NO one the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot was enthusiastic about Garbo when she first arrived in Hollywood. “She is too big,” “She is too tall,” “She will never go over in pictures,” were comments heard on all sides.
Large girls had not been successful on the screen. The petite type was the popular one. Now came a girl five feet six inches tall, weighing around a hundred and thirty-five pounds, with large hands and feet and shoulders as broad as a man’s. Hollywood could not see such a girl making a hit in pictures.
Finally, a screen test of her was made.
Before an actress is cast for a part in a picture she is given a screen test, to determine whether or not she is suitable for certain roles. These screen tests, cold and impersonal, are required of stars as well as beginners.
First the subject’s face is made up by experts in the studio. Her hair is arranged by a skilled hairdresser. Certain costumes are made to her measure. Then photographs of different angles of her face are taken. She is posed in various positions, sitting and standing.
It was reported that these tests of Garbo showed an unattractive girl in whom Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer found no interest.
Mauritz Stiller was furious. “Fools, all of them. Let me make the test. I will show them,” be shouted.
The story goes that painstakingly Stiller made up Garbo’s lovely face. Carefully he arranged the lights so that they brought out her clear, cameo- like profile. He posed her this way and that. The result was that a glimpse of the Garbo glamour showed through. At any rate, the officials were interested enough to give her the feminine lead in The Torrent.
Garbo and Stiller came to Hollywood with the understanding that Stiller was to direct the pictures of his protégée. She never would have come had she thought that anyone but the great Stiller was to guide her through a picture. It was he who had faith in her ability as an actress. It was he who had given her her first big chance before the camera. He was her inspiration.
But Monta Bell and not Stiller was given the job of directing Garbo’s first picture in Hollywood.
Greta could neither speak nor understand English. Svend Borg, an interpreter, transmitted all directions from Monta Bell to the Swedish actress.
Garbo thought she would never live through the struggle of making that first picture. She was not used to such long hours. The company often worked far into the night. She did not like to have strange and unfriendly people shouting directions at her in a language that was wholly incomprehensible to her. She did not want strangers to stand about the set staring at her. Many times she was ready to quit and go home. But Mauritz Stiller, who realized all this picture meant for his protégée, made her carry on.
Greta Garbo has never forgotten those first long, trying days she had in Hollywood when, homesick and discouraged, she hardly had enough strength left in her body to carry herself home for the few hours of rest allowed her before she had to face the camera again.
Soon after The Torrent was under way, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer discovered they had a “find” in Greta Garbo. “Here is real star dust,” they said. “She will be a sensation when she is seen on the screen.”
The “rushes “—each day’s pictures that are run off in a projection room at the studio—gave the officials a glimpse of the subtle, glamorous Garbo lure that was soon to captivate the world. After the preview of The Torrent, Hollywood commenced to sit up and take notice. Previews are the first showing of pictures unexpectedly slipped in with the regular program at some small theater in or near Los Angeles. The producers do this to get an average audience’s reaction to the story and the actors. Often entire sequences are changed or remade when they do not “get across.” The popularity of a player is sometimes determined by this unannounced first showing of a picture.
Each neighborhood is always on the lookout for the big sign “PREVIEW TO-NIGHT,” which is hung in front of the ticket office a few hours before the performance. It soon draws crowds, who stand in line to gain admittance. Seats are roped off for the producers, players, directors, cameramen, electricians, and all those who took part in the making of the picture. After the preview people gather outside the door to discuss the picture.
The Torrent was previewed in a little theater on the edge of Beverly Hills. No one noticed Garbo as she and Mr. Stiller quietly slipped into seats at the rear of the dimly lighted house. No one saw them steal out just before the picture was finished. At the first showing of the first picture Greta Garbo made in Hollywood she set the precedent of never appearing publicly at any of her pictures. After the preview people gathered in groups in front of the theater to discuss this fascinating girl called Greta Garbo.
The Torrent came to the Capitol Theater in New York without the usual ballyhoo. The metropolitan critics sat spellbound as they watched this new kind of siren. Next day her name blazed in every newspaper. People crowded the theater to see her. She met a similar reception wherever the picture was shown. Greta Garbo had become an overnight sensation. The Torrent proved that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bad rightly cast the Swedish star as a siren, although even at the start Garbo insisted that she did not want to play “bad womens.” To this clay Garbo has never had her wish of playing the part of a good little girl. Hollywood was deeply impressed with the strange beauty and singular appeal of this new foreign actress. The film colony had thought it was fed up on foreigners. But here was an entirely different type. Women as well as men spoke of her strangely seductive magnetism.
Plans had already been made for Garbo to do The Temptress. Greta agreed to make it if Mr. Stiller could direct. Stiller started the picture. From the start he had trouble with the producers. “They get me over here to make pictures because they like my methods. They say they are different. Then they will not let me use my methods. Instead they try to tell me how to make the picture.”
