Acosta in 1931, and the two of them began a long-term love affair. De Acosta persuaded Garbo to take a more independent direction in her life offscreen, with the result that her private life became the subject of even more publicity than before.61
MEN AND WOMEN: GARBO'S AUDIENCES AND THE GARBOMANIACS
Before I proceed, I need to pause to examine the gender composition of Garbo's audiences, which is another factor in understanding her. The fan magazines estimated that the audiences for most Hollywood films were 75 percent female. That held true for Garbo's films. “It is mainly women who pick Garbo and fill her audiences,” wrote Helen Louise Walker in Motion Picture.62 Women liked her devotion to love and her intensity in portraying it. They liked her power, the critiques of male control in her films, and the independent life she led. They liked her costumes, her makeup, and her hairstyles—all of which they copied. “Ladies have always been crazy about Garbo as the gal they would like to be,” wrote Damon Runyon, the American humorist and sometime film commentator.63 Contrary to the common assumption, Garbo didn't always suffer in her movies over the love of a man. Nor did she always lose her lovers. She avoided punishment and ended contented in many of her early films, including The Torrent, The Divine Woman (dir. Victor Sjöström 1928), The Mysterious Lady (dir. Fred Niblo, 1928), Wild Orchids, The Single Standard, The Kiss, and Anna Christie.
Beginning with Garbo's modern woman films, men were generally reported not to attend her movies unless their wives or girlfriends insisted. The journalist Dorothy Manners wanted to know why, since Garbo was billed as a sex symbol, implying a following among men. To find an answer she read Garbo's 1930 fan mail from men and reported her findings in Motion Picture magazine. From her data she concluded that most of the males in Garbo's audiences were young men who admired her appearance and acting. Older men, Manners concluded, were afraid of her.64
What about the Garbomaniacs? Leonard Hall published a long article about them in Photoplay in 1930. “In the old days,” he asserted, every film star had “maddened fans.” But that had ended with the advent of sound in 1927 and the popularity of media debunking—exposing falsity in institutions and individuals, especially celebrities—which grew out of the cynicism of the 1920s. Once exalted as secular gods and goddesses, most film actors had now been brought down to earth. Hall contended that Garbo alone retained frenzied fans—even though, unlike many film stars, she had no official fan clubs.65
Young women's intense fascination with actors and actresses preexisted Garbo and film stars. Some Garbomaniacs came from the same socioeconomic group as the “matinee girls” of the Broadway stage who adored actresses like Tallulah Bankhead and Lilyan Tashman—both of whom were sexually ambiguous, and friends of Garbo. The matinee girls were mostly secretaries and saleswomen. During the business expansion of the 1920s, their numbers soared. They had enough money to buy theater and movie tickets to see their idols again and again, boosting their box-office sales.66 According to the final Photoplay interviews Garbo gave in 1928, the Gabomaniacs identified with her working-class roots and poverty as a child, and fantasized about her extraordinary rise to stardom.67
Raymond Daum, Garbo's later walking companion, also emphasized her same-sex appeal in a manner that drew upon established modes for representing women's romantically intense relationships. Daum described her many young female fans as having “school girl crushes on her” that “defined a national idolatry.”68 What historians have called the culture of adolescent female romantic friendships dominated nineteenth-century courtship, and remained strong in the early twentieth century. The phenomenon didn't disappear overnight, despite the contention of some historians that it collapsed under the “mandatory heterosexuality” of the 1920s. Indeed, the widespread denunciations of it during that decade indicate its continued presence. Young women in the 1920s still had best friends and girlfriends; women involved in reform activities still lived with and loved one another.69
In reviewing The Single Standard, Variety's movie critic suggested Garbo's appeal not just for her own sex, but for homosexuals as well. “Thousands of typing girlies and purple-suited office boys will find this made to order,” the critic winked (“purple-suited office boys” was a well-known insider reference to homosexuals).70 In his study of the behavior of adolescents at the movies, based on interviews with them, Herbert Blumer concluded that adolescent girls often practiced with each other the love scenes they saw in films; one young woman stated that “we sometimes think we could best Greta Garbo.”71 There were enough clues in Garbo's movies to read her as androgynous or even transgendered, including her masculine look in her films and specific instances in those films, such as the ending scenes of The Torrent. As Lillian Faderman states, “Such knowledge was spread among lesbians from coast to coast.”72
