Great Gretas Doing Great Things! Biography Series, Ep. 1 (Greta Garbo)

Great Gretas Doing Great Things

Audio Transcript:

Welcome everyone to a bonus episode of The English Sessions. I am your host and dog lover, Mike Butler. Today’s episode is part of a series called, “Great Gretas doing Great Things” because history is fun, AND, because we have ended our puppy naming contest. The name of our puppy is now Greta. The winner of our contest is Patrick, because he thought of the name “Gobou”, which was a very close runner up. A “runner-up” is a phrase for someone or something that is not the winner, but is in second-place. So, Gobou is not the winner, but perhaps will become her middle name. Greta Gobou, I like that, it sounds like “Greta Garbo”, which is the Great Greta that we are talking about today. So, let’s get started!

This episode is for everyone, however, my Patreon supporters can expect an episode or two of Great Gretas doing Great Things in the future, exclusively for them. Go to to sign up and become a supporter of The English Sessions.

Today, I am going to talk about Greta Garbo. Who do you think of when you hear the name “Greta”? Perhaps you think of Greta Garbo. She was a very famous film actress, first in Sweden and then in The United States. Go to the website, for the audio transcript of this episode about Greta Garbo.

I am very excited today to talk about the great Greta Garbo. I love classic cinema, by the way, and I can’t think of a more famous Greta in cinema history than the mysterious and alluring Greta Garbo. Someone who is “alluring” is “powerfully and mysteriously attractive or fascinating”. So why was Greta Garbo so alluring? So fascinating? Let’s talk about it.

Greta Garbo was born on September 18, 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden. Her real name was Greta Lovisa Gustafsson. I apologize to any Swedish students, for my pronunciation. Please, send me a voice message with the proper pronunciation.

Greta was the youngest child in her family. She had one older brother, Sven, and one older sister, Alva. Greta’s father had many different jobs during his life. He worked as a street cleaner, a grocer, a factor worker, and as a butcher’s assistant. The family was poor, and lived in a three bedroom flat in a working-class district that was sometimes called a slum. A “slum” is an area of a city that is very poor, and often very crowded. Greta Garbo was shy as a child. She didn’t like school and preferred to play by herself. She became interested in the theater at a young age. She wanted to be an actress one day.

Garbo finished school at the age of 13, and didn’t go to high school. Many working class girls at the time did not go to high school.

In the year 1919, the deadly Spanish flu reached Stockholm, and her father became ill, and lost his job. She loved her father very much, and was very close to him. Unfortunately, he died, in 1920, when Greta was only 14 years old.

Greta had many jobs before she became an actress. She worked in a barber shop. She worked in a department store. She modeled for hats. It is no surprise that Greta Garbo was a model, because she was very beautiful. Her time as a fashion model was lucrative. “Lucrative” means that she made a lot of money doing this. She appeared as a model in advertising. People started paying attention to this beautiful model. In 1922, she appeared in a short comedy film called Peter the Tramp.

From 1922 to 1924, she studied at an acting school, The Royal Dramatic Theater’s Acting School, in Stockholm. By 1925, she was becoming a star. A “star” in cinema, is someone that is famous. Eventually, everyone knew the name, Garbo. In 1925, she arrived to The United States of America, to New York City. The chief executive, Louis B. Mayer, of the famous Hollywood studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, or MGM, became interested in Garbo, after he saw her in the Swedish film, The Saga of Gosta Berling. He brought her to Hollywood, where MGM, specifically the famous production boss Irving Thalberg, gave her a screen test. A “screen test” is when an actor performs for a small group of people, to decide if she is good enough to be in a movie. Well, she was definitely good enough, and Irving Thalberg loved her. Irving Thalberg loved her, but still wanted her to lose weight, and “fix her teeth”; In other words, the typical Hollywood treatment. She also started to take English lessons, however, she continued to star in silent movies until 1929, which was pretty late into the decade for Hollywood. (Yes, that’s right, back in the 1920s, films were silent. That means they had no sound. No sound at all.)

Greta Garbo often played a character that she felt did not capture who she was. This was according to Norma Shearer, who was married to Irving Thalberg and was a famous actor herself. Norma Shearer is quoted as saying, “Miss Garbo at first didn't like playing the exotic, the sophisticated, the woman of the world. She used to complain, "Mr. Thalberg, I am just a young gur-rl!" Irving tossed it off with a laugh. With those elegant pictures, he was creating the Garbo image.”

Garbo made so many silent movies, and was a huge star by the end of the silent film era. All of her movies were hits. She often starred in films with leading man, John Gilbert, who was a pretty big star too at the time. They were lovers on and off the screen. In other words, she started a real-life relationship with Gilbert. By the 1928-1929 box office season, she was MGM’s top star. She quickly became regarded as one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses. It was about this time that she started to gain a reputation for being a loner. A “loner” is someone who would rather be alone! Many of the details of this reputation are exaggerated, however, on her movie sets, she prohibited visitors. In her words, she said “If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise”.

Greta Garbo would finally make her sound debut in 1930, with the MGM film Anna Christie. It was a big hit, despite worries over how her accent might be received by American audiences. The film, Anna Christie, promoted simply with the catchphrase, Garbo Talks!, was a big success. America must have loved finally hearing Garbo and her lovely Swedish accent, because she was nominated for an Academy Award, also sometimes called an Oscar, for her performance in Anna Christie. The movie studio also filmed a German-language version of Anna Christie. In the years to come, she would star in films with other big stars like Clark Gable and Robert Montgomery. She was the most popular female star in the United States, in 1930 and 1931.

