Hollywood's Cruelty to Greta Garbo
FOR sheer cruelty, the Middle Ages had nothing on modern Hollywood when it came to practicing the art of persecution. And there is no one in Hollywood today who knows better what it is to be put on the rack and tortured than Greta Garbo. Instead of trying to understand her, Hollywood has spent every effort to dig an early professional grave for her. I know how true this is, because, unintentionally, I have been one of her most active grave-diggers. And now I am going to make a confession that hurts – hurts, because it isn’t easy to admit one’s weaknesses. But there is such a thing as justice, and the attacks upon Greta Garbo have become so numerous recently that the good side of my nature cries out: It is time to be fair to her!
Four years ago I wrote the first and only bona fide life story of Greta Garbo for PHOTOPLAY. She spent many hours giving me the material. I was fascinated by her sincerity, her warm, earthy qualities; her utter lack of affectation. After my story was printed, she said to me, “I do not like your story. I do not like to see my soul laid bare upon paper.” After that she decided not to see writers. She was perfectly frank, but I was hurt. I did not stop to analyze that there might be a justifiable reason for her decision.
We all know the general story of Garbo. Hollywood had to take her if it was to get the great European director, Mauritz Stiller. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer paid her $250 a week to secure him for the movies. This curious peasant girl with her big feet, her timidity, her combination of humility, ambition and indifference, became the laughing stock of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot. I remember how studio employees pointed her out to me saying, “Look at her! Isn’t she funny? Imagine that Swede trying to get into pictures!”
They cast her in “The Temptress” because Mauritz Stiller insisted upon it. He was to direct it. Naturally, he directed the production in a way that would work to the advantage of his protégé. Garbo was tall. Antonio Moreno, the star, was not so tall. The director insisted that he wear his hair pompadour fashion to make him look taller. He put him into boots – undoubtedly to make Garbo’s feet look smaller. Moreno resented this favoritism. There was a battle, and Stiller lost. He was removed from the picture.
THIS was Garbo’s first experience with studio politics. Because of her, Stiller lost his job. Yet it was her friend Stiller who had insisted on her being in the picture! She was bewildered, crushed.
Everywhere she turned she was confronted with intrigue, unkindnesses. The publicity department got hold of her and made her do all kinds of absurd things – things she didn’t understand, but which she was good enough sport to go through with. They took her to the beach and photographed her in a track suit. When a prominent prize-fighter visited the studio one day she was photographed shaking hands with him. By this time she could talk a little English. She said, “When I am beeg like Gish (then the queen of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot) no more publicity like this; no more handshakes with prize-fighters!”
I have seldom met anyone more timid than Garbo. When I first went to interview her she kept me waiting in the lobby of her hotel for fifteen minutes. When she arrived she was all apologies – hesitating, nervous ones. She was sincerely frightened. At another time, a New York critic, recently arrived in Hollywood, went to the studio to talk with her. She was in such a state of nerves before his arrival she couldn’t work. One reason that Greta is always sending flowers to those whom she admires is because she is incapable of expressing appreciation verbally. She sent them to Marie Dressler when they finished “Anna Christie,” as an appreciation for what Marie had done for that production. She sent some to Adrian when she saw the clothes he had designed for “Romance.” She even sent them to Ernst Lubitsch because she could not tell him, her intimate friend, how much she enjoyed his “Love Parade.”
THINK of the sorrow of this timorous girl when she completed “The Temptress” without her benefactor, Mauritz Stiller, and went into “Flesh and the Devil.” If only she had someone to lead, to teach, to enlighten! Then she met Jack Gilbert.
Jack Gilbert and Mauritz Stiller had one thing in common besides their affection for this woman.They each recognized the weird trick which Fate had played when it combined in Garbo the physique of a peasant with the talent of a Bernhardt. What Stiller had done for her in Europe, Gilbert decided to do in this country. He appointed himself her mentor and guide.
He told her not to pose for pictures which she did not understand and did not like; not to talk to interviewers if it made her nervous. Whenever an interviewer was brought onto the set, Jack planted himself there as a protector. “Don’t say that!” he would tell her. He instilled in Greta Garbo distrust of the writing profession.
Greta listened and believed. Why shouldn’t she? Here was the screen’s greatest hero taking unlimited time, spending large amounts of his great energy to help a green newcomer. Her appreciation cannot be estimated by those who do not know the depths of her nature. I do not think Greta was ever in love with Jack. And I think his love for her caused her more embarrassment and sincere regret than any experience she has had in Hollywood, with the exception of the failure of Mauritz Stiller.
She may have loved Stiller. I do not know. I do know she enshrined him. When she talked to me of Stiller her eyes filled with tears, her entire body trembled with emotion. But with both of these men, gratitude was a predominating emotion.
