September 18th: Léon Foucault & Greta Garbo

Today’s Doodle honors French physicist Léon Foucault, known, of course, for the Foucault Pendulum and born on this day in 1819. Here, we’ll learn about Golden Age Swedish actress Greta Garbo, born September 18, 1905.

Garbo’s name is as familiar as her legacy as a film star: three-time Oscar nominee for best actress, winner of the George Eastman Award for distinguished contributions to film, and inclusion in the American Film Institute’s list of the top five greatest female stars of all time. Her career erupted from the most modest of origins: Garbo started working in millinery at a department store, and was eventually asked to model them in the store’s catalogs. By the time she was only 15 years old, this had led to film commercials. Soon, she formally studied acting and worked with a famous Swedish director, which led her to a contract with MGM and a move to the United States.

Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina, 1935.

Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina, 1935.

Garbo grew wildly, internationally popular as a silent film star and then easily made the transition to “talkies” along with MGM. She became the highest paid star of the time and earned the studio tremendous profits. In 1925 and 1926, Garbo’s starring roles were responsible for 13% of MGM’s profits. She was so popular that, in some cases, police intervention was required to tend the lines of people waiting to see the first showings of her films. At the same time, she was notoriously reclusive, private, and uninterested in media and paparazzi; she famously gave only 14 interviews over the course of her career. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Great Depression in the U.S. and the threat of war in Europe diminished demand for her films, and she retired from acting in the mid-1940s.

Garbo was known for developing and employing a new acting style that took advantage of film as a medium. While stage actors needed to use their faces and gestures as blunt instruments to convey meaning to audiences sitting far away, on film Garbo employed much more subtle and nuanced motions and gestures. This was particularly important in her early, silent films, where the audience’s entire emotional experience depended on vision. As a result, her performances were magnetic and indicative of major shifts in dramatic performance.

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