Happy heavenly birthday to Greta Garbo, born on September 18, 1905 in Stockholm, Sweden. Although she was appearing in commercials and local films, it wasn’t until my great-uncle, Louis B. Mayer, discovered her and brought her to M-G-M that she became a screen siren and ultimately one of Hollywood’s greatest icons.
And really we can thank BEN-HUR, which was being filmed at astounding expense in Italy, and yet the reels being sent back to Hollywood were an absolute shambles. Telegrams and letters indicated the production was in a terrible state on every level: extras had nearly been killed, there were cost overruns the size of entire state budgets, whole sets were yet to be built, and major scenes not yet filmed.
So L.B. and the entire family packed their bags and arrived in Rome on October 12th, 1924. The situation he walked into was such a stressful mess for all involved that just eight days later a telegram was sent to Irving Thalberg back in Culver City that the boss was a “mental and physical wreck.”
Along with the production woes, several of uncle Louis’s teeth had become infected and abscessed, which in those days before antibiotics, could easily and quickly become fatal. So he had every last tooth removed! Still in pain, he kept soldiering on doing what leaders do, making people step up and take accountability.
In November, perhaps as a sanity break, L.B. went to Berlin and took his daughter Irene. There they watched THE ATONEMENT OF GÖSTA BERLING, directed by Mauritz Stiller, which had recently premiered.
As soon as Greta Garbo appeared on screen, uncle Louis became “unusually intense, even for him,” as Scott Eyman recounts in his biography, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer.*
Irene wasn’t all that impressed but L.B. was beside himself.
“Look at that girl! There’s no physicaly resemblance, but she reminds me of Norma Talmadge – her eyes. The thing that makes Talmadge a star is the look in her eyes.”
He kept chatting like a man possessed throughout the entire film. “Stiller’s fine, but the girl, look at the girl! I’ll take her without him, or I’ll take them both [but] number one is the girl.”
According to Irene, it wasn’t that Greta was beautiful, “It’s what she conveys and the expression emanating from her eyes.”
Of course, once Louis B. Mayer’s mind was made up, that was that.
He signed a letter of intent with Greta Garbo to work for M-G-M on a five-year contract starting at $400 a week. When she finally arrived in Culver City in July 1925, Irving Thalberg took over and the rest, as they say, is history.
And by the way, despite costing $3.6 million, BEN-HUR opened on December 31st, 1925 and was an instant blockbuster hit. It grossed an amazing $9.3 million worldwide.
As a side note, our family has a little token from that insane BEN-HUR trip and the lucky find that was Greta Garbo: a Deruta tea set bursting with the rich colours of Italy that L.B. brought back to his sister Ida (my great-grandmother) as a memento of his grand trip to Europe – something the two of them could not have imagined as poor, cold and hungry children back in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.
* With grateful thanks to Scott Eyman’s book, which is the only one I endorse wholeheartedly about my great uncle.