In 1932, she played a Russian ballerina in one of my favorite films, Grand Hotel, which had a huge all-star cast including John Barrymore, a young Joan Crawford, and many more. Grand Hotel won the Academy Award that year, for Best Picture. Garbo was a huge money-maker for MGM, but in 1932, her contract with MGM ended.

She went to Sweden for a while, but did decide to come back to MGM, under a new contract that took almost a year to negotiate. She started to receive a better salary, and had more control of which films she would act in. She also demanded that her off-screen lover, John Gilbert, whose career was not doing so great by that time, be the leading man in her 1933 film, Queen Christina. The studio thought it was a bad idea, but, the film was a big hit! It was a big success! It made more money for MGM than any other film that year. Queen Christina was scandalous though, because in the movie Garbo disguises herself as a man and kisses her female costar! (Wow! Remember, something “scandalous” is something that is considered ‘shocking’ or ‘outrageous’. )

For a while, in the 1930s, Garbo focused on creating historical, and melodramatic films, which were more successful abroad than in the United States. By the mid-1930s her popularity started to wane. (or, in other words, decline). American audiences interests started to change, as the country entered the period that we call The Great Depression. Also, starting in 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code, sometimes called the Hays Code, started censoring movies much more than in those early Hollywood days. Suddenly, figures like Garbo started to seem a bit too scandalous for some audiences. Garbo also demanded a pretty large sum of money as her salary. Good for her!

Garbo had more big hits though, like the 1935 film, Anna Karenina, and the film Camille in 1936. This was a sad year for Garbo. John Gilbert died that year! He was only 38 years old. Then, during the production of Camille, Irving Thalberg died, suddenly, at the young age of 37. Some believe you can really see her true sorrow from such a massive loss, in this film. Remember, ‘sorrow’ is a very deep sadness, or misery. She was again nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Camille.

In 1938, after a huge failure with the movie Conquest, she was referred to as “Box Office Poison”! This means that she was thought of as not being able to make money for Hollywood. What the heck, Hollywood! Garbo was on a roller coaster ride, with success and then failure, and then success… in 1939, she starred in, what is my favorite Garbo movie, Ninotchka. It was a hit in the USA! It was banned in the Soviet Union, because it was a satire, that was unfavorable toward the Soviet Union, which was under control of Joseph Stalin at the time. Ninotchka was a comedy, under direction of the great Ernst Lubitsch, and was promoted this time with the catchphrase, “Garbo Laughs!”. Audiences must have loved that, as part of her reputation was being rather serious.

After a big failure with the movie Two-Faced Woman, in 1941, her Hollywood career was ended. She didn’t want to retire at first, but admitted that Two-Faced Woman was “her grave”. Remember, a “grave” is a place of burial, for a dead body, so those were pretty strong words! World War Two definitely didn’t help to keep her career going, since Europe was such an important market for her films. In 1948, a film was planned, but the money needed to make the film never came, and the project was abandoned.

She was offered roles in the 1940s, but rejected most of them. For all you film buffs out there, here’s a little fact for you. She was even offered the role of Norma Desmond in the incredible film noir, Sunset Boulevard. In my opinion, Garbo chose to leave the spotlight of Hollywood. She’d had enough! And to be honest, after all the horror stories I’ve learned about during those early days of Hollywood, I don’t blame her one bit! She didn’t like being pushed around, and fought back, at a time when many actors, especially women, did not have much control in Hollywood.

After retiring from Hollywood, she tried to stay out of the spotlight. Greta Garbo did not like making public appearances and despised publicity. She suffered from depression, and one biographer believes she may have been bipolar. Once in 1933, she was quoted as saying, “I am very happy one moment, the next there is nothing left for me”.

She loved art and was an art collector for many years. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1951, and lived in Manhattan, New York City, for the rest of her life! She never married, had no children, and lived alone. She had lovers though, including the previously mentioned John Gilbert, and many believe she was bisexual.

Greta Garbo died on April 15, 1990. She was 84 years old. She had breast cancer later in her life, and her death is attributed to pneumonia and renal failure.

In her life, she received many awards, including an Academy Honorary Award, a Swedish royal medal, and most importantly, The George Eastman Award, given by the George Eastman House, a place where I have spent many hours of my life.

Greta Garbo faded from view, but never from memory. She was once named the most beautiful woman who ever lived, by the Guinness Book of World Records. Many held and kept her in high regard. She was admired by screen legends like Bette Davis and acclaimed directors like George Cukor. She’s even mentioned in the Ernest Hemingway novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
I hope you will explore her career, and watch some of her great movies. I highly recommend Grand Hotel and Ninotchka. You can find several documentaries about her and many books about her life and career as well.

Any questions? Write to me at . Leave a message for me on the website, and I will play it on the podcast. Make sure to subscribe to this podcast so you won’t miss an episode. Visit for more content. Please rate and review The English Sessions on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Find us on social media. Twitter @theEsessions; Instagram @englishsessionswithmike; Search for The English Sessions on Facebook. Until next time, this is Mike signing off.

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