Saturday, August 6, 2022

The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood

The Savvy Sphinx
How Garbo Conquered Hollywood
by Robert Dance
University Press of Mississippi
Hardcover ISBN: 9781496833280
288 pages
November 2021

Greta Garbo was extraordinary in many ways. She was one of the most beloved and sought after celebrities of her time. Her level of fame was astonishing for the era and nearly unmatched today. Despite coming to America not speaking English and also despite her deep aversion to publicity, she quickly became one of MGM's most bankable stars and was embraced by the public. Everyone knew who Garbo was and audiences flocked to see the majestic star on the big screen. MGM carefully curated her silent film career and her transition to talking pictures. With her growing fame and continued success at the box office, she gained more control over the particulars of her career. In an age when many actors fell victim to movie studio machinations, Garbo thrived at MGM and never worked anywhere else. When her career ended in 1941 when Garbo was 36 years old, her celebrity persisted in the decades that followed. Her elusiveness made her an object of curiosity for the press and the public. She never embraced fame and preferred to live a private life with a small circle of confidantes. Even so, she remained one of the most recognizable movie stars even though she never worked again.

Portrait collector and film historian Robert Dance's book The Savvy Sphinx: How Garbo Conquered Hollywood explores the many facets of Garbo's fame and how it conflicted with her personal life. The book boasts extensive information about Garbo's acting career in particular, one that lasted through the 1920s and 1930s. We also get a peek into her personal life, her romantic relationships, her friendships and her retirement years. Because of Dance's interest in portrait work, readers are also given extensive insights on how movie studios utilized photographers like Clarence Bull, George Hurrell, Ruth Harriet Louise, Arnold Genthe and others. The book is slightly oversized, printed on glossy paper and features many professional portraits of Garbo as well as personal photographs of the star from over the years. 

Arnold Genthe portrait of Greta Garbo, circa July 1925

Here are some interesting takeaways from the book:

  • Garbo preferred to associate with European ex-pats or those who respected her need for privacy. She was quick to kick someone out of her inner circle.
  • Swedish filmmaker Mauritz Stiller was Garbo's mentor and pivotal to bringing her to Hollywood and getting her a contract with MGM.
  • Garbo chose her scripts, her romantic leading men and which portrait photographer she would allow to photograph her. She would also only agree to short term contracts. This level of control was quite rare in the era of the Hollywood studio system.
  • Garbo avoided fans, autographs and any kind of publicity. She preferred focusing on her work.
  • She was considered for films like Red Dust, Dark Victory and Song of Russia.
  • Flesh and the Devil (1926) made Garbo a household name thanks to her on screen and off screen chemistry with her costar John Gilbert.
  • The Divine Woman (1928) is the only Garbo film considered lost.
  • For Anna Christie (1930), they decided to warm up the audience with 5 minutes of Marie Dressler before they introduced Garbo in her first speaking role.
  • She frequently got out of MGM obligations including group photographs as well as bit parts in studio productions like Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Christmas Party (1931).
  • Garbo insisted that Laurence Olivier be replaced with John Gilbert in Queen Christina (1933).
  • She played Anna Karenina twice: Love (1926) and Anna Karenina (1935).
  • Irving Thalberg was a pivotal player in Garbo's career at MGM. When he died in 1936, it was the beginning of the end for her studio career.
  • Despite starring in many serious dramas and prestige pictures, her final two films Ninotchka (1939) and Two-Faced Woman (1941) were comedies.

And here are some of my favorite quotes:

“What is clear is that Garbo possessed great ambition and self-assurance, two qualities critical for success.” 
“Garbo’s voice turned out to be ideal for sound pictures. Her deep alto with its rich timbre and slight continental accent, not quite Swedish, but not quite anything else, recorded beautifully.”
“Here was a new sort of screen siren. Blond, beautiful, irresistible to men, and irresistible to audiences, Garbo displayed an overt sexuality that was revolutionary. Never before on screen had a woman been depicted as an equal romantic partner.”

“To looks and talent must be added to Garbo's magic. Something happens in the space between the faces projected on the shimmering silver screen and the eyes of the patrons filling movie theater seats.”

The Savvy Sphinx is richly rewarding. I came away from the book feeling like I just graduated with a degree in all things Greta Garbo. Reading this book cover to cover will take a while as there is quite a lot to take in and absorb. But it's well worth your time.

I did have a few problems with the book. There were typos scattered throughout which hopefully will be fixed on future reprints. The author is protective of his subject which at times can be frustrating because of the inherent bias. Garbo's romantic relationships, especially with John Gilbert, are downplayed a great deal. Even with that said, I still enjoyed the book immensely.

I highly recommend The Savvy Sphinx to anyone who already loves Greta Garbo or anyone wanting more insights on her special brand of celebrity and fame.

This is my third review for the 2022 Classic Film Reading Challenge.

Thank you to the University Press of Mississippi for sending me The Savvy Sphinx for review.

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