Her dramatic school classmates remember her as shy, mysterious about her background and earnest and energetic about her studies. Her energy in pursuing her old idol Carl Brisson had not flagged. When her schoolgirl crush moved her to carve surreptitiously on the door of his dressing room the legend “GG loves CB” Brisson decided he had to do something about this fervent 17-year-old admirer. He thought of his friend Mauritz (“Moje”) Stiller, the movie director, and mentioned her name to him. When Stiller sent a call to the dramatic school for two actresses for his next film, he specified that one of them be Greta Gustafsson, whom he had never seen.
Stiller was at the time the most imposing figure in Swedish films. Between 1911 and his encounter with Greta Gustafsson in 1923 he had turned out some 40 motion pictures. With his friend and colleague Victor Seastrom he was credited with being the dominant force in “the golden age of Swedish films.”
Stiller's appearance and manner were magnificently in keeping with his reputation as a virtuoso. Over six feet tall, with an abnormally large head and enormous hands and feet, he draped his large frame in winter in an ankle-length yellow fur coat trimmed with a black fur collar and belt. His neckties were made for him out of antique embroidered waistcoats that he collected. His gold tiepin was encrusted with oriental pearls, and on his hamlike hands he usually wore gold and platinum rings set with sapphires, diamonds and pearls. His canary-colored sports roadster, one of the fastest and most generally feared conveyances in Stockholm, was known as “the yellow peril.”
Stiller was intense, ambitious, noisy, egotistical, immensely discerning and brutally outspoken. He was always a director and always a perfectionist. When he walked into a room he could not resist suggesting how the furniture should be rearranged to produce what he considered a better effect. He was given to grand and sentimental gestures. Once, shortly before Christmas, he met on the street an actress friend who he discovered had been out of work for some time. “I was on my way to get you some flowers for Christmas,” Stiller said. “But here, why don't you pick them out yourself?” He put a 100-kronor bill into the woman's hand and walked on. To offset such extravagances he practiced small and ridiculous economies. His command, “Give me a cigaret,” was as closely associated with him as his embroidered ties.
Stiller's background was even more humble than Greta Gustafsson's. The fifth child of a Jewish musician in Helsinki, Finland, he had been orphaned at 4 and adopted by a small merchant, for whose business Stiller had shown no talent whatsoever. Drifting onto the Helsinki stage, he played bit parts for five years.
When he was 21 Stiller ran afoul of the czar's government, which then ruled Finland, for failing to report for compulsory military duty. He headed for the Swedish border and talked his way across it. As he rose in the Swedish theater and film industry his courage became part of his legend. He had a little ritual of firmly seizing his coat lapels and snapping back his head. “Do like Moje Stiller,” he would say, “and you become a new and braver man.”
Stiller, who was 39 when he met Greta Gustafsson, had never married. “He liked to have beautiful women around him,” a friend has said, “and he was interested in them, but he was never in love with them.” Nevertheless he had built up a mental image of his perfect female. The ideal woman he was seeking, as he described her to friends, would be not only beautiful but “supersensual, spiritual and mystic.” When he found the woman who fitted his specifications, he decided, he would mold her into an actress such as the world had never seen. He had even asked his assistant, Arthur Norden, a student of history, to think of names for his star. Norden suggested the Hungarian king, Gabor Bethlen, and arrived at the name Mona Gabor. Stiller tried some variations–“Gábor, Gabor, Gabro, Garbo.”
For the actress who was to fulfill his dream Stiller now had a name and a plan. When he met Greta Gustafsson, he had the woman.
‘Miss, you are much too fat'
ON the day of her screen test Greta took the streetcar to the studios of Svensk Filmindustri, in the suburb of Rasunda. After she had been made up, Greta, who was wearing a plain, tailored suit, was conducted to a set where Stiller and a couple of colleagues were waiting. When she was introduced to Stiller, she curtsied.
Stiller's greeting was, “If you want the part you'll have to lose at least 20 pounds.” Greta blushed. “But look,” Stiller went on, turning her around and talking partly to her and partly to his associates, “isn't she beautiful? ... Did you ever see such eyelashes? ... But, miss, you are much too fat. ... Yes, she is very pretty. ... Notice her feet–such beautiful heels, one straight, fine line.” As Stiller continued in this vein his colleagues exchanged looks of amazement.
