John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, publicity screenshot for A Woman of Affairs, 1929.
John Gilbert was one of the hottest, sexiest, most in-demand actors in silent films when Greta Garbo was still in film school, but from the minute he saw her on screen, for him, it was love at first sight. For her, it almost seemed to be a game, which she played skilfully right up to her wedding day, then failed to make an appearance.
The Devil Dodger starring Roy Stewart and John Gilbert, publicity screenshot, 1917.
John Gilbert (July 10, 1987-January 9, 1936) was an American actor and director famous in the silent film era who lost popularity after the invention of "talkies," but not for his voice as was rumored at the time. He had a dark, seductive look and a strong, rich voice that the women loved, on-screen and off. He was known as "The Great Lover." His only on-screen rival was Rudolph Valentino and when Valentino died, Gilbert ruled Hollywood as box office gold.
Gilbert's Early Years
Gilbert was born John Cecil Pringle in Logan Utah. His parents were also actors, but unsuccessful, and like Greta Garbo he struggled with years of childhood abuse and poverty. His family moved frequently, but he eventually was able to attend the Hitchcock Military Academy in California.
John Gilbert and Joan Crawford in Four Walls, 1928, public domain.
Gilbert, like his parents, chose to be an actor and was hired on as an extra with the Thomas Ince Studios. He was liked and admired for his talent and hired to write and direct films as well as act. His early films include 1919's Heart o' the Hills with the famous Mary Pickford.
John Gilbert and Virginia Brown Faire in Monte Cristo, 1922, trailer screenshot.
Garbo's Troubled Childhood
Swedish actress Greta Garbo was one of the few Hollywood stars to successfully transition from silent films to talkies. Her poverty-stricken childhood was riddled with painful moments, moments she later used to enhance her performances with an honesty and sincerity that many of her contemporaries lacked.
Greta Garbo, The Saga of Gosta Berlings, 1924, public domain.
On September 18, 1905, in Stockholm, Sweden, Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was born to Anna Lovisa and Karl Alfred Gustaffson. She was the youngest of three children in a family so destitute they lived in near-poverty in a tenement apartment in Stockholm's then slum area of Sodermalm. Garbo graduated from school at 13.
Greta Garbo, publicity photo, 1924.
Garbo's father became ill during the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 and she cared for him at home until he died in 1920 and she was forced to join the work force to help support her family. She started as a soap lather girl in a barber shop where she met the son of the owner of PUB (Paul U. Bergstrom) department store. She was offered a job selling hats in the department store and occasionally modeling for the store's newspaper advertisements.
Introduction to Acting
As a teenager, while still working at PUB, Garbo was asked to do a short screen advertisement directed by Captain Ragnar Ring. The advertisement short was called How Not to Dress. She was also cast in the 1922 advertising short Our Daily Bread promoting baked goods. The advertisements were seen by producer/director Erik Petschler, who offered her a part in the 1920 film Peter the Tramp.
Greta Garbo, publicity shot, 1924, public domain.
The Royal Dramatic Theatre's acting school, of Sweden class of 1922-1924. From left to right: Lena Cederqvist, Karl-Magnus Thulstrup, Mona Mårtensson, Mimi Pollak, Vera Schmiterlöw, Greta Garbo, Alf Sjöberg and Håkan Westergren.
Garbo then changed her name to Greta Garbo on the advice of Swedish director Mauritz Stiller, who cast her in the 1924 film The Story of Gosta Berling, a dramatic film based on a popular Swedish novel by Nobel prize winner Selma Lagerlof.
Greta Garbo, trailer screenshot, The Joyless Street, 1925.
Garbo and Louis B. Mayer
According to Susan Ware's Notable American Women, when Hollywood film producer Louis B. Mayer was scouting for talent in Berlin he was invited to a showing of The Story of Gosta Berling. He was impressed with Stiller's work and briefly acknowledged Garbo, but suggested she needed to lose weight before trying to make her mark in Hollywood.
Greta Garbo circa 1920, photo by Henry B. Goodwin, public domain.
Stiller and Garbo joined Metro Goldwyn Mayer in September of 1925. Garbo was twenty pounds lighter. She was immediately cast in the 1926 film The Torrent, a classic tragedy about love and rejection.She did not work with Stiller on this film. Nevertheless, Garbo's performance received good reviews. She was next cast in Temptress with Stiller as director. Stiller was replaced, but Garbo once again received great reviews.
Greta Garbo and Mauritz Stiller on board the S/S Drottningholm" in 1925 en route to the US.
Garbo was often cast as a troubled woman in a romantically-compromising situation. Her performance was strengthened even more when sound was introduced into the film industry and she dazzled her audience with her deep, sultry, sexy voice. She was the perfect match for John Gilbert, in the minds of the public and possibly in his mind, as well, but if this was true she apparently had other plans.
Relationship with John Gilbert
Garbo made her two most popular films--Flesh and the Devil in 1926 and Love in 1927--with actor John Gilbert as the romantic interest. As Walter Pidgeon explained in MGM Parade, Flesh and the Devil made Greta Garbo "an unequivocal box office smash."
John Gilbert publicity photo, circa 1930.
