first encounters: When Greta Garbo met John Barrymore

Illustration by Edward Sorel Text by Nancy Caldwell Sorel Next week: Lenin and Trotsky

Sunday 23 October 2011 00:43

He showed up at the studio early, and sober, an indication that he regarded Grand Hotel with less than his usual cynicism. Barrymore - a name synonymous with dashing grace and romance - was just turning 50 that January of 1932, and the role of the Baron von Geigern, a nobleman on the skids, was one he understood. He was less comfortable with the idea that Grusinskaya would be played by the beautiful but inscrutable Greta Garbo, aged 26. Barrymore had never met Garbo. Garbo, by choice, never met anyone.

Hence his discomposure as he waited that morning. For the first time in his long career, he had drawn a leading lady whose following was greater than his own. She also made more money. She was reputed to be aloof, diffident, anti-social. The script called for them to fall in love at first sight, but how, damn it, did one make love - even screen love - to a misanthrope? Along with all that, she was apparently temperamental - nine o'clock had come and gone, and where was she?

She was, as he soon discovered, outside the entrance, where she had been waiting for him to arrive. She wished to "honour the great Barrymore" by personally escorting him on to the set. He was touched; perhaps rumours were exaggerated. He met her halfway, raised her hand to his lips, looked into her eyes. The Baron von Barrymore, ageless, took over.

As filming proceeded, so did the relationship. "You are the most entrancing woman in the world," he would whisper when he sensed she felt insecure. She, in turn, was almost maternal - doctored his hangovers with her own concoction, and spent an entire lunch break rearranging a couch so that in the forthcoming love scene his celebrated left profile would be towards the camera.

Grand Hotel was their only film together. Asked about her years later, Barrymore, usually the raconteur, elected to out- Garbo Garbo. "She is a fine lady and a great actress," he said, and paused. "And the rest is silence."

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