The love of both men at the same time was unfortunate. You remember the time that Jack Gilbert was thrown into the Beverly Fulls’ jail. The cause was given, in the newspapers, as disorderly conduct. The truth was, Mauritz Stiller was calling on Greta Garbo. Jack arrived while he was there. He demanded that Stiller leave. When Stiller did not go, Jack went to the Beverly Hills police and demanded that he be thrown out. We can never know exactly what happened but when the police arrived, Jack was the one taken to the station. It would seem that Greta had decided in favor of her European benefactor. But whether it was her decision or not, her embarrassment and chagrin must have been nearly unbearable.
When Greta Garbo arrived in Hollywood, the $250 a week must have seemed a fortune. By the time she had finished “Love” with Jack Gilbert, she went on strike for more money, undoubtedly at his suggestion or, at least, as a result of his political tutoring. Jack brought his manager, Harry Edington, a shrewd trader with studios, to her. Under the instructions of these two old hands at Hollywood’s political roulette, she went home. For seven long months she remained hidden.
STUDIOS do not make large sums of money on stars who receive thousands weekly; they would have made a fortune great enough to erase the possible deficit of other products for many years if they could have continued to play Greta Garbo for a few hundred dollars weekly. By this time, with the release of “The Temptress,” “Flcsh and the Devil,” and “Love,” she was an international sensation. Harry Edington and Jack Gilbert knew it was time for her to cash in on it; the studio knew it was time for them to do the same. She was torn between the two, but since the studio had laughed while Jack had bcfricndcd, and since Mr. Edington was a friend of Jack, she naturally accepted the advice of the latter.
The studio knew, by now, how she detested personal-life publicity. They knew she still had the European idea that what she did on the screen was all that was important to the public. You remember the deluge of stories that appeared telling of her temperament; of such remarks as “I tank I go home”; of her refusal to work in harmony on productions, etc. She read them and tried to understand; she couldn’t. She told me that she packed her trunk more than once and that only the restraining hands of Jack Gilbert and Mr. Edington kept her from returning to Europe.
Now, she had three people to whom she must be loyal. When her manager secured her a new salary at ten times the amount of the original one, her gratitude was as great to him, at that time, as it was to Jack Gilbert. I know this, because Harry Edington secured me the interviews for the life story. The studio did not even know that I had written it. She did not wish to have it printed: But when the man who had won her a new contract and a fortune asked her to see me, she could not refuse. She consented to talk about herself, something she really detested, out of gratitude to a new benefactor.
THERE was another influence in Greta Garbo’s life during this period of which no one has spoken. Lon Chancy! Lon, too, was shrewd in discerning talent and he was always kind to the harassed. He spent many hours with her while she was making her first pictures. And he gave her his opinions on this weird, unparalleled business. He had built his success upon mystery. He advised her to do the same. “If you let them know too much about you, they will lose interest,” he admonished again and again. His advice was identical with that of Jack Gilbert and later of Harry Edington. She discovered that all three men, Gilbert, Edington and Chancy, agreed. And since their views coincided exactly with the true desires of her retiring, peasant-like nature, she followed it.
In the meantime, Hollywood had surreptitiously commenced to build its torture rack for her. Whenever a new star flashes, meteor-like, on the Hollywood horizon, she is eyed critically, jealously, even distastefully. That is to be expected. When Greta’s and Jack’s glamorous companionship was at its height, she went to many parties. That was to please Jack Gilbert, not Greta Garbo. Jack’s appearance at a party was no longer an event for either Hollywood or the newspapers. lie had been here too long. But Jack’s appearance with Greta Garbo, this glamorous new contender for worship—ah, that was an occasion? Her native sensitiveness was enhanced a thousandfold by the critical attitude already evinced toward her. She felt herself the focus of all eyes. She feared her every move would be chronicled in the newspapers. It was!
What gossip she did not actually hear, she suspected. In Europe she had lived in comparative obscurity; here, she was like a huge, newly-erected electric sign—ogled at by a gaping public. She decided to forego all parties and social gatherings exactly as she had discarded interviewers. Even Mary Pickford ,the queen dictator of Hollywood society, could not persuade Garbo to come from her seclusion. Necessarily, hostesses did not understand. Neither did guests. They joined the horde helping to erect the scaffold of persecution.
And then came the writers! No spy in a foreign country, under war conditions, has been more thoroughly shadowed than Garbo has been by Hollywood’s writing sleuths. The lengths to which some of them have gone are almost incredible. One man camped before her gate. He waited patiently. One evening his opportunity came. She was learning to drive her car. She backed from her driveway crookedly, hesitatingly. The man jumped upon the running board and so startled her that, had another car been coming, there would assuredly have been a wreck. She said one word: “Damn!” jerked forward with such vigor that she threw him from the running board, and drove zigzaggedly down the street. Her maid, Alma, who has attended her at the studio since she became important enough to have a maid, jumped in while the car was rounding the nearby corner. A story called “A One Word Interview” resulted.
