Thursday, April 17, 2014

John Gilbert and Greta Garbo: Hollywood Heartbreak

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. 

In 1921, Gilbert signed with Fox Film Corporation as their leading man and starred in Monte Cristo and The Wolf Man. Nevertheless, it is believed that Fox Film was failing to use Gilbert to his full potential, and considering the work he completed at Ince Studios, this is likely true.

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 role inspired Garbo and Petschler suggested she audition for the Royal Dramatic Theatre Academy in Stockholm. She was accepted and attended the Academy from 1922 to 1924.

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.

The Story of Gosta Berling details the love affair of a virginal countess and a troubled minister and was originally released in two parts. It was a strong professional vehicle for Garbo, garnering attention to her talent in Hollywood, but she was still considered an "unknown" to the public. Garbo continued her training in cinematic techniques with Mauritz Stiller.

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.

Garbo's talkie debut came in 1930 with the film version of Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize winning dramatic play Anna Christie, which was advertised with the catch phrase "Garbo talks!" According to TCM, Garbo was nervous about the project and told a friend "I feel like an unborn child."

Queen Christina

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.

According to TCM Archives, Louis B. Mayer had a tremendous amount of respect for Garbo and gave her complete control over who was hired to work on the film. Sir Laurence Olivier was originally hired for the lead in Queen Christina, but when Garbo found she could not "romantically respond" to Olivier she insisted that Mayer hire her former fiance, John Gilbert, for the role.

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.

I personally believe she left him at the alter. I do not believe the studios wanted that kind of publicity back then and one studio executive claimed that he told Gilbert outright to stop chasing after Garbo because, if he didn't, it would ruin his career. I have read many accounts stating Gilbert was obsessed with Garbo, but these were also said to be rumors.

Greta Garbo and John Barrymore in Grand Hotel 1932, public domain.

Garbo had a reputation for having numerous love affairs and at that time in Hollywood it was considered a bonus for a male star to have the reputation of a lover, but if a woman was assertive with her sex life she was considered scandalous (I could use other words here, but I won't).

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.

Regardless, Garbo never married anyone, certainly not John Gilbert, and she had no children. In 1951, she became a naturalized United States Citizen and a few years later purchased a seven room apartment in New York where she spent the remainder of her life in near seclusion, hiding from the paparazzi who had become so aggressive that she could no longer live a life that resembled anything close to normal, or average, or even comfortable.

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.

Gilbert's alcoholism was impossible to keep secret, especially since it affected his marriages in such a public way. By 1934, it had also severely damaged his reputation as an actor, and even more sadly, his health. Gilbert had a heart attack in December of 1935, but survived. He had a second, fatal heart attack on January 9, 1936. His ashes are interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. His funeral was attended by his wife and two ex-wives, both daughters, and many Hollywood stars, such as Myrna Loy, Gary Cooper, and Marlene Dietrich.

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. 
Photo by Henry Salomé (Jaser !) 11:13, 25 October 2006.

In 2005, a commemorative postage stamp featuring Greta Garbo was issued by the United States Postal Service. The Swedish Posten issued a similar stamp that same year. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.


  • 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.


  1. I was wondering what happened and glad you are back. There are so many "G"'s to write about. From what I read she left him at the alter twice! The first was to be a double marriage with King Vidor and his wife Eleanor Boardman. In my favourite documentary series on Hollywood (still not on DVD) she was interviewed and told about the wedding and how Garbo never arrived. LB Mayer told Gilbert to "F" her don't marry her and John Gilbert punched him in the face. From that moment Mayer made sure he would ruin his career. There is controversy about that but I believe it. I love Leatrice Joy in the film series as she said John Gilbert wrote on a card "To m wife for whom God patterned the Angels" . Great that you highlighted these 2

  2. I actually have many ideas for G--I was stuck on J! I used John! Lol! Interesting--my sources are very detailed about the relationship between Gilbert and Garbo, but revisionist historians are saying it never happened. I always find it frustrating when 100 years later writers suddenly believe they can change history. I read about Mayer, as well, and that the punch in the face and his refusal to let go of Garbo was the reason for Gilbert's downfall. I can imagine his pride may have had something to do with it, as well. He was, in his time, more of a Hollywood romantic hero than Rudolph Valentino and when he met her, she was fresh out of acting school. It must have felt like a slap in the face to HIM when she repeatedly turned him down, and with his wounded pride, he probably kept trying, and trying, and trying until he became a nuisance and looked foolish in the eyes of Garbo, the public, and of course this would destroy his romantic hero image and career with the studios. A sad situation.

  3. It was very sad and I believe they were each other's greatest loves. A great book on Gilbert is by his daughter Leatrice Gilbert Fountain. My great (notice I say my as it is my Holy Grail) is the 13 part documentary on Hollywood done in the 1970's and they interviewed people who were there at the time they were lovers so I go by that and what I have read. I find that some people, nowadays like to rewrite things to make it more like they wanted it or to hurt the actor/actress who can no longer defend themselves. Love your posts and will wait for K and the rest:)

    1. Ahh, we are on the same page! Yes, I agree--go with the interviews, the older documents, the people who were there at the time. It makes so much more sense! Thank you for reading!

  4. This is a really interesting bio on them. She is so pretty.


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