According to Leonard Hall's Photoplay article, the Garbomaniacs defended Garbo against attacks. In fact, one might posit that the attacks inspired them to identify with her. They wrote to fan magazine editors complaining when negative articles appeared. One critical article in Photoplay in April 1931 elicited ten thousand angry responses.73 The Garbomaniacs dressed like her and copied her makeup and mannerisms. Hall wrote that “for every girl child who kicks up like Lupe Velez [a film star known as “the Mexican spitfire”], a dozen whiten their faces and gaze through half-closed eyes.”74 In every town in the United States, Margaret Reid wrote in the Los Angeles Times, a “prodigious number of Greta Garbos” can be found.75 Robert Sherwood wrote in Life, then a humor magazine, that he had encountered a lot of young women in a department store who were “whitening their faces in simulation of interesting anemia.”76 It sounds as though the Garbomaniacs were protesting attacks on Garbo's white face as indicating bad blood.77
The Garbomaniacs initiated the obsession with knowing everything about Garbo. Writing in Picture Play in 1932, Karen Hollis parodied their obsessive interest. When in New York, Garbo often stayed at the St. Moritz Hotel off Central Park. “To go to the head of the class in Garbomania,” wrote Hollis, you need to say that the St. Moritz is “a good place to stay in the rain.”78 Helen Ludlum described an opening night for Anna Christie in a 1930 article in Screenland. Garbo was at the opening, wearing a disguise. There were dozens of Garbos sitting around her, but these imitators were wearing their hair the way she had worn it in The Kiss, her previous movie, not the way she had arranged it for Anna Christie. Garbo always kept one step ahead of her fans, Ludlum concluded.79
That story may be apocryphal; Garbo usually saw her films in out-of-the-way locations where she was certain not to be recognized. But it illustrates her innovative side—and the devotion of the Garbomaniacs. In 1935 Louella Parsons wrote in her syndicated column that they always hailed a Garbo picture with great excitement, whether it was good or bad.80 My research suggests that Garbo's real appeal was to women, not men, and that it was based more than anything on the widespread homoeroticism among young women of the time.
AFTER ANNA CHRISTIE
Garbo made six films between Annie Christie in 1930 and Queen Christina in 1933, including Romance, Inspiration, Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (dir. Robert Z. Leonard, 1931), Mata Hari (dir. George Fitzmaurice, 1931), Grand Hotel (dir. Edmund Goulding, 1932), and As You Desire Me (dir. George Fitzmaurice, 1932). Some of them—for instance Annie Christie, Inspiration, Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise), and Mata Hari—were related to the trend among Hollywood producers to make films featuring sex and violence after the stock market crash of October 1929. Fearing that they might lose their audiences, they initiated what film scholars call “pre-Code” Hollywood, the period from 1930 to 1934 in which they deliberately increased the amount of sex and violence in their films, producing many prostitute and gangster pictures. In 1934 a new Production Code Board was formed, which revived and strictly enforced the rigid censorship code of 1930.81
None of Garbo's films in this period were new woman films; by 1930 Norma Shearer had taken over those roles.82 Only two of the films assigned to Garbo in this period—Mata Hari and Grand Hotel—were up to her standards. In the former she played the World War I courtesan famously executed by the French for spying, spoofing Marlene Dietrich in the process. In Grand Hotel she played an aging ballerina, with great élan.83
By 1931 Garbo had met Mercedes de Acosta and was involved with her. Mercedes wore male attire as a matter of course; she had assumed a public role as the world's leading lesbian. The two of them were soon seen together wearing masculine suits, ties, shirts, and shoes as they shopped in Hollywood and Beverly Hills and went to lesbian bars and transvestite nightclubs. Such attire, introduced by lesbians in London and Paris early in the 1920s, was beginning to take over the fashion world. By 1933 movie fan magazine writers were reporting that every woman in Hollywood was wearing the style. Writing in Movie Classic that year, Dorothy Calhoun stated that Marlene Dietrich had started the vogue when, on January 12, 1933, she had worn a tuxedo, a mannish topcoat, and men's patent leather shoes to the opening of the movie The Sign of the Cross. Dietrich, a film star in Germany, had signed a contract with Paramount in 1930. Created as a Garbo clone, she outdid her prototype in sensuality and masculine femininity. Within a year of coming to Hollywood, she was a star. According to Calhoun, Dietrich got “massive publicity” for her clothing at that premiere and thus won a round in her competition with Garbo: “MGM's face is red. Garbo has worn pants for years—to parties, on famous walks, to movie theaters, where attendants saw her in them. But no one at MGM thought to get publicity for it.”84 What might have happened had MGM attempted such publicity is anyone's guess.