Pidgeon also stated that Garbo's collaboration with Gilbert in this film resulted in "some truly unsettling love scenes." These two films, and rumors of romance between Garbo and Gilbert, marked the beginning of the paparazzi's obsession with the actress and her romantic relationships, an obsession that plagued Garbo for the rest of her life.
John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil, 1926.
Garbo and Gilbert made three films that seemed to fuel a gossip-hungry public: Flesh and the Devil; Love; and A Woman of Affairs. The titles alone were enough to draw the public to the theaters, but the rumors of romance between the two leading stars made these films instant hits.
Talkie Debut in Anna Christie
According to Susan Ware's Notable American Women, MGM executives were reluctant to take risks with their stars and Garbo made some of her most popular silent films--1927's Love, and 1928's The Mysterious Lady and A Woman of Affairs--after talkies had already been introduced to the public. She made a total of seven silent films after talkies were introduced before MGM allowed her to speak in her movies.
Greta Garbo, 1925, photo by Alexander Binder, public domain.
According to TCM Archives, Louis B. Mayer's concern was not Garbo's voice, which was silky smooth and seductively deep, but the fact that she had a strong Swedish accent. He was concerned about possible prejudice, or that her fans may have perceived her differently and would be unable to relate to her if they knew she had an accent.
After an 18 month hiatus, Greta Garbo returned to the screen in 1930's Queen Christina. The role was perfect for Garbo as a reserved queen who abdicates the throne for her Spanish lover then leaves her kingdom to return his body to his native land when he dies, though it contrasted strongly with the real Queen Christina of Sweden who was raised as a prince, crowned as a king, openly bisexual, and abdicated her throne in 1654 to practice Catholicism.
Greta Garbo, trailer screenshot, Queen Christina, 1933, public domain.
Sir Laurence Olivier, 1939, public domain.
In spite of the fact that Garbo was also working on the set with her lesbian lover, rumors of romance between Gilbert and Garbo were once again circulating through the tabloids fueling the romantic imaginations of her audience. If it is true that Garbo had by this time left him at the alter, that must have been an uncomfortable and emotionally painful situation for everyone involved, which makes one wonder why she insisted on having him play the role.
The Mystery of the Gilbert and Garbo Relationship
Greta Garbo's personal life was obsessively fascinating for the paparazzi who stalked her until her death. Her apparent bisexuality was of particular interest to photographers and reporters. Her performances with John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil and Love flamed the imaginations of her many fans and Gilbert's proposal of marriage made headlines around the world. It is unknown if Garbo actually left Gilbert at the alter, or if this was a publicity rumor started by the studios, which is claimed by some biographers.
Publicity still from Ninotchka, 1939, public domain.
Greta Garbo and John Barrymore in Grand Hotel 1932, public domain.
Greta Garbo, publicity still, The Joyless Street, 1925, public domain.
According to TCM Archives, Garbo conceived the idea of Queen Christina with her lover, writer Salka Viertel, insisted that her former fiance, John Gilbert, play the lead, then became romantically involved during the filming with director Rouben Mamoulian. If this is true then it would seem possible that the studios started the rumor that Garbo left Gilbert at the alter, otherwise he certainly would have turned down the role, unless he felt desperate, and his career was waning, so that's possible, as well.
Greta Garbo, The Joyless Street, 1929, public domain.
Gilbert was married four times, and each marriage was plagued with public scandal. His longest marriage lasted four years, to Olivia Burwell. He died while they were still married. He had two children--one with Leatrice Joy and one with Virginia Bruce.
The Legacy of Gilbert and Garbo
Gilbert and Garbo are still considered one of Hollywood's classic couples, like Bogart and Bacall, and Tracey and Hepburn. They both had fairly successful careers, even though Gilbert's did decline with the invention of talkies.
Gilbert and Garbo, public domain.
John Gilbert, public domain
Gilbert was generous with his family and friends, distributing his estate among his family, friends, relatives and servants. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and like his famous costar, a US postage stamp was designed in his honor by Al Hirschfeld.
During her short career, Greta Garbo appeared in two advertising "shorts" and 30 films, including Anna Karenina and Mata Hari. She was nominated for four Academy Awards, for her performances in Anna Christie, Romance, Camille, and Ninotchka. In 1954 she was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for "Unforgettable Screen Performances."
Greta Garbo, The Joyless Street, 1929, public domain.
She was successfully treated for breast cancer in 1984, but died from pneumonia on April 15, 1990 at the age of 85. She was cremated and her ashes interred at Skogskyrkogarden Cemetery near Stockholm, Sweden where she was born.
Greta Garbo's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- Bainbridge, John. "The Great Garbo: A Candid Biography." Life Magazine. Jan. 10, 1955.
- "Greta Garbo." MGM Parade. Episode 31. Narrated by Walter Pidgeon. Produced 1955-1956. Broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, January 9, 2011.
- "Greta Garbo: Star of the Month." TCM Archives. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
- Ware, Susan. Notable Women: A biographical dictionary completing the twentieth century. Harvard University Press. Retrieved January 13, 2011.
- Wayne, Jane Ellen. The Leading Men of MGM. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005.
In the A to Z Bloggers Challenge, J is for John Gilbert and Greta Garbo.