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September 18: Discovering Greta Garbo

September 17, 2016

Swedish actress Greta Garbo (Gustafsson, not Jewish) was born on this date in 1905. She was “discovered” and trained as a film actress by the Finnish-Swedish Jewish film director Mauritz Stiller, who brought her to America when Louis B. Mayer, the chief of MGM, invited him to Hollywood as a director. A pioneer of the Swedish silent movie business since 1912, Stiller directed one silent Hollywood film with Garbo, The Temptress (1926, produced by Irving Thalberg), but was terminated while still on the set and returned to Sweden the following year, only to die from pleurisy. Garbo remained in Hollywood, however, and became an international star with her next film, Flesh and the Devil (co-written by Benjamin Glazer, an Oscar-winning Hungarian Jew born in Belfast, Ireland). According to film historian Mark Vieira, “Thalberg decreed that . . . Garbo would play a young but worldly-wise woman . . . ” But Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer, claimed that Garbo “at first didn’t like playing the exotic, the sophisticated, the woman of the world. She used to complain: ‘Mr. Thalberg, I am just a young gur-rl!’ Irving tossed it off with a laugh. With those elegant pictures he was creating the Garbo image.”

“Mauritz Stiller wanted a girl to play in a picture for him. I said, ’Ya? I will go and see him!’ I didn’t think much about it. I never get thrilled about anything until it happens. It hurts too much to be disappointed. That day, after school, I went up to his house to see him. I had never seen Mr. Stiller. To me he was just a very big man. He is very big in Europe, you know; one of the biggest. He was not at home. So I sat down and waited. Pretty soon he came in with his big dog. I started trembling all over. He seemed such a funny person. He looked at me, looked me up and down, looked me all over. He has told me since, exactly what I had on, even to my shoes and my stockings, I had on black, low-heeled low shoes, with black stockings.” —Greta Garbo