Few who knew Swedish actress Greta Garbo in her formative years would have predicted the illustrious career that awaited her. Garbo grew up in a rundown Stockholm district, the daughter of an itinerant laborer. In school, she did little to distinguish herself; nor was her first job, as a barbershop lather girl, indicative of future greatness. But, even as a youth, she photographed beautifully, a fact that enabled her to get a few modeling jobs with the Stockholm department store where she worked. Her first film was a 1921 publicity short financed by her employers titled How Not to Dress. Garbo followed this with Our Daily Bread, a one-reel commercial for a local bakery. She then played a bathing beauty in a 1922 two-reel comedy, Luffarpetter/Peter the Tramp.
Billed under her own last name, Garbo (born Greta Gustafsson) garnered a couple of good trade reviews, and the confidence to seek out and win a scholarship to the Royal Dramatic Theatre. While studying acting, she was spotted by director Mauritz Stiller, who was Sweden's foremost filmmaker in the early '20s. Stiller cast Garbo in The Atonement of Gosta Berling (1923), an overlong but internationally successful film which made her a minor star. The director became her mentor, glamorizing her image and changing her professional name to Garbo. On the strength of Gosta Berling, she was cast in the important German film drama The Joyless Street (1925), which was directed by G.W. Pabst. Hollywood's MGM studios, seeking to "raid" the European film industry and spirit away its top talents, then signed Stiller to a contract. MGM head Louis B. Mayer was unimpressed by Garbo's two starring roles, but Stiller insisted on bringing her to America; thus, Mayer had to contract her, as well.
The actress spent most of 1925 posing for nonsensical publicity photos which endeavored to create a "mystery woman" image for her (a campaign that had worked for previous foreign film actresses like Pola Negri), but it was only after shooting commenced on Garbo's first American film, The Torrent (1926), that MGM realized it had a potential gold mine on its hands. As Mauritz Stiller withered on the vine due to continual clashes with the studio brass, Garbo's star ascended. But when MGM refused to pay her commensurate to her worth, Garbo threatened to walk out; the studio counter-threatened to have the actress deported, but, in the end, they buckled under and increased her salary. In Flesh and the Devil (1927), Garbo co-starred with John Gilbert, and it became obvious that theirs was not a mere movie romance. The Garbo/Gilbert team went on to make an adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina titled Love (its original title was Heat, but this was scrapped to avoid an embarrassing ad campaign which would have started with "John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in..."). The couple planned to marry, but Garbo, in one of her frequent attacks of self-imposed solitude, did not show up for the wedding; over the years, the actress would have other romantic involvements, but would never marry.
In 1930, MGM's concerns about Garbo's voice -- that her thick Swedish accent (tinged with "stage British") would not register well in talkies -- were abated by the success of Anna Christie, which was heralded with the famous ad tag "Garbo Talks." Some noted that the slogan could also have been "Garbo Acts," for the advent of talkies obliged the actress to drop the "mysterious temptress" characterization she'd used in silents in favor of more richly textured performances as worldly, somewhat melancholy women to whom the normal pleasures of love and contentment would always be just out of reach. In this vein, Garbo starred in Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), and Camille (1936), which served to increase her worshipful fan following, even if the films weren't the box-office smashes her silent pictures had been. The actress' legendary aloofness and desire to "be alone" (a phrase she used often in her films, once to comic effect in Ninotchka) added to her appeal, though less starry-eyed observers like radio comedians and animated-cartoon directors found Garbo a convenient target for satire and lampoon.
Always more popular overseas than in the U.S., Garbo became less and less a moneymaker as war clouds gathered in Europe; this was briefly stemmed by Ninotchka (1939), a bubbly comedy which was advertised Anna Christie-style with "Garbo Laughs." But, by 1940, it was clear that the valuable European market would soon be lost, as would Garbo's biggest following. The actress' last film, Two-Faced Woman (1941), was a pedestrian domestic comedy that some observers believe was deliberately made badly by MGM in order to kill her career. Actually, it wasn't any worse than several other comedies of its period, but, for Garbo, it was a distinct step downward. She retired from movies directly after Two-Faced Woman, and, although she came close to returning to films with Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947), she opted instead for total and permanent retirement.
A millionaire many times over, Garbo had no need to act, nor any desire to conduct an active social life. She traveled frequently, but always incognito -- which didn't stop photographers from ferreting her out. A solitary woman, but not really a recluse, Garbo could frequently be spotted strolling the streets near her New York apartment; in fact, "Garbo sightings" became as much a topic of conversation in some icon-worshipping circles as "Elvis sightings" would be in the 1970s, the major difference being, of course, that Garbo was alive to be sighted. Even after her death in 1990, the legend of Greta Garbo was undiminished. Few of her fans talk of her in human terms; to her devotees, Greta Garbo was not so much film legend as film goddess.