Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Garbo Effect

I'm fascinated by Irene's name change.

When did it happen? All indications are that she began to call herself Greta in 1927. It's the name she uses in her first picture, and the name she consistently uses in her film career.

The name change is related to the post from two days ago: how did Greta get to Hollywood.

But the question of the day is why did she choose the name Greta and why did she choose (if she did) to present herself as being from Malmö.

I contend that it is a sign of the Garbo factor.

We forget how popular and how influential Garbo was. From the time of The Temptress (1926) until her retirement from the screen, she was immensely popular and immensely influential. One of my favorite Garbo images is in a 1938 Walter Lantz cartoon - The Hollywood Bowl. All the stars are there. Garbo is a cigarette girl.

Then there's the 1936 Carole Lombard vehicle, The Princess Comes Across. Lombard plays a Brooklyn would be star who pretends to be Princess Olga of Sweden, crossing the Atlantic to become the newest star for Republic pictures (or some such film company). There's a murder mystery, a bit of big band music and a revelation that everyone is pretending to be someone other than the person they actually are.

When the boat lands in New York, Lombard's character has to address the press. She gets greeted by Mr. Gustafson and responds, in Swedish, "jag tackar dej. Jag är så glad . . ."

It was the last time I watched the film that I finally realized, "She's doing a Garbo imitation." Her accent, the pitch of her voice, to the accent, to the phrasing, to the look. Compare Lombard from the film with Garbo from approximately the same period.

Here's Lombard as she appears when she first gets on the board for America.

And here's Garbo. Not as glammed up as Lombard in The Princess Comes across, but notice the eyes, the mouth. The Lombard is a parody of the Garbo, and this Garbo is fairly typical of the images of her from the period.

So, did Greta decide to be Greta because of Garbo? I don't have evidence of Garbo's influence over Greta Granstedt. I'm speculating that she did decide that it was a good commercial move to be Greta from Sweden.

Even if you don't think Greta G became Greta G because of Greta G, do see if you can get a copy of The Princess Comes Across. It's a fun movie, a blend of comedy and mystery. See if you don't think that Lombard is doing a Gustafsson imitation. Yes, the fellow who greets Princess Olga has the same last name as Garbo, who was Greta Lovisa Gustafsson. Just a coincidence? I don't think so.

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