Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hollywood Couples: John Gilbert And Greta Garbo

A great on-screen couple in three silent movies (Flesh And The Devil, Love and A Woman Of Affairs), Greta Garbo and John Gilbert also had a passionate off-screen romance and were, to my mind, the most beautiful of Hollywood's Silent Era couples.

They met on the set of their first movie together, Flesh And The Devil. Gilbert was one of Hollywood's biggest names, earning a million dollars a year after the critical and commercial success of King Vidor's The Big Parade, and with the death of Rudolph Valentino, heir to the title of the Sexiest Man Alive. Garbo was a virtual unknown with a reputation as a moody ice queen.

"Hello, Greta," Gilbert reportedly said at their first meeting.

"It is Miss Garbo," was her reply.

Yet somehow they lit up the screen together.
The two fell in love with the cameras rolling and began an affair before the production was over.

The movie was a smash. Garbo created a sensation with her ethereal beauty, cool, exotic manner and thoroughly modern (for 1926) characterization of an amoral woman who slept with whomever she wanted. Gilbert further cemented his reputation as the screen's greatest lover.

Their off-camera romance was a mirror of their on-screen one—torrid, tempestuous and complicated by other relationships. Gilbert, who was married four times and was in the midst of a bitter divorce, proposed and Garbo, who never married, came as close to saying "I do" with Gilbert as she ever did.

Some say she left Gilbert
literally standing at the altar.

I don't know if that story is based in fact or the work of an overly-romantic publicity department, but in any event, the two parted and their careers went in decidedly different directions.

Despite his fine, classically-trained stage voice, Gilbert's career foundered with the introduction of sound. Audiences expecting John Wayne got Ronald Colman, not to mention that the studio carelessly saddled Gilbert with poor scripts in his first sound outings. That "I love you I love you I love you" bit from Singin' In The Rain? That was Gene Kelly copying an actual John Gilbert performance.

The two made one last movie together, the box-office failure Queen Christina, before Gilbert died of a heart attack in 1936.

Garbo continued to make movies, was nominated for three Oscars and then abruptly retired in 1941 to become one of history's most famous recluses. I'll go into more depth about her later career when we reach the sound era.

And in a few weeks, as part of an occasional series about famous Hollywood couples, I'll write about the other great couple of Silent Era, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.


lupner said...

Have only seen Mr. Gilbert in photos, but just wanna say he appears to have had it all over Valentino IMHO (though neither are really my cup o' filmgoer's tea).

Garbo was amazing to watch. I've only seen a couple of her films, but one was "Ninotchka" -- which i think was the one advertised with "Garbo laughs" --? Both she and Melvyn Douglas were great -- lots o' fun.

Mister Parker said...

"Ninotchka" -- my favorite Garbo movie.

Written by Billy Wilder, you know. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. One of my favorite writer stories involves Wilder working on Ninotchka. He couldn't figure how to show Ninotchka's conversion from communism to capitalism and had written pages and pages of turgid dialogue and it still wasn't working.

Finally, he throws up his hands and admits defeat to Lubitsch. Lubitsch thinks for a minute and says, "It's the hat."

"Hat?" says Wilder. "What hat?"

"The hat we're going to put in the movie."

And so they include three scenes involving a gaudy hat for sale in a window of the hotel where she is staying.

The first time walking through the lobby, Garbo says something about "How can a society exist that would sell such a hat."

The second time, she just looks at it, shakes her head, "Tsk tsk tsk."

The third time, up in her hotel room, standing before her mirror, she looks to make sure she is alone -- and then takes the hat out of its box and puts it on.

This, says Wilder, is why Lubitsch was a genius.