Garbo's Imprint on the Movies

THE milestones in Greta Garbo's career were not just personal achievements; they were milestones in movie history and American popular culture. ``Garbo talks!'' was the advertising tagline for ``Anna Christie,'' her first sound film; ``Garbo laughs'' was the slogan for ``Ninotchka,'' her first comedy - and although those films were released as long ago as 1930 and 1939, respectively, their publicity lines are still famous among moviegoers. So are the names of characters she played in other enduring pictures that ranged in tone and quality from ``Queen Christina'' and ``Mata Hari'' to ``Anna Karenina'' and ``Camille.'' Garbo's death Sunday put an end to nothing in the film world. Her career had stopped long ago - in 1941, when she retired while still in her mid-30s and was admired all over the world. And it's likely that her legend will never entirely fade, no matter how many stars aim at similar heights of skill, glamour, and charisma.

Almost 50 years after her last movie, she has an almost mythical status among movie buffs and casual filmgoers alike. Generations who have seen her only on the TV screen know her greatness, as well as those who savored her talent in the great age of gilded movie palaces. Her gifts have withstood the journey from cinema to video as impressively as her acting persona withstood the change from silents to ``talkies'' - a change that ruthlessly dimmed some lesser lights, such as John Gilbert, one of her most celebrated early costars.

Garbo's career began in her native Sweden, where she acted in publicity-film and ``bathing beauty'' roles. A turning point came during her sojourn at the Royal Dramatic Theater Academy in Stockholm, where the prodigious filmmaker Mauritz Stiller took her under his wing. In a relationship that would later be echoed by other male directors with female stars - such as Joseph von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, and G.W. Pabst and Louise Brooks - he helped mold her talent and persona, changing the teenager's name from Gustafsson to Garbo and featuring her in ``The Saga of Gosta Berling,'' a key film in Sweden's ``golden age'' of silent filmmaking.

After appearing in ``Streets of Sorrow'' for Pabst, she came to Hollywood with Stiller and scored a success in ``The Torrent,'' directed by Monta Bell in 1926. Stiller's career in Hollywood proved sadly short-lived, but Garbo's momentum rarely flagged in the years to come, and some of her earliest American pictures - such as ``Flesh and the Devil'' (1927) - are among the most frequently revived silent films.

Garbo did not retire at the height of her popularity, as legend sometimes has it. She turned to comedy with the 1939 ``Ninotchka'' in an effort to end a wobbly period at the box office, and while that picture became a classic - due in large part to Ernst Lubitsch's directorial brilliance - her follow-up with Melvyn Douglas, the 1941 ``Two-Faced Woman,'' actually lost money; and its own director, George Cukor, never tired of stating his dissatisfaction with it.

The star took some time off, and months stretched into years, then decades. Her friends as well as her fans sometimes expressed impatience with her new, reclusive existence: ``I know she enjoys life ... alone and full of petty regrets,'' wrote her one-time companion Cecil Beaton during the 1970s. ``But to me it is appallingly vapid.'' Countless others felt she had earned her right to privacy, however. And her 27 movies have lived on to nourish admirers everywhere.

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