Some female fan magazine writers now overtly admitted that Garbo's look was as much masculine as feminine. Given the numbers of female stars who were copying her look, the comment was no longer outrageous. Praising her for her honesty in portraying Anna Christie, Ruth Biery contended that she had created a new woman who possessed “the hard-headed attributes and even the physical characteristics of men.” Using a term often connected to homosexuality, Biery contended that Garbo's masculine femininity had made her into a “new sex.”85 Other female fan magazine journalists concurred. “When she became dominating,” wrote Amelia Cummings in Photoplay, “she was portraying a feminine role that the public wanted. Newspapers, magazines, and books were making heroines of superwomen, beyond convention and morality.”86
In 1932 Garbo's five-year contract with MGM expired, and she signed a new, more favorable contract with the studio. She was still MGM's highest-grossing female star. Mayer paid her the highest salary of any woman in Hollywood and gave her power over her films, including the choice of directors, actors, and screenplays. He also agreed to produce Queen Christina. Without that guarantee she probably would have resigned from MGM that year and returned to Sweden permanently. Instead, she remained in Hollywood for an additional eight years, until 1941.
Queen Christina was one of Garbo's few Hollywood films about which she was enthusiastic. Salka Viertel and Mercedes de Acosta urged her to do it: a new biography of Christina had just appeared. Garbo spent eight months from the summer of 1932 to the following spring in Sweden, during which she researched Christina's life in Swedish archives. Once she returned to Hollywood and began making the film, fan magazine writers conveyed her enthusiasm about it to their readers. Ruth Biery and Eleanor Packer wrote in Silver Screen that she was striding down the studio's paths to the set, no longer using the hearse-like limousine and elderly chauffeur who had previously driven her. She was discussing the screenplay with the film's screenwriters. She was spending hours with the set designers and with Adrian.87
In the seventeenth century, Queen Christina had cross-dressed and behaved like a man-woman. Her father had raised her to be a king, not a queen, and she had received a man's education. She lived during the Thirty Years’ War in central Europe, which lasted from 1618 to 1648, and she was Sweden's “king” from 1644 to 1654. She was bisexual, transgendered, and perhaps transsexual. She was an individualist, a pacifist, and a reformer. “Her masculine education and complicated sexuality made her almost a contemporary character,” wrote Salka Viertel.88 The great love of her life was Countess Ebba Sparre, one of her ladies in waiting. She was also an intellectual of sorts, who read widely and corresponded with European men of letters. That was the framework for the movie—although Christina's quirks, such as converting to Catholicism and abdicating for that reason, were left out. There was less pressure then for biopics to be accurate historically.89
Garbo played Christina as both feminine and masculine. She wore feminine dresses as the queen in her court and masculine tights and tunics when horseback riding. She gripped the horse with her legs, like a man, not riding sidesaddle. Her long masculine stride, her broad shoulders, and her chunky body are pronounced in this film. One reviewer noted that the sadness in her eyes so evident in her previous films was absent in Queen Christina.90
Made after Hitler had seized power in Germany, the film reflected the leftist liberalism and feminist sexual politics of Viertel and de Acosta. Viertel was involved in Hollywood antifascist organizations, and de Acosta had been a leader of the women's suffrage and women's rights movements in New York before she came to Hollywood. As Christina, Garbo delivers antiwar speeches and refuses to marry her cousin, a war hero. “I want peace,” she thunders from the throne, “and peace I shall have.” She sides with the peasants against the nobility, and she refuses to be talked into marriage. “I shall die a bachelor,” she says.
