Cinema and Media Studies Greta Garbo
Philip Hallman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0163


Greta Garbo (b. 1905–d. 1990) is arguably the most famous female movie star Hollywood produced during the late silent film era and the beginning of the golden age of the studio system. She exuded an unbridled sexuality and sophistication new for the era that immediately set her apart from her on-screen contemporaries like Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and Janet Gaynor. Born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson in 1905 in a working-class district of Stockholm, Sweden, Garbo began life as the youngest of three children. Money and excitement were lacking for all. Biographies of Garbo often reference her love of daydreaming and play-acting to escape her dreary life, directing her friends in make-believe playground dramas as she fantasized about a life as an actress. Her father’s ill health took a toll on the family and Greta was often asked to care for him. His death in 1919, when she was only fourteen, led her to leave school early, something she was not unhappy about doing as she hated school. She worked in a department store and modeled before eventually being “discovered” by her mentor, Mauritz Stiller. Her performance in Stiller’s 1924 Swedish film The Saga of Gosta Berling was well received and got the attention of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who brought her to America in 1925 and made her an international star. Yet her Swedish cultural disposition remained inside her head and heart and she never was comfortable in her adopted homeland in spite of the fame, fortune, and notoriety. In 1941 she shot her last film, Two-Faced Woman. At the age of thirty-five, after appearing in just twenty-eight films, she sensed that things were changing in Hollywood and she walked away from the cameras, eventually relocating to an apartment on New York’s posh Upper East Side. Interest in her never ended, however, and she was the subject of conjecture and fascination until her death in 1990. Ironically, while she sought solitude and privacy, she was in some ways even more popular and mythologized following her retirement from the screen. Photographers stalked her regularly and fans hoped somehow to get a fleeting glimpse on the streets of Manhattan of the woman whose ethereal beauty had been seared into the collective brain of moviegoers worldwide and thus maybe somehow, simply by seeing her, come to understand her finally.

General Overviews

The general overviews of Garbo all provide a basic comprehensive outline of Garbo’s life and career and are best used as a starting point in beginning one’s research, particularly for those who know little to nothing about the actress. Most tend to provide factual information and do not attempt to offer much in the way of an analysis of individual films or a psychological profile of her character. All, in some way or another, place her in some kind of broader thematic context: Slide 2010 emphasizes her work in silent films; Parish 2003 plays up the notorious aspect of her career; Tapert 1998 shows why she is a style icon; Wayne 2002 compares her to the other actresses on the MGM lot; Sarvady, et al. 2006 goes a bit broader and places her in context to the actresses of the studio era; Sonneborn 2002 goes out one step further by showing how she fits into the world of women in the performing arts.

  • Parish, James Robert. Hollywood Divas: The Good, the Bad, and the Fabulous. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2003.

    Parish has made a career of writing informative reference books featuring concise profiles of celebrities bound together under a particular theme or topic. This is no exception. Provides a generalized account of the star’s life and career and covers many of the points commonly associated with her. Suggested for beginning undergraduates.

  • Sarvady, Andrea Cornell, Frank Miller, and Molly Haskell. Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006.

    Eye-catching, graphically interesting film guide produced in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies. Similar to their on-air introductions, the entries includes a succinct but well-written biography, complete filmographies, behind-the-scenes trivia, essential viewing recommendations, and a good assortment of photos. A sidebar section called “style notes” discusses in brief paragraphs how each actress approached her specific look and appearance.

  • Slide, Anthony. Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010.

    Surprisingly Garbo has been given a short and sweet profile and lumped in with an entry author Slide labels as “The Legends” (pp. 215–219): Chaney, Chaplin, Garbo, Keaton, and Valentino. Includes a short bibliography. Suggested for beginning undergraduates.

  • Sonneborn, Liz. A to Z of American Women in the Performing Arts. New York: Facts on File, 2002.

    Reference book profile provides a serviceable introduction to Garbo that paints a broad biographical portrait. A limited list of suggested further reading options and a recommended list of videotaped performances to watch are included. Suggested for beginning undergraduates.

  • Tapert, Annette. The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom. New York: Crown, 1998.

    Focuses on eleven leading ladies of the American cinema of the 1930s including Garbo; the book’s strength is the accompanying period photographs that capture the individual style of each actress. The brief entries surprisingly go one step further than typical encyclopedia-type with insightful details that provide biographical detail and a sense of who each woman was and her significance.

  • Wayne, Jane Ellen. “Garbo.” In The Golden Girls of MGM: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and Others. By Jane Ellen Wayne, 75–99. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002.

    Lively regaling of stories about Garbo and the other women who worked on the MGM lot offers a solid introduction to the subject. The lack of footnotes detracts, especially as the author uses quotes throughout the book. The story of how the author literally ran into Garbo on the streets of Manhattan is a winning tale.

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