Roger Ebert: When we come back, a tribute to the star many people thought was the greatest star of all…Greta Garbo.
Roger Ebert: Greta Garbo died last week at a New York hospital and in death, as in life, she remained a mysterious figure. A hospital spokesman announced her passing but he gave no time, no cause of death, and no other statement. And then…Garbo was alone at last.
She was the most famous and mysterious of the MGM stars of the 1930s. And her legend only grew after she retired in 1941 and tried to withdraw completely from public view.
Her first major film was made in Sweden in 1924 for Mauritz Stiller, who discovered her and said:
“Such a face as hers came along only once in a century.”
Brought to Hollywood by Louis B. Mayer, she made 10 silent films, including “Flesh and the Devil” with John Gilbert, a fading star that she was linked with romantically.
“Garbo Talks!” the ads for “Anna Christie” shouted in 1930. And three years after the birth of the talkies, she was at last heard on the screen.
“Give me a whiskey.
Ginger ale on the side.
And don’t be stingy, baby.”
And in “Grand Hotel”…
She delivered the words she became famous for.
“I want to be alone.”
Garbo’s best movie? It’s hard to say. Maybe it was “Camille”, with her famous dying scene opposite Robert Taylor.
Armand: Nanine! Get the doctor quickly!
Marguerite: Doctor? If you can’t make me live…how can he?
Roger Ebert: Garbo always claimed, of course, that she didn’t really want to be alone…she just wanted to be left alone.
And the fact that she disappeared so completely from view only helped to increase her mystique.
She came out of nowhere, or so it seemed. And she became Hollywood’s greatest star…and then she disappeared. She had a unique and mysterious screen presence, and her best movies
are as entertaining today as when they were made.
But Greta Garbo’s greatest work of art was her image, not only when we could see it…but especially when we could not.
Gene Siskel: Well, I’d like to talk about what made her special and distinctive. And I think one of it has to do with her style of acting.
She came at the end of the silent era when a lot of actors were very fussy and declaimed out of the old stage tradition.
Very broad sweep.
John Barrymore said of her in “Grand Hotel” that “Greta is simple.” And I think it was a very simple style, where she didn’t do much seemingly in front of the camera, but had the audience come up to her and just stare at her. The other thing is she had a style of often looking up in some way, so that she was ethereal in some way.
She was communicating with something other than the “mortals” that were playing opposite with her. And again, photographed in black and white, preserved that way. I think we gotta stress that.
That she stays unique because she was otherworldy to this immigrant crowd that was watching her.
This Nordic beauty…who was wholly different from them. And from the immigrant crowd that financed her films as well.
Roger Ebert: You know there’s another interesting thing about her. She did not have the world’s greatest figure for a movie actress. And they knew that at the time. And so invariably in a Greta Garbo picture, she was photographed either in close-up or in long shot.
She was never photographed in medium shots and rarely photographed in closed two shots with another person, so that because of that, people began to see her as separated.
They saw she always seemed to have the screen to herself, even in movies where she was starring with other people. And that subliminally, I think…added to her appeal.
Also, one of her directors said that she was the only actress he’d ever seen who could suggest something through her eyes. Who could suggest thoughts through her eyes.
Gene Siskel: Well, that was the different style of acting, when other people would want to state it in some way. The film that you didn’t mention which I would suggest people rent on home video is her one comedy: “Ninotchka”, where she is fabulously funny.
And indicates…now this is 1939, so she’s 34 years old. Indicates, I think in that film…that if she had stayed with the movies…
Or if the movies had stayed with her, she could have had a really long and exciting career.