Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo

In the last few months I’ve had the opportunity to watch several of the original documentaries that Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been presenting, and by far I have to say that GARBO, which will be airing this evening at 8 p.m. EST (encore at 11:30 p.m. EST), is the finest. Centered on screen legend Greta Garbo, it tracks her arrival in the United States, her Hollywood career, and her legendary escape from the spotlight.

Narrated by Julie Christie, and featuring interviews with family, former friends and co-workers (in new and archived interviews), it offers as much information as it can about the actress, whose captivating beauty and talent made her one of the most famous movie stars of her time. What is interesting is how much of GARBO is based on hearsay and a study of her work. Part of this is, naturally, because most if not all of the people she once worked with are gone. But another is that Garbo was very private, infamously so, rarely if ever agreeing to interviews. As a result, all we’re left with is her body of her work to piece together the kind of person she was in real life. The most personal observations of Garbo come from her family, grand nephews and nieces who offer their limited memories of the star — most of which contradict the image she maintained on screen.

Greta Garbo was born in Holland, and came to America having made only a few films in Europe. She was anything but the bubbly young starlet, maintaining a sense of control over her career that was rare at the time. She fought the studio over and over again, refusing to accept roles that she felt were not worthy of her time, and fighting to work with co-stars that meant something to her, personally and professionally.

Rising to fame in the silent era, she was one of a small portion of Hollywood stars that successfully transitioned into the era of “talkies”. Her sultry voice, accompanied by a sexy accent, complimented the beauty she exuded.

I can’t say that I knew much about Greta Garbo before I sat down to watch this film. I was impressed by her strength when it came to her career, and respected her demand for privacy. In an age where celebrities live and die by the magazine covers they get featured on, spilling the details of their lives for public consumption, Garbo wished only to do her job and go home. The public attention frightened her, and when Hollywood ultimately turned their back on her, she slipped away into obscurity in New York City (or tried to, regardless of the attempts by photographers to haunt her every move).

Screen beauty Greta Garbo
Screen beauty Greta Garbo

The thing that got me most, as superficial as it is, was how beautiful Garbo was in her later years. She aged well, and seemed to gain more character and dignity with every passing year. And in the brief images we see of her in her personal time, she is even more radiant than she was in the movies. A natural beauty, with a style and grace that far surpassed anything we see in many of today’s screen stars.

GARBO makes a point to discuss how the protectiveness of her privacy ultimately fed the public and media interest in her. One story discussed how a photographer jumped onto her moving car in order to get a picture of her, and the story that accompanied it later claimed it was a “one word interview with Garbo”. That one word was what Garbo said to the photographer in that moment. It was: “Damn.”

GARBO is a wonderful documentary about the life of one of Hollywood’s most charismatic and beautiful legends. There may never be another Greta Garbo, but the cinema is better off that she was once here.

In order to further celebrate Garbo’s 100th birthday, which would have been on September 18th, TCM will show other documentaries about the actress throughout September, including Greta Garbo: The Temptress, Greta Garbo: The Clown, and Hollywood Remembers: The Divine Garbo. They will also be showing several of her films.

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