In Sweden Stiller’s word around the studio was law. In Hollywood he was criticized. He would tolerate interference from no one. His English was poor. When he could not make himself understood, he became excited and mixed his English and Swedish. When he wanted action before the camera he would shout “Stop” for “Go.” Then he would wave his hands in the air and pace back and forth, shouting in Swedish. The actors laughed at him. Finally he was taken from the picture. Fred Niblo was put in his place.
It was while Garbo was making The Temptress that I first interviewed her. The publicity department had been puzzled by this strange girl. They weren’t sure she would give an interview. They admitted that they knew almost nothing about her. They laughed because they had found an actress who did not want to talk about herself. They felt certain, nevertheless, that Garbo would soon come to her senses. They chuckled to think how they would soon have her knocking at their door.
Garbo was persuaded to come to the studio for an interview when she learned she was to talk to a writer whose Swedish husband was to act as interpreter. We met in a bare little office, in the old publicity department of M-G-M. Garbo came in, tall and awkward and self-conscious. She wore a plain little suit, badly in need of pressing. Her eyes were shaded by a green visor drawn down over her forehead. She pulled it off as she entered the door. Her dark brown hair (it had been dyed for the picture, for she is a natural blonde) hung almost to her shoulders. Later this long haircut—which at the time seemed most untidy—was to be known all over the world as the famous Garbo bob. Garbo was a decided contrast to the other well groomed, perfectly poised actresses on the lot. It was her smouldering, heavy-lidded eyes that immediately drew attention. The whites of them were so exceedingly clear and white; the blue such a deep, clear color. The heavy black lashes on her upper lids curled back until they touched her narrow, well arched brows. Her lower lashes swept her cheeks.
“When I first went into pictures I was asked to cut them,” she said. Her mouth was large, but soft and appealing. Her teeth were broad and even. She had the creamy complexion of the Scandinavian. Vivid lipstick accentuated her lips. She settled into a chair with the lazy grace of an animal, toying with the eye shade with her large, capable hands. She had the long, tapering fingers of the artist. On a middle finger she wore an odd ring. “I was frantic when Mr. Stiller was taken from the picture,” she said. “It is duff cult for me to understand direction through an interpreter. Everything over here is strange and different.
“And this studio is so large it confuses me. Are all the studios as large as this? I would get lost if someone did not take me to the many different stages where we work.
“You all hurry so much. Everyone goes on the run. We do not rush so in Sweden. It took months and months to make Gösta Berling’s Saga. We had to wait for winter, to make the winter scenes. Then we had to wait for summer, to get summer scenes.
“Here you make any climate you want right in the studio. You finish a picture in a few weeks. I don’t know whether I like it or not. “And they make me play bad girl. Sometimes I would like to play good girl.”
It was amazing to hear her speak such good English, for she knew scarcely a word of it when she arrived. She spoke slowly and hesitatingly, often appealing for help with words, Tier accent was charming. She slurred certain words. She said ver’ for very and mus’ for must. Her voice was deep and low.
“My mother did not want me so far from home. I plead with her, ‘Just for one little year’ —so I am here. No, I am not homesick. I have not had time for that yet.”
She spoke in her native tongue about American food and Swedish food. She told how she longed for some cold weather. She said that the bright California sun hurt her eyes.
“In America you are all so happy. Why are you so happy all of the time?” she asked. “I am not always happy. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. When I am angry I am very bad. I shut my door and do not speak.”
Later Hollywood was to Learn what Garbo meant when she said, “I shut my door and do not speak.”
The first story I wrote of Greta Garbo was called “The Mysterious Stranger.” She made her strange personality felt from the start. I wrote that her eyes were her greatest charm. That she did not invite confidences of the heart. I said, “Greta Garbo will fascinate people, but I wager she will always remain more or less a mystery.”
Members of the film colony commenced to show a keen interest in this newcomer to their midst. She was seldom seen in public. She rarely ate her lunch with the other players in the studio café. She lived alone in her small apartment at the Miramar, in Santa Monica. When asked why she did not move into larger quarters and have servants, like other stars, she answered, “I have a bed, a chair, and a table. What more do I want?”
Garbo didn’t even have a maid. She ate most of her meals with Mauritz Stiller. He was the only person with whom she was known to associate.
The Swedish director was not faring as well as his protégée. It seemed that he and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer couldn’t come to terms. Finally, by mutual consent, their contract was terminated, and he went over to the Lasky Studio. Greta was given a new contract. The scene had changed. It was Garbo and not Stiller whom M-G-M now wanted.
Garbo made even a greater sensation in The Temptress than in The Torrent. As Elena, the wife of a weak South American, bankers, bandits, and heroic bridge builders became her slaves. Suicide, ruin, and disaster followed in her wake.
Passion glowed whenever Garbo appeared on the scene. Her beauty flashed with a singular appeal. She was proclaimed a great actress.
But Greta declared she knew nothing of the technique of acting. That for the time being she was the person in the picture. That she did not know how she got certain effects. She did not know why she did things the way she did them.