“The ecstasy of existing”: Kenneth Tynan on Greta Garbo

In this piece from our Spring 1954 issue, the legendary critic Kenneth Tynan profiles Greta Garbo, the enigmatic, iconic face of silent and early sound cinema.

Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo

What when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober. She is woman apprehended with all the pulsating clarity of one of Aldous Huxley’s mescalin jags. To watch her is to achieve direct, cleansed perception of something which, like a flower or a fold of silk, is raptly, unassertively and beautifully itself.

Nothing intrudes between her and the observer except the observer’s neuroses: her contribution is calm and receptiveness, an absorbent repose which normally, in women, coexists only with the utmost vanity. Tranced by the ecstasy of existing, she gives to each onlooker what he needs: her largesse is intarissable.

Most actresses in action live only to look at men, but Garbo looks at flowers, clouds and furniture with the same admiring compassion, like Eve on the morning of creation, and better cast than Mr Huxley as Adam. Fame, by insulating her against a multitude of experiences which we take for granted, has increased rather than diminished her capacity for wonder.

In England two years ago she visited Westminster Abbey, early one morning when no one was about, and in this most public of places found a source of enormous private enchantment. A walk along a busy street is for her a semi-mystical adventure.

Like a Martian guest, she questions you about your everyday life, infecting you with her eagerness, shaming you into a heightened sensitivity. Conversing with her, you feel like Ramon Novarro, blinded in Mata Hari, to whom she said: “Here are your eyes,” and touched her own.

I half-believed, until I met her, the old hilarious slander which whispered that she was a brilliant Swedish female impersonator who had kept up the pretence too long; behind the dark glasses, it was hinted, beneath the wild brown hair, there lurked the features of a proud Scandinavian diplomat, now proclaiming their masculinity so stridently that exposure to cameras was out of the question.

This idle fabrication was demolished within seconds of her entering the room; sidelong, a little tentative, like an animal thrust under a searchlight, she advanced, put out a hand in greeting, murmured something muted and sibilant to express her pleasure, and then, gashing her mouth into a grin, expunged all doubt. This was a girl, all right. It is an indication of the mystery which surrounds her that I felt pleased even to have ascertained her sex.

Two-faced Woman (1941)
Two-faced Woman (1941)

“Are you all things to all men?” someone asks her in Two-Faced Woman; to which the honest reply (I forget the scripted one) would be: “To all men, women and children.” Garbo, Hepburn and Dietrich are perhaps the only screen personalities for whom such a claim could seriously be made.

“She has sex, but no particular gender,” I once wrote of Dietrich, “her masculinity appeals to women, and her sexuality to men”; which is also true of Hepburn. Yet Garbo transcends both of them. Neither Hepburn nor Dietrich could have played Garbo’s scenes with her son in Anna Karenina; something predatory in them would have forbidden such selfless maternal raptures.

Garbo alone can be intoxicated by innocence. She turns her coevals into her children, taking them under her wing like a great, sailing swan. Her love is thus larger than Hepburn’s or Dietrich’s, which does not extend beyond the immediately desired object. It was Alistair Cooke who pointed out that in her films she seemed to see life in reverse, and, because she was aware of the fate in store for them, offered the shelter of her sympathy ‘to all around her. Through the cellophane kitsch (how it dates!) of the Lubitsch Touch she pierced, in Ninotchka, to affirm her pity for the human condition.

The words were addressed to Melvyn Douglas, but we all knew for whom they were really intended, and glowed in the knowledge: “Bomps will fall, civilisations will crumble – but not yet… Give us our moment!” She seemed to be pleading the world’s cause, and to be winning, too.

Ninotchka (1939)
Ninotchka (1939)

Often, during the decade in which she talked to us, she gave signs that she was on the side of life against darkness: they seeped through a series of banal, barrel-scraping scripts like code messages borne through enemy lines. Sometimes, uttering sentences which were plainly designed to speed the end of literature, she could convey her universal charity only in glimpses, such as, for instance, a half-mocking, half-despairing catch in the wine-dark voice. Round the militant bluster of MGM dialogue she wrapped a Red Cross bandage of humanity.

