The film-maker and historian Kevin Brownlow, whose new documentary Garbo (co-directed with Christopher Bird) was commissioned to mark the centenary, acknowledges that the life of the actress remains shrouded in mystery. He tells about his one near-encounter with his subject. He spotted Garbo, in a street in New York, laden with supermarket bags. At the time, he was desperate to speak to her for a series he was making about Hollywood. "I tried hard to meet her, but when I saw her in the street, I turned to a pillar of salt."
Brownlow has interviewed, and made films about, many Hollywood legends, but he states unequivocally that "Garbo was the greatest film actress ever". Ask him how be backs up such an assertion and he simply rattles off some of her best known titles: "Camille, Queen Christina, Ninotchka". Garbo, he continues, was one of those "rare actresses who was able to become the person she was playing and experience the emotions that that person was having. It was incredibly painful, almost psychic and quite devastating for her."
Her roles often verged on the camp and sometimes on the downright preposterous, but she brought such intensity to the screen that audiences seldom laughed. Take her first talkie, Anna Christie (1931), in which she plays a barfly. Early on, we see her lurch into a waterfront bar, sit herself down, and command the barman to give "give me a viskey, ginger ale on the side. Don't be stingy." "Shall I put in in a pail?", the barman replies. The idea of the most glamorous actress of her era playing a floozy on skid row is absurd, but Garbo somehow makes us buy it.
Equally far-fetched was her role as Grusinskaya, a world-weary ballet dancer, in Grand Hotel (1932). Again, she makes her entrance in melodramatic fashion. "I'm so tired. The applause did not come," she mourns. Later, she utters the most famous Garbo-ism of them all, "I want to be alone." Garbo was too tall, too heavy-boned, to be remotely credible as a dying swan, but she carried it off.
One of the paradoxes about Garbo is that she was most at home playing aristocratic or regal roles and yet she was from the working class. Her labourer father often went unemployed and her mother was reduced to taking in sewing and laundry to keep the family in food. Brownlow's documentary includes footage of Garbo in the days when she used to model hats in a Stockholm department store. She is pretty and plump, twirling in front of the mirror in check pantaloons and ungainly hats. "In America, an actress would never allow herself to get as fat as you are," the director Mauritz Stiller, who cast her in her breakthrough film The Saga Of Gosta Berling (1924), scolded her.
Myth has it that the MGM boss Louis B Mayer was primarily interested in Stiller and offered his protégée a contract to keep him happy. But Brownlow says: "He went for Garbo the moment he saw her on screen." Yet the Garbo first put under contract by MGM for $350 a week cut a forlorn figure. The studio bosses simply didn't know what to do with such an ungainly recruit. This was the era of the vamp. A frizzy-haired, heavy-set 21-year-old Swedish actress who could barely speak a word of English was considered a dubious box-office prospect at best. To drum up interest in her, MGM's publicists were reduced to photographing her alongside lions and college athletes. But when the studio finally gave her a role in The Torrent (1926), Mayer and Co quickly realised her potential. At the very least, she was a fine actress. At the end of 1926 came her breakthrough, Flesh and the Devil, in which she played the femme fatale opposite John Gilbert. She and Gilbert were smitten with one another: when they kissed, they kissed for real.
The directors who worked with Garbo invariably talked about some inscrutable quality she possessed. It helped that in William H Daniels, who quickly became known as "Garbo's cameraman", she had a cinematographer who knew just how to capture those luminous and often mournful close-ups with which all her films are filled. Clarence Brown, who directed her in many of her greatest films, said: "Garbo had something behind the eyes that you couldn't see until you photographed it in close-up."
Garbo was ferociously stubborn. She was one of the few actresses who regularly faced down Mayer in contract negotiations. "This girl in her early twenties took on one of the toughest moguls in Hollywood and won. That could make a film in itself," Brownlow says. Her contemporaries regarded her with undisguised awe. Hedy Lamarr even disguised herself as a costumier so she could watch the great actress in action. Lamarr was spotted and ejected: Garbo craved privacy too much to allow herself to be spied on. She never gave interviews to anyone and only signed autographs under extreme duress. Nonetheless, she had a far bigger influence on audiences than any of her more pliable colleagues.
While other stars shot several films each year, Garbo was picky. She made 24 films for MGM over a 15-year period, but, in the latter part of her career, was averaging less than one a year. She vetted her leading men, famously rejecting Laurence Olivier in favour of John Gilbert for Queen Christina. But there is a sense that the studio missed a trick by not putting her in a colour movie.
Some sceptics argue that she was less popular than myth suggests. "Women liked her. Men hated her," her friend Gore Vidal says in the documentary. "She was androgynous and that didn't appeal. And she was too grand and too elegant for Joe Sixpack. Her androgynous charm, the lesbian side of her nature, projected enormously on screen for those who could pick up on it."
After her one failure, Two-Faced Woman, in 1941, Garbo quit Hollywood and never returned. There were rumours of comebacks. Brownlow's documentary includes footage from screen-tests shot in the summer of 1949 when it briefly looked as if she would appear in a film for the producer Walter Wanger and the director Max Ophüls. She is in her mid-thirties, but age has not withered her at all. Playing with her long, lustrous hair, smiling at the camera, she still looks absolutely gorgeous. Astonishingly, she was no longer considered bankable. Unable to finance the picture on the back of her name, the producers abandoned it. "I realised I didn't matter any more," Garbo told friends, and resolved she would never appear on camera again.
It was not that Garbo shunned the limelight altogether. There are many photographs of her tramping the streets of New York in her sunglasses, scarves and clunky boots. Even when she was dressed like a fishwife, you could still tell she was a star.
Despite the efforts of a small army of biographers, few revelations have emerged about Garbo's post-movie period. Contemporaries testify that she went for walks and bought the occasional antique or painting (she was especially keen on Renoir). Vidal's theory is that she spent half a century looking for the perfect pullover. "She was terribly lazy and terribly rich." Even Garbo described herself as a mollusc. Endless scurrilous stories were printed about her bisexuality and alleged affairs. She ignored them.
A hundred years after her birth, Garbo has largely disappeared, even from our TV screens. "Her films are shown so seldom," laments Brownlow. "Young people today say, 'who's Garbo?'" Somehow, though, the less we see or know about her, the more the mystery surrounding her continues to grow.
Ask Brownlow to explain her genius and even he flounders. "That is part of the mystery," he confesses. "I have absolutely no idea. The answer is all inside her."
'Garbo' is at the National Film Theatre, London SE1, on 13 SeptemberReuse content