“Now, miss,” Stiller said, indicating a divan, “lie down and be sick.” Greta hesitated. Confused and self-conscious, she was able to register no emotion except fright. Stiller strode over to the divan. “For God's sake,” he shouted, “don't you know what it is to be sick? Have you no feelings? Do you know nothing of sadness and misery? Act, miss, act!” On the verge of tears, Greta tried again. Stiller told the cameraman to take some close-ups of her as she walked about the set, then curtly told her she could go home.
Stiller's colleagues thought that the would-be actress had done rather poorly. He remained enthusiastic. “She is shy,” he said. “She has no technique, so she can't show what she is feeling. But she will be all right. I'll see to that.”
He cast her as the second female lead in his film version of the Swedish classic, The Story of Gösta Berling. She played the role of a . pure and beautiful woman whose love redeems a minister with a thirst for hard liquor and the inclinations of a Casanova. From this point on, Stiller took command of the 17-year-old Greta. He taught her, bullied her, encouraged her, fought for her. Far more than a professional mentor, he was an intimate friend who told her how to dress, what to think; how to behave before the camera and away from it.
A woman who worked at Svensk Filmindustri at the time tells of watching the two together: “As time went on we nicknamed them ‘Beauty and the Beast,' because she was really very attractive, especially her figure. I can still see Stiller and that young girl–forever walking up and down, up and down, in the shade of a little grove just outside the studio. Stiller was always teaching and preaching, Greta solemnly listening and learning. With that hypnotic power he seemed to have over her he could make her do extraordinary things. But we had little idea then that he was making over her very soul.”
Earnest and tractable though she generally was, Greta on one occasion lost her temper on the set as a result of Stiller's ceaseless pressure during a difficult scene. He continued to bully her until she finally exclaimed, “Damn you, Stiller, I hate you!” But he did not relent.
On increasingly frequent occasions the two were seen together at the theater, in restaurants and at parties. To help her overcome her natural diffidence he would sometimes call upon her to entertain when they were out among friends. An acquaintance remembers a party at his house when Stiller abruptly asked her to get up and sing. “She had a pleasant voice,” the friend has said. “She sang until he told her she could stop.” Except on such occasions, Greta was inclined to be pitifully silent and retiring.
She did, however, speak with unusual frankness to a Stockholm journalist who interviewed her during the filming of Gösta Berling. Stiller “creates people and shapes them according to his will,” she said. “As for myself; I am a nice girl who gets very sad if people are unkind to her.” During the same period Stiller told a dramatic critic friend, “She receives instruction excellently, follows directions closely. She is like wax in my hands. Greta will be all right. I believe in her.”
By the time Gösta Berling had been completed, Stiller's dominion over his protégée was secure. She did nothing without his permission, saw only the people he wished her to see and had legally become Greta Garbo. In name, at least, “The Star” had been born.
Neither Gösta Berling nor Greta Garbo's role in it drew rave reviews at the Stockholm opening. But Stiller was optimistic about the future of both the movie and his protégée. After the Stockholm premiere of Gösta Berling he went to work editing it into a shorter version for a showing in Berlin, where a critical success would assure its future throughout Europe. He shrewdly contracted to sell the German exhibition rights to David Schratter's Trianon Films for 100,000 marks ($25,000), a huge sum for that period, but he told Schratter there was one condition to the sale: Trianon must pay all expenses for himself and Garbo to attend the Berlin opening. She would, Stiller insisted, need some new clothes for the trip, for which he made Schratter advance 5,000 kronor.
Schratter had no cause to regret the deal. The Berlin opening was a triumph. The shy Garbo, on her first trip away from home, was disconcerted by all the fanfare. When she and Stiller entered their box at the theater, binoculars were trained upon them from all directions. When she pushed her chair back from the edge of the box, Stiller pulled it up again. When the showing was over the enthusiastic audience demanded that Stiller take a bow. He rose, pulled Garbo to her feet and propelled her to the edge of the box to acknowledge the applause. The German critics applauded Garbo's acting, which appealed to them as “heartfelt,” “soul-revealing” and “touched with Weltschmerz.” The German exhibitors, who had figured on recovering their investment in four weeks, got it back in one.
