Swedish actress Greta Garbo was one of the most dazzling stars to arrive in Hollywood in the mid 1920’s. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer secured her services promptly after screen-tests proved how radiant she appeared on screen. Shortly after, the silent romantic drama Torrent (1926) would become her first American film. Following a string of successful silent movies, Garbo quickly established her reputation as one of Hollywood’s best screen actresses. She had effectively mastered her posture, facial expressions and hand gestures as an integral part of communicating with an audience as a silent screen actress.
Although Gabor had become increasingly difficult and demanding to work with, MGM were constantly in fear that she might lose interest in filmmaking. They had even more reason to fear that audiences would hate her Swedish accent as Hollywood studios began the move to convert their pictures to sound. (Garbo’s final silent picture was The Kiss (1929), and also MGM’s last.)
When Garbo first arrived in Hollywood she knew very little English. By the late ‘20s she was fluent enough in English but Garbo in a talking picture was a whole other kettle of fish. Strategically, MGM held off pushing Garbo into sound pictures until it could no longer. The studio chose Anna Christie (1930), a film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1922 Pulitzer play as her first speaking role. They would go on to publicise it with the catchphrase “Garbo talks.”
Upon Anna Christie’s release, Garbo’s whole career hinged upon the success of her performance. She would either sink or swim in her portrayal of a former prostitute trying to turn her life around. Eventually when Greta Garbo was about to speak in Anna Christie, incredibly some sixteen minutes into the film, moviegoers held their collective breath and hoped Garbo would live up to their expectations. Astonishingly, Garbo rose to the occasion and proved the critics, audiences and her studio wrong by delivering an Oscar nominated performance. Her first words on screen in turn would become one of the most famous lines in film history. Ordering a drink in a bar Garbo would almost matter a fact utter, “Gimme me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” And so with those words, Garbo had successfully made her transition to sound. Importantly, moviegoers found her thick Swedish accent so completely charming, that it didn’t matter that she wasn’t American.