Today’s kiddies don’t much remember Greta Garbo, and probably yesterday’s kiddies don’t much remember her either. She quit making films in 1941 after a 17-year film career; she had been one of the few silent stars to make the successful switch to talkies. She was Swedish, smooth-skinned and a hottie — which in that era meant enigmatic, romantic, and unapproachable.
“Her films frequently show her on the verge of withdrawal” is how film critic David Thomson puts it in his terrific Biographical Dictionary of Film. Thomson also quotes Clarence Brown, who directed Garbo in six films:
“Garbo had something behind the eyes that you couldn’t see until you photographed it in close-up. You could see thought. If she had to look at one person with jealousy, and another with love, she didn’t have to change her expression. You could see it in her eyes as she looked from one to the other.”
Even so, Greta Garbo walked away from it all after the 1941 film Two-Faced Woman. A decade later she bought a seven-room apartment on East 52nd Street in Manhattan, and she lived there quietly the rest of her life. She never married.
Greta Garbo is often called a recluse, though the term isn’t strictly correct — by all accounts she took walks, went shopping, etc. Still, her abrupt disappearance from public life at age 36 made her mysterious enough that here we are talking about her right this second.
Good night, Greta Garbo, wherever you are.