After being featured in only two starring roles in the Swedish films The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924) and The Street of Sorrow (1925), Greta Garbo arrived in the U.S. in July of 1925. With her came director and mentor Mauritz Stiller. The pair was summoned to Hollywood by MGM head Louis B. Mayer. Earlier in the year, Mayer had been in Rome checking up on the troubled production of Ben-Hur (1926), and on a talent scouting side trip met up with Garbo and Stiller in Berlin. There are two very different stories surrounding the purpose of this meeting. According to one account, Mayer was interested in hiring Stiller, and taking Garbo along was merely part of the bargain. Stiller was, after all, considered (along with Victor Sjostrom) one of the dominant directors of the golden era of Swedish cinema. And at the time Hollywood was a bit enraptured with European directors -- Erich von Stroheim being a primary example. Of course the other version of the story portrays Mayer's motives as just the opposite; that he came seeking Garbo's talent and that Stiller was a term of Garbo's agreement. This second explanation, while better to form the basis of Hollywood legend, seems less likely. After all, Garbo had made only two films, compared to the some forty-odd films of Stiller's career. And even more to the point, was Mayer's rather derogatory comment on Garbo's appearance. "Tell her that in America men don't like fat women," Mayer reportedly told Stiller on parting.
Either way, it was Garbo who got the work in Hollywood. But even that took time. For three months after her arrival, Garbo was given nothing to do. In the meantime, Mayer had Garbo's teeth fixed and put her on a diet. But the studio, it seemed, still had no idea what to do with her. Since she was European and exotic looking, they tried initially to promote her as a sophisticate. Then, the studio decided to promote her physical features in the manner of an athlete or outdoorsy type. During this period, Garbo did pose for some photos, one of which appeared in Vanity Fair. But it was from her reserved dealings with the press that the studio finally found an image that worked. They decided to play up her mysterious Swedish air with names like "The Swedish Sphinx" and "The Mysterious Stranger."
An adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibanez's book Entre Naranjos (which translates to "Among Orange Trees") was in the works at MGM. And Mayer settled on this project, retitled Torrent by the studio, to be Garbo's first American movie. Blasco Ibanez's novels had previously been made into the popular Valentino vehicles The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922). MGM had already cast Ricardo Cortez, the hopeful heir to the Valentino throne, in Torrent along with Cortez's real-life wife, Alma Rubens. But Rubens became ill and had to drop out before filming began. And so a female lead was needed for the movie. Again, there are a couple of possibilities as to how Garbo got the part. It could be that Mayer just thought it the right opportunity for her debut. She had previously played a Latin character in The Saga of Gosta Berling. Another story, which has become Hollywood folklore like Selznick's fireside casting of Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, attributes Garbo's casting in Torrent to a happy accident. Director Monta Bell had done some preliminary shooting on Torrent and was looking at some flood scene footage, when Garbo's screen test suddenly appeared. It had somehow been spliced in with the other film. The projectionist apologized, but Bell, according to the story, wouldn't hear it. He knew immediately that he wanted Garbo for Torrent.
So regardless of how Garbo got the part, Stiller was out of the picture. Monta Bell, who was involved with Norma Shearer at the time, was in. Stiller continued to have considerable problems learning English, and Mayer felt him unprepared to handle an English-speaking cast. Garbo learned the language with more ease. But she still had difficulties understanding Monta Bell's direction, no matter if it was voiced in English or through an interpreter. She also had to endure insults in English (e.g.: "What makes that big Swede think she can act?"), which she was beginning to understand. And to make matters worse, Garbo was homesick. She was used to the more cottage-like film industry of Sweden, with smaller crews that felt like family. Adapting to the large studios and factory-like atmosphere of Hollywood wasn't easy. In addition, Torrent was made at a rather rapid pace. On a six day a week schedule, filming began in mid-November and was finished by Christmas. It was, in all, a very unpleasant shooting experience for Garbo.
And her co-star, Ricardo Cortez, only served to complete Garbo's misery. Apparently Cortez found it insulting to be paired with an unknown (especially, perhaps, one who'd replaced his wife). Groomed, first by Paramount, and later by MGM to be a Valentino type, the Austrian born Cortez, whose real name was Jacob Krantz, was not quite the Latin lover audiences imagined him to be. He'd had moderate success with his exotic image in films like Spaniard (1925) and Volcano (1926). But Garbo found Cortez insufferable. For example, in one incident where Garbo and Cortez were filming a water scene for Torrent, both actors climbed out of the water; Garbo's maid held out a towel for her to dry off with and Cortez took it for himself. With her still limited English skills, Garbo described his pomposity as best she could, "never mind, he is only a pumpkin."
Perhaps Garbo's only saving grace on Torrent was Stiller. He continued to work with Garbo at night. An interpreter would translate each scene for the director, who would then pretend to be Monta Bell and tell Garbo exactly how to play a scene. Mayer had been skeptical, promising Stiller, "if she's a success, I'll give you the finest watch you've ever seen."
Things finally began to turn around for Garbo just before the release of Torrent. On seeing the early rushes, Mayer and Thalberg realized they had something special in their new star. And Mayer offered Garbo a revised contract, paying her more money. He also suggested they crank up the publicity on her. But Garbo refused both offers. When Mayer persisted, asking if she shouldn't cooperate since they were spending so much money on her, Garbo allegedly replied, "wouldn't it be cheaper to make a good movie?" And that was that.
The critics saw something special in Garbo's performance in The Torrent as well. Another line in Variety hailed, "Greta Garbo, making her American debut as a screen star." Not an actress, mind you, but a star! From the beginning, there was never any doubt. Mayer also realized it was probably Stiller's direction, more than Bell's, which helped mold Garbo's performance on the screen. Stiller was signed to direct Garbo's second picture, The Temptress, also based on a Blasco Ibanez novel. Unfortunately, the studio's script department did a number on Stiller's script, and most egregious to the director, they turned Garbo's character into an evil seductress. Stiller's language barrier also continued to cause problems. He would reportedly yell "Stop!" when he meant go and vice versa. He also clashed with Garbo's co-star Antonio Moreno, asking the actor to shave his prized moustache and to wear boots several sizes too small to make Garbo's feet look smaller. Furthermore, Stiller's out-of-sequence, shoot-as-the-spirit moved him style was troublesome to the MGM executives, who couldn't make any sense out of the jumbled rushes. Eventually, Stiller was replaced on The Temptress by Fred Niblo. And after making three pictures at Paramount, Stiller returned, dejected and demoralized, to Sweden.
It was rumored that Stiller begged Garbo to return to Sweden with him. Some say she tried, but that MGM refused permission. Others hold that Garbo said no and felt guilty for years afterward for not going. Stiller died prematurely just a few years later in 1928. And on his death, Garbo lamented, "since Mauritz went, there's no one to look after me. I feel lonely and abandoned." The star supposedly still spoke of her mentor in the present tense years after his death ("Mauritz thinks that....").
Director: Monta Bell
Screenplay: Dorothy Farnum, based on the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibanez
Art Department: Cedric Gibbons, Merrill Pye
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Costume Design: Andre-ani, Kathleen Kay, Maude Marsh, Max Ree
Film Editing: Frank Sullivan
Cast: Ricardo Cortez (Don Rafael Brull), Greta Garbo (Leonora), Gertrude Olmstead (Remedios), Edward Connelly (Pedro Moreno), Lucien Littlefield (Cupido), Martha Mattox (Dona Bernarda Brull).
by Stephanie Thames