Golden girl of the silver screen

The Greta Garbo film festival recognizes one of Hollywood’s most commanding stars

by Michael Garberich

Americans have always had a fascination with the reluctant, hermetic artist – think Hemingway, Salinger, even Depp. There’s a profound incomprehensibility toward the self-restrained subject for whom the public clamors to draw nearer, that humane sensibility that pervades their art but which, somehow, evades our expectation of their lifestyle.

“Glamorous Garbo: International Film Star”
WHERE: American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Ave., Minneapolis
WHEN: Wednesday through May 13
COST: $6, film screenings included with admission, free first Wednesday of each month


“Two-Faced Woman” (1941)
DIRECTED BY: George Cukor
SCREENING: 3 p.m. Feb. 25
LECTURE: 7 p.m. Feb. 28 Arne Lunde from the department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota

“Ninotchka” (1939)
DIRECTED BY: Ernst Lubitsch
SCREENING: 3 p.m. March 25
LECTURE: 7 p.m. March 28 Robert Silberman from the art history department at the University of Minnesota

“Queen Christina” (1933)
DIRECTED BY: Rouben Mamoulian
SCREENING: 3 p.m. April 22
LECTURE: 7 p.m. April 25 Maria-Claudia Tomany from the modern language department at Minnesota State University Mankato

The Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo retired from the public spotlight in 1941 at the age of 36 and lived in relative privacy until her death in 1990. She was 84.

Through May 13th, the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis will display an exhibit of scrapbooks, studio stills and portraits of the quintessential Hollywood icon whose legacy of indisputable beauty and mystique continues to intrigue.

Even the name Greta Garbo (chosen for the screen; her actual surname is Gustafsson) – both foreign and culturally proximal – evokes the romantic ideals of the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema and embodies precisely the unapproachable infatuation with the reclusive artist.

Her films, like many of the period, have the quality of an artifact residing at the periphery of timelessness. They inhabit a neverland that keeps the contemporary tendency to overexpose at bay.

Garbo’s brief but prolific Hollywood career during that Golden Age enthralled audiences with 27 films, ranging from silent-era dramas such as “Flesh and the Devil” (1926) to a successful transition into the first generation talkies with “Anna Christie” (1930).

The latter film was marketed with the slogan “Garbo Talks.” Already recognized for her brooding, melancholic appeal, Garbo’s somewhat deep, husky voice melts warmly with her radiating image of ethereal elegance and mystique.

“People have remarked that she wasn’t so striking in person, but before the camera – be it a still or movie camera – she was ravishing,” said Arne Lunde from the German, Scandinavian and Dutch department at the University.

And the vestiges of her career attest to her wonder. For example, Edward Steichen’s provocative portrait – on display and enlarged in the exhibit from an 8×10-inch print to 40×60 – is a seductively bedeviling apparition of captured grace: Garbo crouched in black, her hands clamped atop her head, her eyes shrouded from the overhead lighting and distant, yet piercing.

“Her mythos was her stillness,” Lunde said.

Even in her films, while her male counterparts bumble about, trying to breach her disarming mien, she dazzles with nothing more than a nearly imperceptible flicker in her subtly scanning eyes.

Lunde, along with University art history professor Robert Silberman and Maria-Claudia Tomany of the modern language department at Minnesota State University Mankato, will provide, in turn, a three-part film and lecture series on separate nights to accompany the exhibit.

Among the topics they will cover are World War II’s contribution to her abruptly ended career, the relationship between her comic roles and her image as the benchmark of beauty and her role as an international actress and Swedish immigrant in the United States.

The film and lecture series will begin with Garbo’s final film, the ill-pursued comedy, “Two-Faced Woman,” followed by her penultimate feature, Ernst Lubitsch’s classic, farcical communist critique, “Ninotchka” and ending with “Queen Christina,” a fictionalized portrayal of the 17th century Queen Christina of Sweden, with Garbo as the lead.

The knowledgeable fan will note that the three films slated for screening are comedies. Indeed, “Ninotchka,” in a similar fashion to “Anna Christie,” was marketed with the slogan “Garbo Laughs.”

The selections might seem inconsistent with Garbo’s beguiling legend, but it’s their very distinction among her work, and the seemingly unexplored dimension they promise, that reveals an audience still enamored by this Scandinavian beauty.