In 1926, Greta Garbo was just a Hollywood newcomer. She had signed with MGM and made two movies for them, audiences were liking her, but the studio didn’t quite know what to do with her. They just couldn’t pin-point her type. She wasn’t a “sweetheart” type like Mary Pickford, she wasn’t a flapper like Colleen Moore or Clara Bow, so MGM tried to turn her into a vamp. But Garbo was already getting bored with the vamp roles so she was less than thrilled at being cast as Felicitas in Flesh and the Devil, another vamp role. Not only did the role not interest her, she was tired after having completed The Temptress and desperately wanted to go home to Sweden after her sister’s death and MGM refused to let her.
Little did Garbo know she was about to meet her perfect leading man in Flesh and the Devil.
While Garbo was still a new name to movie audiences in 1926, John Gilbert most certainly was not. John Gilbert had been working in films for over a decade by then and his starring roles in prestige pictures like The Big Parade, The Merry Widow, and He Who Gets Slapped made him one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Like Garbo, he wasn’t particularly wild about his part in Flesh and the Devil, but the idea of working with this new star intrigued him.
The first scene of Flesh and the Devil Greta Garbo and John Gilbert filmed together was the scene at the train station where their characters meet. The immense chemistry between the two of them was obvious to everybody on set. There was no denying there was a very real connection with them and as their scenes got more passionate, they had no problem keeping their performances up. Clarence Brown, the movie’s director, said of them:
“It was the damnedest thing you ever saw. It was the sort of thing Elinor Glyn used to write about. When they got into that first love scene…nobody else was even there. Those two were alone in a world of their own. It seemed like an intrusion to yell “Cut!” I used to just motion the crew over to another part of the set and let them finish what they were doing. It was embarrassing.”
Before the release of Flesh and the Devil, the Garbo-Gilbert love affair had been getting buzz in the fan magazines, but nothing could have prepared movie goers for the unbridled passion they would actually see when the movie hit theaters in January of 1927. It was a sensation, completely unlike anything audiences had ever seen at the time. The New York Herald-Tribune said of it:
“Never before has John Gilbert been so intense in his portrayal of a man in love. Never before has a woman so alluring, with a seductive grace that is far more potent than mere beauty, appeared on the screen. Greta Garbo is the epitome of pulchritude, the personification of passion. Frankly, we have never in our career seen a seduction scene so perfectly done.”
Suddenly, MGM had a big hit on their hands and they finally knew exactly what to do with Garbo — put her in more movies with John Gilbert. Her next project was to be an adaptation of Anna Karenina with Ricardo Cortez as her co-star, but Irving Thalberg decided to replace Cortez with Gilbert and change the title to Love, so the theater marquees could read, “Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Love.” The couple also starred in A Woman of Affairs in 1928.
The romance between Garbo and Gilbert was just as potent off-screen as it was on-screen. Shortly after finishing filming on Flesh and the Devil, Garbo moved into Gilbert’s house and he spent thousands of dollars on renovations to make it more to her liking. He even built a small cabin for her, surrounded by Swedish pine trees and an artificial waterfall, on his property to remind her of home.
Not only was there a romantic connection between Garbo and Gilbert, he was able to offer valuable career advice. He helped her become a better actress, taught her how to be more sociable off-set, taught her how to get what she wanted at MGM and she even started working with his agent. Garbo later told journalist Åke Sundborg:
“I don’t know how I should have managed if I had not been cast opposite John Gilbert…Through him I seemed to establish my first real contact with the strange American world. If he had not come into my life at this time, I should probably have come home to Sweden at once, my American career over.”
However, their relationship was not meant to last. Gilbert kept pushing marriage and Garbo simply wasn’t interested. After making several proposals, the idea of Garbo and Gilbert getting married at the same time as director King Vidor and actress Eleanor Boardman came up and Garbo said yes to it. But on the day of the wedding, Garbo left Gilbert standing at the altar. Gilbert was understandably angry, but the relationship managed to carry on for a bit longer.
By 1929, Gilbert was still longing to get married and Garbo still wasn’t interested. That was the final straw for Gilbert, who impulsively got engaged to actress Ina Claire instead and married her on May 9, 1929. The day before the wedding, Garbo made a tear-filled phone call to Harry Edington, who was to be Gilbert’s best man, begging him to put a stop to the wedding. He told her that she was the only one who could stop it, but not wanting to cause a scandal, she chose not to.
The couple reunited on screen one last time in 1933’s Queen Christina. By then, the tables had turned. Garbo was still one of MGM’s most bankable stars, but Gilbert had fallen on very hard times. His career had gone downhill, he was depressed, and had become a very heavy drinker, but Garbo insisted that he be cast opposite her in Queen Christina. The chemistry between them was as good as it ever was and the movie was a hit, but it wasn’t enough to revive Gilbert’s career.
Queen Christina was the last hit movie for John Gilbert and he made only one more movie after it, 1934’s The Captain Hates the Sea, before dying at the age of 38 in 1936. Garbo continued to act until 1941, but never had another co-star who even came close to matching the chemistry she had with John Gilbert.