Overriding Garbo's wishes, Thalberg insisted on the addition of a heterosexual romance to the screenplay, so Viertel found a Spanish nobleman in Christina's court with whom she may have had an affair. The scenes that Viertel had written between Christina and Ebba Sparre were drastically cut, although Christina was allowed to kiss Ebba passionately on the lips in one scene and to refer to their going away for a time together. When Thalberg had a heart attack in the middle of the filming, Mayer took over. He wanted Christina to go off with her noble lover at the end of the film, honoring heterosexuality. But Rouben Mamoulian, the director, persuaded Mayer to approve the death of the Spanish nobleman in a duel near the end of the film. Thus Christina could go alone on the ship they had planned to take together to Spain, and Mamoulian could film her standing at the prow, looking into the horizon, deciding her own future, in a close-up that is one of the most famous in film history.
In making Queen Christina, Garbo won many battles, but she ultimately lost the war because of the new determination by the Hays Office to enforce its code. By 1933 Catholic conservatives and women's clubs were intensively attacking the studios as encouraging vice. They were especially concerned about Queen Christina, with its lesbian subtext. In the middle of 1934 the Hays Office censorship board became the Production Code Administration, dominated by Catholic conservatives. Queen Christina was released in December 1933, and it circulated for six months. Censorship boards in many states ordered major cuts in the film; ultimately the Production Code Administration forced MGM to withdraw it from circulation.91
Soon after the filming of Queen Christina ended, Garbo wrote to a friend in Sweden: “It all went wrong…. It's impossible to do anything out of the ordinary here. This is the last time I'm going to try.”92 Disillusioned, she turned to making costume dramas about famed heterosexual love relationships, including that of Marguerite, the nineteenth-century Parisian courtesan in Camille, and her male lover, Armand. Alexandre Dumas had immortalized the relationship in a play; Sarah Bernhardt, one of the stage's greatest tragediennes and the nineteenth century's biggest star, had starred in a 1911 film adaptation. In following the path of Bernhardt, Garbo seemed to be turning to the past, not the future. Another of her last films, Conquest (1937), dramatizes the affair between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Polish Countess Marie Walewska. Some producers wanted her to do modern dramas, but she refused. It was as though after exposing her true self in Queen Christina and getting rejected for it, she decided to go into hiding again.
At the end of the 1930s she made two comedies, Ninotchka (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1939) and Two-Faced Woman (dir. George Cukor, 1941), whose failure with the critics led her to resign from MGM. She moved to New York and became a denizen of the international jet set. She walked the streets of the city and roamed Europe with her super-wealthy friends, calling herself “a wandering Jew.” She said that she could no longer stand the journalists, photographers, and fans who kept following her. But she was never able to shake them, and her celebrity status remained with her for the rest of her life. In many ways her existence turned into a sardonic game of hide and seek.
In 1933, as Queen Christina was being filmed, Adela Rogers St. Johns concluded that Garbo had influenced “the thought and style of a generation of women.”93 Gretchen Colnik was more specific. Writing in Movie Classic in May 1934, Colnik asserted that Garbo made her appearance at the right psychological moment, when women were looking for a liberated model with whom to identify. “For almost ten years she has dominated the female sex,” wrote Colnik. “She set the hair styles for the long bob, the beret, and pill box hats—and showed women how to wear mannish styles.”94 Ruth Rankin regarded Garbo's making of Queen Christina as a culmination of the feminist movement in the United States. Women, she said, had effected a gender revolution: “They talked about ‘the single standard,’ organized clubs, battled their way into the professions and politics.” Now Garbo was playing the reformist queen of a major nation, honoring the significant triumph of women in making their voices heard.95