It is likely that too many volumes have been read into and written about her, and that every additional adulatory word reinforces the terror I am sure she feels at the thought of having to face us again and measure up to the legend. Possibly we exaggerated her intelligence from the beginning; perhaps she was perfectly happy with the velvet-hung, musk-scented tin lizzies which Salka Viertel and S.N. Behrman (among others) turned out as vehicles for her.

Perhaps association with Lewis Stone and Reginald Owen, a stout pair of uncle-substitutes who crop up, variously bewigged, in many of her films, was vitally necessary to inspire her. Recall, too: that Carl Brisson and John Gilbert are known to have been high on her list of ideal men; and that we have no evidence that she has ever read a book. Except physically, we know little more about Garbo than we know about Shakespeare.

She looks, in fact, about 34, but her date of birth is disputable; the textbooks oscillate between 1905 and 1906, and one biography ungallantly plumps for 1903, which may, of course, be the wound left by an embittered typesetter. Stockholm cradled her, and, like Anna Christie, she was the daughter of an impoverished sailor. She had a brother and two sisters, left school at 14, entered the newly expanding Swedish film industry, and was discovered by Mauritz Stiller.

The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924)

After the completion of Gosta Berling in 1924 her life is a list of movies, 12 silent, 14 talking, and a file of newspaper pictures, catching her aghast and raincoated, grey-faced and weirdly hatted, on the gangplanks of ships or the stairways to ‘planes. We often know where she is going, but never why.

Occasionally a man is with her, a sort of Kafkaesque guard, employed to escort her to her next inscrutable rendezvous. Baffled, we consult the astrologers, who tell us that those born, as she was, between the end of August and the end of September are almost bound to be perfectionists; but what, we are left sighing, is she perfecting?

She changed her name from Gustaffson to Garbo, the Swedish word for a sprite. I used to think the Spanish “garbo” an insult to her, having heard it applied to matadors whose work seemed to me no more than pretty or neat. A Hispanophile friend has lately corrected me: “garbo,” he writes, “is animal grace sublimated – the flaunting of an assured natural charm, poise infected by joie de vivre, innate, high-spirited, controlled, the essentially female attribute (even in bullfighters….”

In short, “garbo” is Garbo without the melancholy, with no intimations of mortality. The word describes the embryo, the capital letter invests it with a soul. It is the difference between Gosta Berling and Anna Karenina.

But here again I am acquiescing in the myth of gloom. Long before the fit of hoarse hysterics which convulsed her when Melvyn Douglas fell off his chair, Garbo had laughed, even if it was only “wild laughter in the throat of death”, and made us laugh too. She was never wholly austere.

Queen Christina (1934)
Queen Christina (1934)

Posing as a man in the tavern scene of Queen Christina, how blithely she made us smile at her awkwardness when asked to share a bedroom with the Spanish ambassador! A secret heart-smile, with the lips drawn back as if bobbing for apples, was always her least resistible weapon. Her gaiety coalesced, to the dismay of academic distinctions, with plangency. Her retirement is unforgivable if only because it means that now we shall never see her Masha in The Three Sisters, a part Chekhov might have written for her.

It takes lesser actresses to express a single emotion, mirth or mirthlessness. Garbo’s most radiant grins were belied always by the anxiety in the antennae-like eyebrows; and by the angle of her head she could effect a transition, not alone of mood, but of age. When it was tilted back, with the mouth sagging open, she was a child joyously anticipating a sweet; when it was tipped forward, the mouth still agape, she became a parent wide-eyed at her child’s newest exploit.

Some of her impact, certainly, was derived from the exoticism of her accent; here was probably the first Swedish voice that many a million filmgoers had ever heard. Anglo-Saxons are notoriously prone to ascribe messianic characteristics to any stranger with a Slavic, Teutonic or Nordic intonation; Bergner and Bergman are examples that come to mind, and the history of the London stage is punctuated with shrieks of exultation over long-forgotten soubrettes with names like Marta Kling, Svenda Stellmar or Ljuba Van Strusi.

Garbo was unquestionably assisted by the fact that she had to be cast, more often than not, as an exile: how often, to go about her business of homewrecking, she arrives by train from afar! The smoke clears, revealing the emissary of fate, hungrily licking her lips. The displaced person always inspires curiosity: who displaced her, what forces drove her from her native land? If it was Garbo’s luck to provoke these enquiries, it was her gift which answered them.