Stiller and Garbo had not been back in Stockholm long before Schratter reappeared to suggest that Stiller do his next film for Trianon. After Stiller had agreed to accept 150,000 marks for his own services, he said, “I have a contract with Greta Garbo. If you want me, you'll have to take her too.” Garbo was given a five-year contract.
The Trianon people were under the impression that Stiller had agreed to produce a film version of a sentimental German love story. Stiller now revealed that he had bought the screen rights to a melodramatic tale about a young Russian girl–to be played by Garbo–who, on her way to Constantinople during World War I, is doped by some Turkish sailors and winds up in a harem. Stiller next broke the news that he planned to shoot most of the film in Constantinople.
With some misgivings Schratter approved the expedition. Stiller told Garbo to prepare to leave for Constantinople. She obediently packed her bags. As she said years later, “I had not anything to do with my own things at that time.”
At the end of December 1924, Garbo, Stiller, the actor Einar Hansson and a group of technicians arrived in Constantinople. The director was feeling even more ebullient than usual. He engaged splendid quarters for Garbo and himself in the luxurious Pera Palace Hotel. He bought Garbo a beautiful fur coat. Day after day she and Stiller wandered through the mosques and tombs, the elegant restaurants and coffeehouses. On leisurely shopping expeditions through the stalls of the Grand Bazaar, Stiller bought elaborate Oriental costumes for Garbo and Persian carpets for himself.
One day Stiller discovered that he had run out of money. He thought this a nuisance, especially since he had not yet got around to organized shooting. He wired Trianon requesting a million marks. Two days passed and he received no answer. He wired again. Still no reply. He took the train to Berlin. There he found that Trianon had gone bankrupt.
The Swedish and German legations agreed to advance enough money to get the rest of the company back to Berlin. When they got there Stiller told Garbo and Hansson that he had a number of irons in the fire and something would turn up. But all the German film companies had been severely hit by the inflation and word had got around that Stiller was a careless man with a mark.
A young director named G. W. Pabst, on his way to becoming one of the outstanding figures in the European cinema, was then casting his third film, later released in America as The Streets of Sorrow. He had been impressed by Garbo in Gösta Berling. When he offered her a part in The Streets of Sorrow Stiller promptly took over the bargaining. The resulting terms enabled them both to live comfortably on in Berlin while Garbo made the movie.
‘Moje knows what is best'
STILLER presently learned that Pabst had initiated new contract discussions with Garbo and that she had taken part in the talks without consulting her mentor. Stiller accused his protégée of deceit, ingratitude and all manner of wrongdoing. In tears she promised to do nothing without his approval. Changing from the outraged protector to the patient father, Stiller took her hands in his. “Stay with me, Greta,” he said. “Moje knows what is best for you.”
He was soon to be proved right. In the late spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer, vice president and production chief of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, saw The Story of Gösta Berling in Berlin. A man who could turn out a picture like that, Mayer decided, belonged in Hollywood. Mayer called on Stiller and offered him a three-year contract at a starting salary of $1,500 a week. For once Stiller did not indulge in prolonged haggling. He did, however, insist on one not unexpected provision: he would go to Hollywood, he said, only if M-G-M also put Garbo under contract.
“And who is Greta Garbo?” Mayer asked, acting as if he had not noticed her in Gösta Berling. “First,” Stiller began, “she is a great beauty, a type you get in front of a camera once in a hundred years. Second, she is an actress who will be the greatest in the world.” As Stiller was warming up, Mayer interrupted to suggest that it might be desirable for him to meet the young woman. Stiller called her into the room. Mayer seemed profoundly indifferent: But to make sure of getting Stiller, he promised Garbo a contract.
Greta Garbo and Mauritz Stiller arrived in New York aboard the Drottningholm on July 6, 1925. They were welcomed by an M-G-M publicity man named Hubert Voight, who brought along a Swedishspeaking Metro employe as interpreter and a free-lance photographer named Jimmy Sileo. Sileo began snapping routine shipboard poses of Garbo and Stiller leaning on the ship's rail and of Garbo alone, leaning against a bulkhead, waving and smiling. One of these shots appeared next day in the New York Herald Tribune, another in the tabloid Graphic. After Voight had welcomed the new arrivals he conducted them to the Commodore Hotel, where, oppressed by New York's summer heat, Garbo promptly immersed herself in a tub of cold water.
