The enigmatic, alluring actress Greta Garbo was a Swedish import to Hollywood who survived the transition from silent movies to talkies only to retire at the height of her fame in 1941. Lured by Louis B Meyer with a contract at MGM in 1925, Garbo was cast as a mysterious, European femme fatale a full five years before her rival Marlene Dietrich arrived in Hollywood. It was Garbo and her paramour, the Sapphic poet, novelist and screenwriter Mercedes de Acosta who popularised masculine slacks, brogues and tailored jackets before Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn and Carole Lombard.
Hollywood’s sharpest tongue with a tang, Bette Davis, said of Garbo: “Her instinct, her mastery over the machine was pure witchcraft. I cannot analyse this woman’s acting. I only know that no one else so effectively worked in front of a camera.” The talkies killed many careers but Garbo’s sultry Swedish accent in her first talking picture, Anna Christie (1930), proved seductive and she scored a string of box office successes for the rest of the decade: Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935) and Ninotchka (1939). A born tragedienne, Garbo’s on-screen persona was so intense that MGM advertised the light comedy Ninotchka with the headline: “Garbo laughs!”