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Commentary: Forever young and beautiful

Garbo: Still inspiring, mysterious on 100th anniversary of birth

By Lee Smith
CNN

Garbo
The beauty of Greta Garbo was breathtaking, whether in a studio publicity shot ...

GARBO TALKS!

For someone who was known for few words in public off-screen, Greta Garbo spoke a number of famous film lines. They include:

  • "Gif me a visky, ginger ale on the side, and don' be stingy, baby." ("Anna Christie")

  • "I want to be alone" and "I think I have never been so tired in my life." ("Grand Hotel")

  • "I shall die a bachelor!" ("Queen Christina")

  • "When one may not have long to live, why shouldn't one have fancies?" ("Camille")

  • "I should hate to see our country endangered by my underwear." ("Ninotchka")

  • "Do you want to be alone, comrade?"
    Ninotchka: "No." ("Ninotchka")
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    Greta Garbo
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    (CNN) -- She cut a figure so beautiful and mysterious that musicians as diverse as Cole Porter and Madonna referred to her in their songs.

    From Porter's sly wink at her astronomical salary in "You're the Top" to the Material Girl's call to "strike a pose" in "Vogue," Greta Garbo spanned the pop culture musings of the 20th century.

    Now, nearly 65 years after her last film, the "Swedish Sphinx" remains the movie star against which all others are judged.

    For the uninitiated, September offers a chance to see what all the commotion was about. In honor of the 100th anniversary of her birth on September 18, a flurry of books, the long-awaited DVD release of most her major films and a new documentary on the legendary actress have arrived, as well as a monthlong salute on Turner Classic Movies and even a postage stamp (a joint issuance by the U.S. Postal Service and Swedish Post on September 23).

    The critical consensus long has been that Garbo's movies were beneath her; the star carried tired, melodramatic plots that seemed even musty by the standards of 70 or 80 years ago.

    But author Mark A. Vieira argues that critics and biographers have never understood what made Garbo an icon -- her movies.

    These naysayers may complain about having to sit through "creaky, banal" vehicles "just to see Garbo, but he or she will invariably sit. This artist does not disappoint," Vieira writes in "Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy" (Harry N. Abrams), noting that "because of her artistry, scenes of passion and betrayal in far-off settings assume the currency of online news."

    In "A Cinematic Legacy," one of two new books on the actress, Vieira pays tribute to the 24 films she made at MGM during her 16 years in Hollywood and the carefully constructed images taken of the star for publicity. The other book is "Garbo: Portraits From Her Private Collection" (Rizzoli) by Scott Reisfield, her great-nephew, and Robert Dance, featuring copies of the star's original prints of shots by legends such as Clarence Sinclair Bull, Ruth Harriet Louise and George Hurrell as well as family and other candid pictures.

    'Riveting photogeneity'

    Until this month, the only major Garbo film available on DVD was the 1932 best picture Oscar winner, "Grand Hotel." Warner Home Video is remedying this situation with the Tuesday release of "Garbo: The Signature Collection." (Warner Home Video and the previously mentioned Turner Classic Movies are divisions of Time Warner, as is CNN.com.)

    In addition to "Grand Hotel," the boxed set includes such Garbo notables as "Camille" (1937), "Ninotchka" (1939), "Queen Christina" (1933) and "Anna Karenina" (1935) as well as "Mata Hari" (1931), "Anna Christie" (1930) and three silent films -- "The Temptress" (1926), "Flesh and the Devil" (1927) and "The Mysterious Lady" (1928).

    In addition, Turner Classic Movies has devoted September to the star by showing 21 of her films and three documentaries, including a new one by film historian Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird. Narrated by Julie Christie, "Garbo" features footage of the star in her last voluntary appearance before cameras -- a screen test that was thought lost for decades. ("Garbo" first airs at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday; it's also included in the DVD boxed set. Other Tuesday nights also will feature Garbo works.)

    After an eight-year absence, the actress contemplated a return to the screen in 1949 and made a test for "The Duchess of Langeais." "She proves that she has lost none of her riveting photogeneity," Barry Paris marvels about the footage in his 1995 biography.

    But financing for the film collapsed, and Garbo, humiliated, never seriously again considered making movies.

    She apparently never intended to retire officially when she made her last film, "Two-Faced Woman," in 1941. Up until this disastrously unfunny comedy (she poses as her twin to keep her husband's affections), she never really had a flop. She had peaked as a major box-office attraction in the United States nearly a decade before, but her prestige remained high and her popularity overseas was undisputed.

    But with outbreak of World War II, the European market was no longer an option for her films. She reportedly decided to wait out the war.

    Legend grew in absence

    stamp
    A Garbo stamp, from the famous publicity still, is due out September 23.

    But the longer she waited, the more difficult it was to return to acting for the shy and always reluctant star. As a result, she remained forever young and beautiful in moviegoers' eyes -- frozen in time at the age of 36.

    Was her timing in leaving perfect, or did she step down too soon, depriving audiences of years of great performances? Like much of what we know about her life, there are few easy answers. As John Gilbert remarked to her in "Queen Christina," "There's a mystery in you."

    Tennessee Williams was one of those fans who lamented that Garbo retired too early. In his memoirs, he describes his disappointment after she vehemently rejected his advice to return to the screen.

    "How sad a thing for an artist to abandon his art: I think it's much sadder than death ...," Williams wrote.

    Garbo died at age 84 in 1990, the year that Madonna paid homage to her and other celebrities of the silver screen in "Vogue." By then, the actress was merely a legendary name to most people, known as much for her reclusive ways as her beauty and film work.

    Yet the longer she stayed away from movies, the more her legend grew.

    In an age when stars appear to do anything to promote their latest project and stay in the public eye, it may seem incomprehensible to believe that a famous person could walk away from all the acclaim and adoration.

    Did she grow tired of being "a symbol" and merely yearn to be "a human being" (as she expressed in "Queen Christina," perhaps her most personal film), or was she so fragile a performer that she could no longer face the cameras once she had failed?

    All we have ever had to judge her are the films she left behind. Compared with other mythic figures such as Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, Garbo delivered the goods. While early talkies such as "Romance" or "Inspiration" are indisputably silly, her performances in "Camille," "Queen Christina" and "Ninotchka" remain incandescent.

    Critic Kenneth Tynan once famously summed up the actress' appeal: "What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober."

    Perhaps no star could ever live up to such billing, but Greta Garbo made a damn good try.

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