She was to spend much of the subsequent two months this way while Stiller bickered with M-G-M, which gave no sign of putting him and Garbo to work right away. Stiller threatened to break his contract and return home. M-G-M talked him out of this, but he insisted that he would not go to the Coast until definite plans were made for Garbo. After long argument, Stiller got her a screen test, which he spent a week supervising. When the Metro officials saw it they muttered about her being “too unusual.” Stiller vainly tried to explain that this was precisely what made her a great find.
The fateful photographs
ONE day the actress Martha Hedman, whom Stiller had known in Sweden, invited him and Garbo to lunch. Afterward she took them to the studio of her friend Arnold Genthe, the famous photographer. Genthe recalled their visit in his memoirs: “‘I would love to have you make some pictures of me sometime,' Miss Garbo said. ‘Why sometime?' I inquired. ‘Why not now? ...' She smiled, but protested earnestly. ‘No, not now. Look at my dress, and I don't like my hair.' ‘Never mind that,' I said. I am more interested in-your eyes and in what is behind that extraordinary forehead.' And without any further preparations, Greta Garbo let me make a number of pictures of her. Her face had unusual mobility of expression and in the course of an hour my camera had captured a number of distinctive poses and expressions, all so different that it was hard to believe they were of the same girl.”
American critics and filmgoers were of another mind. As good reviews came in and box offices reported very satisfactory business, M-G-M decided to repeat the formula. For The Temptress it began to stir up the same ingredients; including another Latin lover and another exotic and implausible role for Garbo. But this time Stiller was assigned to direct.
“At last,” Stiller told Hanson, “they'll see what Greta can do.” Trouble started the minute he stepped on the set. “When I got there ready to start,” he later told his friend Ernest Mattson, “I saw 50 people standing around. ‘Who are all these people? What are they doing here?' I asked. I was told that one was an assistant director, another was an assistant producer, somebody called a script girl and so on. ‘Take them away,' I said. ‘I don't need them. All I need is a camera and actors.' But they all stayed.”
Stiller succeeded almost at once in antagonizing the leading man, Antonio Moreno, one of the glossier Latin lovers of the era. First Stiller decided that the hero should be clean-shaven and ordered Moreno to get rid of his mustache. Stiller shortly afterward demanded that, in a shot of Moreno's feet under a table next to Garbo's, Moreno wear shoes several sizes too large for him to heighten the contrast. Moreno retired to his dressing room and staved there until Stiller gave up the idea.
Playing his usual role of a tyrant with a megaphone, shouting, gesticulating and running about, Stiller alternately irritated and amused the other members of the cast. Frustrated by his inadequate English, he would circle around the actors and shout at them in a mixture of Swedish, English and German. When he wanted the cameraman to start shooting, he said, “Stop,” and when he wanted him to stop, he said, “Go.” In one scene he wanted a group of extras to applaud. “Now,” he shouted, “all explode.”
“He liked to shoot everything and then make the film what he wanted it to be by cutting,” Lars Hanson has said. “He could never stick to a schedule. Mayer and Thalberg were very upset. They went to see the rushes, and they ... had no idea of even what he was trying to do. I remember Thalberg saying to me, ‘Is the man mad? Has he ever been behind a camera before?'”
The sorrows of Stiller
ONE night after Stiller had been working on The Temptress for 10 days he was summoned to Thalberg's Ace on the second floor of the M-G-M administration building. Albert Lewin, a Metro producer who was then Thalberg's assistant, caught a glimpse of the scene through the large front window of Thalberg's office. “Irving was walking back and forth–he always walked around when he talked–and he was tossing that $20 gold piece of his up in the air, catching it and tossing it up again. I couldn't hear what was being said, of course, but it was plain that a very lively discussion was in progress. As I stood there I saw Greta Garbo walking up and down the asphalt street alongside the old wardrobe building. She would look up into the office where Irving and Stiller were talking, watch the characters inside for a moment and then walk away again. I watched her for quite a time as she continued that pacing up and down, up and down. ...”