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.
Named for Katie-Bar-The-Door, the Katies are "alternate Oscars"—who should have been nominated, who should have won—but really they're just an excuse to write a history of the movies from the Silent Era to the present day.
To see a list of nominees and winners by decade, as well as links to my essays about them, click the highlighted links:
Look at me—Joe College, with a touch of arthritis. Are my eyes really brown? Uh, no, they're green. Would we have the nerve to dive into the icy water and save a person from drowning? That's a key question. I, of course, can't swim, so I never have to face it. Say, haven't you anything better to do than to keep popping in here early every morning and asking a lot of fool questions?