The impulse behind her voyage was romantic passion. Bergner might have left home to collect Pekes, Bergman to go on a hiking tour: Garbo could only have journeyed to escape or to seek a lover. Which is, as a line in Ninotchka has it, “a netchul impulse common to all.”

Superficially, she changed very little in the course of her career; a certain solidity in her aspect suggested, at the very end, a spiritualised reworking of Irene Dunne, but that was all. She could still (and often did) fling her head flexibly back at right-angles to her spine, and she kissed as thirstily as ever, cupping her man’s head in both hands and seeming very nearly to drink from it. And her appeal never lost its ambiguity.

The after-dinner cooch-dance which drives Lionel Barrymore to hit the bottle in Mata Hari reveals an oddly androgynous physique, with strongkneed legs as “capable,” in their way, as the spatulate fingers: nothing is here of Herrick’s “fleshie Principalities”. Pectorally, the eye notes a subsidence hardly distinguishable from concavity: the art that conceals art could scarcely go further.

If this undenominational temple-dance is seductive (and, like the swimming-pool sequence in Two-Faced Woman, it is), the explanation lies in our awareness that we are watching a real, imperfectly shaped human being, and not a market-fattened glamour-symbol.

Mata Hari (1931)
Mata Hari (1931)

I dwell on Garbo’s physical attributes because I think the sensual side of acting is too often under-rated: too much is written about how actors feel, too little about how they look. Garbo’s looks, and especially her carriage, always set up a marvellous dissonance with what she was saying. The broad ivory yoke of her shoulders belonged to a javelin-thrower; she walked obliquely, seeming to sidle even when she strode, like a middle-weight boxer approaching an opponent: how could this athletic port enshrine so frail and suppliant a spirit?Queen Christina, reputedly her favourite character, is encased for several reels in masculine garb, and when besought by her counsellors to marry, she replies: “I shall die a bachelor!” And think of: “I am Mata Hari – I am my own master!” To lines like these Garbo could impart an enigmatic wit which nobody else could conceivably have carried off. Deficient in all the surface frills of femininity, she replaced them with a male directness. Her Marie Walewska was as lion-hearted as Napoleon himself, and I have heard her described as “Charlemagne’s Aunt”.

Her independence (in the last analysis) of either sex is responsible for the cryptic amorality of her performances. In most of the characters she played the only discernible moral imperative is loyalty, an animal rather than a human virtue – that “natural sense of honour” which, as Shaw says, “is nowhere mentioned in the Bible”.

“Animal grace sublimated”: I return to my correspondent’s phrase. If it is true (as I think it is) that none of Garbo’s clothes ever appear to be meant for her, much less to fit her, that is because her real state is not in clothes at all. Her costumes hamper her, whether they are stoles, or redingotes, or (as on one occasion) moire, sequinned, principal-boy tights. She implies a nakedness which is bodily as well s spiritual. It is foolish to complain that, basically, she gave but one performance throughout her life. She has only one body, and in this incarnation that is all we can expect.

Through what hoops, when all is said and done, she has been put by Seastrom, Cukor, Clarence Brown and the rest of her mentors! She has gone blonde for them, danced “La Chica-Choca for them, played a travesty of Sarah Bernhardt for them, stood straight-faced by for them as Lewis Stone warned her of “a new weapon called The Tank”.

Queen Christina (1934)
Queen Christina (1933)

Can we ask for more self-abnegation? A life of Duse was once mooted for her – what an education sentimentale, one guesses, she would have supplied for D’Annunzio! Later she hovered over, but did not settle on, a mimed role in Lifar’s ballet version of Phedre. And at the last moment, when all seemed fixed, she sidestepped the leading part in Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais. The most recent, least plausible rumour of all insisted that she would film La Folle de Chaillot, with Chaplin as the Rag-Picker…So it looks as if we’re never to know whether or not she was a great actress. Do I not find the death-scene of Camille or the bedroom-stroking scene of Queen Christina commensurate with the demands of great acting? On balance, no. The great actress, as G.H. Lewes declared, must show her greatness in the highest reaches of her art; and it must strictly be counted against Garbo that she never attempted Hedda, or Masha, or St Joan, or Medea.

We must acclaim a glorious woman who exhibited herself more profoundly to the camera than any of her contemporaries: but the final accolade must, if we are honest, be withheld.

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