In the wake of last week’s stomach-churning election outcome, we decided we needed an antidote in the form of a strong woman known for playing strong women characters. So today we honor Greta Garbo, perhaps one of the most iconic actresses to ever appear on film.
En Lyckoriddare (1921)
At only 15 years old, Garbo’s first appearance in a historical film was in En Lyckoriddare, a Swedish silent film set in the 17th century. Greta and her sister Alva were cast as extras in a tavern scene (though Garbo is rumored to have been featured in a dance scene as well). The film is now lost, and there’s precious few stills of the production, such as the one above which, as far as I know, doesn’t actually show Garbo. But it at least gives you an idea of the costuming quality!
The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924)
The first of Garbo’s high-budget historical films in the early phase of her stardom, she plays Countess Elisabeth Dohna, the beautiful step-daughter of a scheming noblewoman who has hired a handsome, but deeply flawed minister to tutor her.
It’s not exactly clear what era this film is supposed to be set in, as the costumes (by Adrian) are a weird mix of late-1920s and La Belle Époque. The story begins with an aging Bishop telling a young man who wants to marry a woman his family does not approve of, about how he fell in love with a similar woman, and then flashes back to the Bishop’s youth. Garbo plays Italian opera star Rita Cavallini, who is reputed to have a string of lovers when she falls in love with a young clergyman, Tom. The film is filled with all kinds of moralistic finger-wagging at independent, strong-minded women, but that’s par for the course.
Mata Hari (1931)
Mata Hari is arguably one of Garbo’s most famous roles. Set during World War I, so ~15 years before the film was made — it had to have felt pretty contemporary to audiences at the time and the fact that the costumes (again, by Adrian) make no real effort to be anything other than 1930s doesn’t help. Mata Hari is an exotic dancer/spy who pays the ultimate price for her efforts, and it’s all glitz and glamour until somebody gets executed.
Queen Christina (1933)
We covered this one a while back, so check out Trystan’s write-up. In the meantime, look at the costumes!
Anna Karenina (1935)
Garbo is cast as the eponymous tragic heroine of Tolstoy’s novel. In reality, this was Garbo’s second time playing Anna, having starred in an adaptation of the novel in 1927 called Love. This film, however, was more faithful to the novel. Again, the costumes are by Adrian.
Fallen woman falls in love with good boy. Good boy vows to fight to keep them together no matter the cost. Good boy’s father circumvents this by convincing fallen woman to repudiate his son, which leads to fallen woman ultimately being redeemed by dying of tuberculosis. Costumes once again by Adrian.
Garbo plays Countess Marie Walewska, a Polish noblewoman who is pushed into becoming Napoleon‘s mistress for political reasons. She thinks he’s unimpressive, he promises her the world, she ends up falling in love with him, he decides to marry Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria thinking it’s not going to change their relationship, but Marie knows when it’s time to bow out gracefully. Surprisingly, no one dies. I’ll give you three guesses who designed the costumes and the first two don’t count.