This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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THE MYSTERY OF GRETA GARBO
by Martin Grams Jr. © 2011
(From Radio Recall, October 2011)
When Swedish film director Mauritz Stiller was brought to the United States by MGM, he insisted on bringing along his protégé, the young Greta Garbo. In the 1926 film Torrent, the 19-year-old Garbo dazzled audiences with her beauty and complex emotions. Her films with silent screen star John Gilbert (and their off-screen romance) made for big box office, and by the end of the silent era she was Hollywood royalty. Garbo valued her privacy, which was respected by the studio heads, who preferred to keep her happy when considering the huge profits that came from her pictures. She may have been a cash cow to Louis B. Mayer, but it might have been her throaty, accented voice that prevented her from speaking before the radio microphone.
On the evening of January 24, 1942, three radio networks (Mutual, NBC Red and NBC Blue) presented The March of Dimes: Hollywood’s Salute to the President, an hour-long gala featuring the unprecedented appearance of the screen idol, Greta Garbo, making her radio debut. Standing alongside a number of celebrities, Garbo made a public appeal for the victims of Infantile Paralysis. The woman who was best remembered for the catch-phrase, “I vant to be alone” (Grand Hotel, 1932), now wanted a few minutes with the American public for a cause that was more important than her solitude.
The January 24, 1942, March of Dimes broadcast aired live 8:15 p.m. PST (11:15 EST) from coast-to-coast. Arch Oboler directed the radio special. The list of celebrities was enormous. Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jean Arthur, James Cagney, Tyrone Power, Ronald Colman, Deanna Durbin, the Merry Macs, Thomas Mitchell, Dennis Day, Jim and Marian Jordan (Fibber McGee and Molly), Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Mary Martin, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Ronald Colman, Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra, a 16 voice chorus, and of course, Greta Garbo.
Could Greta Garbo have really avoided the microphone for most of her career until 1942? Could she have possibly done this one and only radio broadcast? While it seems unlikely when you consider the efforts of the Hollywood studios to promote their product whenever possible, encouraging and forcing celebrities to make public appearances, the answer to that question remains a mystery. No one has yet been able to find a radio broadcast with Greta Garbo, other than the March of Dimes special. And there’s a story behind all this. At the premiere of her film The Temptress (1926), the announcer on stage introduced the star by saying, “This is Miss Greta Garbo, from Stockholm. Miss Garbo doesn’t speak a word of English.” Anxious to underscore this point, Garbo chimed in with a firm, “No, not von vord!” The ensuing laughter so embarrassed her that she never attended another movie premiere.
Without intricate details into the affairs of movie premiere coverage on local radio stations, or printed confirmations in the form of radio reviews, we cannot simply assume she participated in the festivities. One such example: When Mata Hari premiered in Los Angeles in January 1932, radio station KMTR pre-empted regular programming for coverage of the gala, with celebrities speaking before the microphone, stationed along the red carpet. No confirmation as yet has been found to verify Greta Garbo was among those who spoke before the microphone that evening.
Without the actresses’ participation, studio executives employed a different tactic. To promote Grand Hotel, one of MGM’s all-star dramas, in which Garbo played the role of a ballerina, the studio commissioned a 30-minute recording titled, The Life of Greta Garbo. Syndicated across the country, Garbo’s voice was never heard. But her biography and screen career were dramatized by another (unknown) actress attempting her best Swedish accent.
The transcription apparently featured no closing announcement, which we can only assume was left to the local radio stations to fill in with their staff announcer. This was a shrewd business move on the studio’s part, because the announcer would reveal the day and time of the screening of Garbo’s latest picture, and the name of the theater. And no doubt that transcription disc included a copy of the announcer’s script, with the proper blanks to be filled in.
The gimmick of having a local staff announcer reveal the location of the theaters in the local area was shrewd. Case in point: One confirmed broadcast was over KHJ in Los Angeles, on April 16, 1932. (The New York City premiere of Grand Hotel was April 12, followed by Los Angeles shortly after.) Weeks after the theatrical release of Queen Christina, the same recording was played over WJSV in Washington D.C., with the local station staff announcer promoting MGM’s latest picture.
The studio also recorded audio tracks from their motion pictures for 15-minute air trailers, paid commercials promoting their various movies. A number of MGM promotional air trailers exist in collector circles, including Camille (1936) and Conquest (1937). The radio audience clearly heard Garbo’s voice, but that was provided by audio tracks from the respective movies.
From February 16 to June 14, 1932, CBS aired a 15-minute weekly program titled, Stories of the Living Great, featuring brief biographical sketches centered on the life of a famous celebrity, from Henry Ford to Marie Dressler. Sponsored by Lehn & Fink Products Corp. (makers of Pebeco toothpaste) and commercial spokeswoman Ida Bailey Allen, this short run program featured New York actors Agnes Moorehead, Alan Reed (a.k.a. Teddy Bergman) and J. Scott Smart in supporting roles. For the broadcast of February 23, 1932, the screen career of Greta Garbo, with cooperation from MGM, was presented. (It still remains unknown who played the role of Garbo.)
On the evening of October 11, 1931, Greta Garbo was scheduled as a guest for The Three Bakers of Hollywood, sponsored by Standard Brands (promoting Fleischmann’s Yeast). This short-run program aired over NBC Blue on Sunday evening. Even the New York Times reported Garbo’s upcoming appearance. After checking everything from the Library of Congress, the surviving records of the J. Walter Thompson Agency which represented the sponsor, files at NBC, and the Billy Rose Theatre Collection in New York City, I have verified that Garbo canceled her appearance before the broadcast and Harriet Hilliard filled in as a guest.
There are three recordings in collector hands that postdate the 1942 March of Dimes broadcast, featuring the voice of Greta Garbo. All three were provided courtesy of the sound tracks from her movies. The April 18, 1954, broadcast of Stagestruck, hosted by Mike Wallace, documented “How the Stage Helped Make Hollywood History.” Numerous celebrities, through exclusive interviews, offered commentary. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Frank Lovejoy and many others. Greta Garbo’s voice is heard, but again only from a movie sound track.
The April 25, 1955, broadcast of NBC’s Best of All, featured a salute to Lionel Barrymore with a scene from the sound track of Camille. This means Garbo’s voice was once again provided courtesy of MGM’s film vaults. The April 10, 1957, broadcast of Recollections At Thirty also featured a scene from the sound track of Camille, with Greta Garbo and Lionel Barrymore.
One recording not known to exist is the August 15, 1954 broadcast of Weekend, where Garbo appeared as a guest on The Woman’s Page spot, but her appearance was taped in advance and broadcast during the program.
Although radio historians are still trying to find confirmation of more than one radio broadcast, it appears (for now) that Garbo’s first and only radio appearance was the March of Dimes broadcast of 1942. Ironic when you consider that Garbo’s technique before the cameras was usually word-perfect on the first take. She was known for making her films quickly. To achieve this result, the very private actress often banished crew members and even the director from her range of sight. Visitors on her sets were strictly forbidden. Yet, the actress somehow managed to set the record for the least amount of public radio appearances in Hollywood history.
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