What is stardom? The charismatic, larger than life distilled essence of attributes, often sensuous, that dazzles audiences basking in the imagery’s refracted light. Few female stars have glittered and glistened in the Hollywood firmament like Greta Garbo – the lead in classics such as Flesh and the Devil, Camille and Ninotchka – did. The new musical with book and lyrics by Buddy Kaye and music by Mort Garson, When Garbo Talks!, is a highly entertaining, insightful depiction of the Swedish actress’s rise from Stockholm shop girl (with big feet!) to sultry La-La-Land superstar.
Jessica Burrows pulls off the near impossible, convincingly rendering the title character – well known for being so unattainable — in flesh and blood, with Garbo-esque glimpses flashing across her visage. In the play we first encounter Greta Lovisa Gustafsson auditioning for one of Sweden’s top directors, Mauritz Stiller (a dapper Michael Stone Forrest). The Helsinki-born Jew proceeds to mold the Nordic adolescent aspiring actress into his notion and image of feminine beauty, including renaming her “Garbo.” Stiller gives Greta her first lead role while she’s still just a teenager, the 1924 silent film The Atonement of Gosta Berling, which MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer (a delightfully zesty, conniving, backstabbing Matthew Henerson) sees.
Mayer tricks Stiller and his discovery into going Hollywood, and they soon decamp for that SoCal silly hooey valley where publicity is the currency of the land. The studio chieftain proceeds to ace the Finnish helmer out of the picture and then tries to out-Svengali Stiller by molding Garbo’s motion picture persona not so much in his own image, but in that of what the audience will buy tickets to go see at the flicker shows.
The relationship between Greta and Stiller is intriguing. According to the play, Greta lusted after the director who was old enough to be her father (her own dad died when Garbo was about 14). Although they even lived two-gether, their relationship remained chaste, as Stiller was gay. Ironically, the creator of the ideal of female sex appeal was a homosexual. After Mayer’s Machiavellian machinations and manipulations tears their moviemaking asunder, Stiller observes “his” creation making love to John Gilbert (the dashing and surprisingly tender Christopher Carothers) in a steamy scene in Flesh and the Devil as it is being shot at the studio. This further crushes Stiller, who – unlike the heterosexual, handsome Gilbert – is unable (or unwilling?) to sexually fulfill Garbo. Creatively crushed and romantically thwarted, the director – an utter flop on that boulevard of broken dreams — returns to Sweden, where he dies within a year or so. The musical does not say what Stiller died from, and given the current spate of gay suicides, it’s all the more poignant. Pleurisy was reportedly the actual cause of death, but I wouldn’t rule out a broken heart.
Garbo also broke the heart of her leading man on and off the silver screen, John Gilbert, who was known as “the Great Lover.” Tales of their lovemaking were legendary – the stuff that Hollywood Babylon movie myths are made of. Supposedly, they practically had to be pried apart by heavy machinery during orgiastic sessions in their studio bungalow in between scenes, in order to get them back into costume and onto the set. Their 1927 film Love was cleverly promoted as “Garbo and Gilbert in Love.” (Garbo’s gender identity is actually a bit ambiguous; her Swedish friend Signe, played by a winsome Alexandra Ackerman, plants a smooch full on Garbo’s lips…)
If Garbo’s relationship with Stiller was about art, and her affair with Gilbert was about sex, Greta’s dealings with Mayer are about commerce, as the movie mogul seeks to make the European actress into as valuable a commodity as possible. Garbo’s conflicts with Mayer as she resists being exploited as a mere moneymaking machine for MGM reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, which set the Depression era proletarian drama in the motion picture milieu of the studio system. Whether an assembly line worker in an auto plant or a superstar in Hollywood’s dream factory, they’re all just peons, hired hands. And the former shopkeeper knew a salesman and shuckster when she saw one. Greta’s class struggle with L.B. also reminded me of that scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 Contempt, where Jack Palance’s studio vulgarian bulldozes another European artiste – director Fritz Lang. Garbo versus L.B.’s Lucifer was truly flesh and the devil.
This may all be pretty serious stuff, but When Garbo Talks! balances it out with a light touch and lots of singing, dancing and humor. Nick Rogers as Mayer’s alleged hood Eddie Mannix may be manic and menacing, but he’s also comic. Along with the audience and MGM secretary Ida Koverman (Teya Patt), Rogers and Henerson as L.B. have heaps of fun hoofing about the stage, singing and doing that old soft shoe in numbers reminiscent of the vaudeville some of the moguls emerged out of. The trio performs some dizzyingly daffy, goofy foot stomping pieces with great panache, while Burrows shows off her lovely pipes in some show stopping Garbo-esque solos. Overall, When Garbo Talks! is a rollicking romp through film history, from the end of the silent era to the beginning of talkies. Like La Jolla Playhouse’s Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, this is another musical ideal for movie buffs, as well as for avid theatergoers who like to tap their tootsies to lively tunes and ivory tinkling.
I thoroughly enjoyed this musical, but to me, its ending was too upbeat. Well, what could you expect from a play co-created by Buddy Kaye, whose claim to fame is that he wrote the theme for I Dream of Jeannie, one of the boob tube’s more insipid series? (According to press notes, after Buddy died, his son, Richard D. Kaye, worked on the book with director Jules Aaron.) Throughout the musical the onetime Stockholm hat saleslady yearns for “my winter dream” – the land of her birth. But Garbo never moved back to live in Sweden. Nor did she remain in Tinseltown.
I grew up in the city where the Great Garbo – who retired from films in the 1940s when she was still only in her thirties – lived out her life and died at age 85 in 1990. I went to university on Park Avenue, walking distance from Greta’s Sutton Place apartment in the fabled Silk Stocking District of Manhattan’s swanky East Side. I can remember the rumors I heard as a child growing up in New York of the famously reclusive superstar, who no longer shone in the constellations and had become a fading star. She remained a figure of mystery, described almost as a sort of uber-bag lady, who wondered Manhattan’s streets for hours on end, shunned the public and limelight, and when recognized, the supposedly mad old lady swiftly scampered away. Rumor had it that Garbo rued her career and lamented that the movies had ruined her life. Men molding her into what they thought she should be! Amidst the anonymity of Manhattan’s masses, the onetime glamour queen finally had that immortal world weary wish wistfully uttered in 1932’s Grand Hotel – “I want to be alone” – granted.
While this film historian would have preferred a more downbeat denouement, in that Louis B. Mayer tradition, this world premiere musical that’s closing the International City Theatre’s Silver Anniversary Season, certainly gives the people what they want.
When Garbo Talks! is being performed through Nov. 7 at the International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd.. Long Beach, CA 90802 on: Thursdays — Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; and on Sundays at 2:00 p.m. For more info: (562) 436-4610; www.InternationalCityTheatre.com.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”