Following the success of "Mata Hari" in 1931 an MGM publicist quipped, "The public seems to enjoy watching Garbo die." But the irony of Swedish star Greta Garbo's life and, finally, her death this past April, is that for almost 50 years no one could watch.
"Keeping her secrets to the end . . . she was the movies' greatest illusion," says actress Glenn Close tonight as host/narrator of "The Divine Garbo," the latest documentary of Hollywood's legendary ladies from the TNT basic cable service. (It repeats at 11:30 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. Dec. 8).
From "the plump bathing beauty" of her first silent film role in JTC "Peter the Tramp," says Close, Garbo became simply "a goddess." She quotes John Barrymore as saying of Garbo's work, "It isn't acting, it is something else; a kind of magic that holds us in its spell."
A protege of director Mauritz Stiller, who helped her lose 20 pounds and changed her last name from the given Gustafson, Garbo was an add-on to the 1925 deal with Louis B. Mayer that brought Stiller to the United States from Berlin. Ironically, the renowned Stiller (whose homosexuality, according to this show, made it unlikely he was Garbo's lover as often assumed) would be dead in three years and Garbo would become eternal.
Hollywood's "first full-fledged vamp," Garbo made a series of silents and established as her trademark "the dominant position" in love scenes, often seeming to devour her leading men with kisses. Her appeal was such that even before her first "talkie" ("Anna Christie" of 1930), she had held out for pay equity with leading men by telling Mayer, "I think I go home now," and boycotting the studio for several months.
Yet despite her screen following, Garbo never played the Hollywood games, according to the show, and often went
around in disguise and using a pseudonym ("Harriet Brown" was her favorite). An interesting sequence shows some of the satirical depictions of the sultry star in 1930s cartoon shorts, some of them quite cruel.
Further, says Close, Garbo personally felt contempt for many of her movies and found the idea of her vamp characters laughable. We also learn that she insisted on a closed set which included black screens so she couldn't see crew members, and that, in shots that did not include her feet, she usually wore a pair of old carpet slippers.
If there is something missing from this show, produced and directed by Susan F. Walker and written by David Ansen, it is what is missing for everybody: any meaningful understanding of why Garbo retired -- in 1942 at age 36 after a box office bomb titled "Two Faced Woman" -- to live a life of extreme privacy. A few film clips of her apartment house in New York and occasional glimpses of her out in public are all we see.