In the movie Two-Faced Woman, Greta Garbo faced off against herself. But little did she know that MGM had come up with a make-over plan for her that would end up killing off both versions of Garbo.
The year was 1941 and World War II was raging in Europe. The formerly strong market in Europe for Garbo films went bust, as indeed it did for most all American movies in Nazi-overrun Europe. MGM's response was to try to make the mysterious and overtly European Garbo into a smiling, laughing, and approachable movie star. The plan was to try and repeat the hit Ninotchka from 1939, another romantic comedy that co-starred Melvyn Douglas. That movie had been directed by the wonderful Ernst Lubitsch. Two-Faced Woman seemed at the outset to have all the makings of a success - George Cukor was set to direct, and Garbo's confidant Salka Viertel worked on the screenplay. But MGM's make-over plan was to de-glamorize Garbo, a fatal mistake for a star with such iconic imagery as Garbo possessed.
Greta Garbo had been a super star since the silent cinema, where she revolutionized the look and mannerisms of the modern woman. Her roles as lover, vamp, or tragic heroine blazed a trail that even Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn felt the need to emulate in their early careers. Above Garbo is shown as the spy Mata Hari in Mata Hari, from 1931. She played steamy and exotic roles in many movies, reaching super-stardom when paired with John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil in 1927. She starred in singular movies such as A Woman of Affairs, Wild Orchids, The Kiss, Inspiration, The Painted Veil, As You Desire Me, Anna Karenina, Grand Hotel, and Camille. With costume designer Adrian, who designed all her costumes for films from 1928-on, Garbo set fashion trends and hair and make-up standards around the world.
Garbo had just starred in Ninotchka along with Melvyn Douglas, and the pair previously had displayed good chemistry in As You Desire Me. In the photo above Garbo plays the stern Soviet official named Ninotchka who is sent to Paris on business and ends up falling in love with its degenerate fashions and American visitor. In Two-Faced Woman, Garbo plays a "boring" Nordic skier who is losing the interest of her new American husband Larry Blake, played by Douglas. When he returns to New York on a trip, she follows in order to spy on him, but in so doing is obliged to pretending she is her own more exotic twin-sister. In this new role she intends to lure him back from the clutches of his former lover played by Constance Bennett.
Even in playing the "boring" twin-sister Garbo is given the make-over. She is a ski-instructor, she swims actively, she laughs. Somehow the MGM Garbo make-over plan was so one-track that the producers didn't realize that they were compromising the plot by having the boring sister be such a dynamo. The couple's temporary separation was hung on a disagreement about where to live, and of course the reason for the "exotic twin sister" act. In its own twist of fate, Adrian had designed the costumes early in his career for Constance Talmadge in Her Sister from Paris from 1925, the film that Two-Faced Woman was based on.
Two-Faced Woman was one of Cukor's few misfires. He had directed Garbo in her finest film: Camille. Adrian was not happy about how he had to dress Garbo. He was used to having his own way in the costume designs for his films, and he knew this one was going off the tracks from the beginning. Most of his initial designs for Garbo were rejected. Although Garbo is bra-less in the photo above, Garbo's gown is devoid of sex-appeal, and this for the exotic and sexier sister role. And this for the sister that is, "partial to indoor activities," as she says in the film. But both sisters in the Garbo make-over had to frequently smile and laugh. In this case going against type was not effective.
The film's censors had not been fooled. The role of Melvyn Douglas as the husband, having an adulterous relationship with his sister-in-law, had quickly forced changes to the script that led the story through its plot-deflating twists and turns.
Constance Bennett shown at left plays Griselda, Larry Blakes' old flame. Garbo is shown at right. While a simple black gown on Garbo would always look beautiful, it's clear from this photo, and the roles they play, which of the two stars gets the glamour treatment.
The film's plot resolution comes about as Douglas as Larry Blake tests Garbo the exotic sister by saying he's going back to his wife abroad. This of course causes their less-than-suspenseful
reunion back home.
At its release the film was poorly reviewed by the critics. Garbo took this personally. She had already been shocked by being offered a reduction in pay by MGM. At this point she essentially walked away from the studio.
Adrian too saw the writing on the wall. He said at the time about Garbo, "When she walked out of the studio, glamour went with her - and so did I." Indeed, he left to open his own fashion design business, this at the very beginning of America's entry into World War II.
It would be many years before glamour returned to MGM.The talented Irene, who replaced Adrian, had tried, but the roles were not there. Designer Helen Rose followed and had success in the 1950s with MGM stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly. Yet a jewel slipped from the hands of MGM, and one by one the other glamour goddesses would depart too (mostly by losing their contracts), and the studio itself would eventually collapse.
For movie fans, Greta Garbo's one hauntingly beautiful face was, and will ever be, enough.
Greta Garbo never made another film.