THEN, there was the woman writer who had married a Swede. She felt this should establish a bond between herself and Garbo. She had interviewed Greta several times in the earlier days. Miss Garbo is as polite as she is sensitive. Just as she had told me to come back and see her, so she told this writer. When the writer called to see Garbo at Metro, a publicity man went to the set. Miss Garbo was not there. Hoping to avoid a refusal from Greta which might offend the writer, he reported she was not on the lot.
But by a perversity of Fate, Garbo passed in her car, not ten minutes later, going from her dressing-room to the set. The writer was furious, claiming she had been double-crossed, and insisted that Miss Garbo was coming to her house for dinner the next evening. The publicity man returned to Miss Garbo. Greta s words were to this effect: “What shall I do? She is a writer. If I see her, I must see the others. I cannot show partiality. No, I did not promise to go to her house to dinner. I do not know her well enough. I do not dine with people whom I do not know well, not even my countrymen. But I do not wish to hurt her feelings. Please make sonic excuse so she will not be offended.”
The publicity man tried to be tactful. But the writer, who had brought a third person to introduce to the “great Garbo,” was furious. She telephoned Greta at her home. Greta would not talk to her. So this writer joined the belligerent herd as I myself had joined it and for practically the same reason. Which is the main reason why she has so few friends. She liked Fill Dorsay.
Fill was young, impulsive, unable to understand upon such a brief acquaintance the reasons for Garbo’s reticence. In fact she was incapable, because of the differences between the French and Swedish natures, of comprehending at all the complex motives for Garbo’s silence; she gabbled all she knew. Lilyan Tashman also talked during their brief friendship. There were others. So she cut friendship from her life as she had cut interviews and social gatherings.I wish to give you just one more example of how writers have hounded the woman, because it is illuminating of her nature and has not been told, before, in its entirety.
WHEN Jack Gilbert married ma Claire, Hollywood took it for granted that Greta Garbo was broken-hearted. One paper carried a headline, Garbo Collapses As Gilbert Marries, and immediately beneath, another: Beauty Tries To End liar Life. They were two separate stories. But it looked as though Garbo had attempted suicide and, since many failed to read both stories, it was generally taken for granted that this was the case. This thoroughly alarmed Garbo. It was definitely detrimental to her career to be reported near death. As for her being broken-hearted I think that Greta was secretly glad that there was another woman. We all know there has been a break between Greta Garbo and one of her most successful directors, Clarence Brown. But I think the
original break between the two came from a cause which no one suspects. Dorothy Sebastian played in one of her pictures directed by Brown. The Sebastian-Brown romance was at its height. Just as Antonio Moreno had suspected Stiller was favoring Garbo, she supposed Brown might favor Dorothy. She utilized some of the political technique she had learned by watching it used upon herself.
IT was in the silent days and the orchestra .Lwas playing music to help Dorothy in her scenes. Garbo said she could not stand the music. No matter what the orchestra played, she could not stand it! She broke up Dorothy’s scenes again and again. The director raved. Garbo paid no attention. For once, she had someone else on the defensive and was humanly taking advantage of it. But this is an unusual case. As a rule, the people working with her ardentlS’ adore her. Ramon Novarro is, today, completely captivated. He, together with Clark Gable, Gavin Gordon, Robert Montgomery and others acclaim her as more than generous in her anxiety that they have a fair opportunity in her pictures.
I have never been able to locate one (and I have talked to literally hundreds who have worked with Garbo) who classifies her as temperamental. They all protest that she never raises her voice, never allows herself to become agitated over big or little troubles. True, she fights for her rights, herself, today, as formerly Mauritz Stiller, John Gilbert, harry Edington and Lon Chancy fought for her. But she does it quietly, with assured firmness.
Lonely? Certainly! How could a woman of any country, in her isolated position, be anything but lonely? Unhappy? Happiness is a matter of personal ratio. Greta Garbo is not exuberantly, joyously happy. Few of us are. She is not even contented in the usual sense of that word. But she has acquired a certain amount of resignation.
Vriters are busy right now getting her out of this country. They prophesy she will return to Europe at the completion of her present contract. And yet, she has just decided to buy a home! She has actually just concluded to remain in California. Her reason is simple. She is accustomed, now, to the bLirdens of her adopted location. She has become acclimated to California and could never become acclimated to the Sweden which would confront her today.
HOLLYWOOD has killed the spirit of many talented people but it has been unable to kill the spirit of Greta Garbo. Not even poor stories for her pictures have been able to do it. That, like everything else about her, is unprecedented. “Inspiration” was not a very good picture. It hurt Robert Montgomery. It did not hurt Greta Garbo. Just to watch her, in good pictures or poor, seems to be reward enough for box-office patrons.
We must all pay some penalties for our glories. Garbo has paid, and paid, and paid.
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