Tag Archives: As You Desire Me

Garbo’s Salary: Her Mega-Star Millions

20 Apr

In one of the few verifiable documents from the time of her peak fame and power, a 26-year old Greta Garbo was already a millionairess many times over. One record dated April 1931, Miss Garbo had $1,074,552.70 in just one Beverly Hills First National checking and savings account. Adjusted for inflation, that amount is $27,591,257.20 in 2019 US dollars. She was the undisputed Queen of the silver screen – and she was miserable.

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Amid the bank closings, bread and unemployment lines and an ever worsening Great Depression, Garbo was as rich and famous as you can get. Her legendary beauty radiated youthful energy from a lithe, athletic physique, topped with a face that was rumored to have stopped traffic more than once on Wilshire Boulevard (or was that Sunset Boulevard?) in the young Hollywood colony thick with stars and starlets who would give anything to be her. The naturally reclusive Garbo found Hollywood cold (isolated) from the rest of the world. Especially her native Sweden, where she was anxious to get home.

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Her MGM contract was about to expire, and she really didn’t care if she ever made another movie. Of course, this utterly-terrified L.B. Mayer and his minions at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. They weren’t about to let the golden goose fly the coup until they had her under a new contract. Come hell or high water, she was going to re-sign no matter what her demands might be.

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Garbo had come to America under contract to MGM during the silent movie era. She quickly became a mega-silent movie star, with such hits as Woman of Affairs, The Single Standard, The Temptress, The Torrent, Flesh and The Devil and a slew of other vehicles that elevated her star into the stratosphere. L.B. Mayer wasn’t about to let his investment in her just walk onto an ocean liner, never to be seen again. The movie mogul began negotiations personally with his young actress, full well knowing he wasn’t going to be able to bluff or strong-arm her like he did all his other stars, whether male or female. Garbo had one thing none of the other stars at MGM or at any other studio had: the power of indifference.

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Garbo’s MGM contract was due to expire on June 1932. Director Eric von Stroheim was ripping his non-existent hair out to complete production of As You Desire Me before his young star boarded The Gripsholm to set sail for her homeland. von Stroheim knew his star had more power than him, or the studio they both worked for. When it came to her iron will and determination when she wanted something, Garbo was an excellent negotiator with a mind for money and a strategy. She’d get more out of old Mayer than any other star, before or since. Garbo simply let the clock run out, and then demand a two-picture deal controlled under a special production company set up within the studio especially for her. An island unto itself where Garbo was free to pick her projects, as well as her director and co-stars. What star today wouldn’t want a deal like that!

Garbo had many faces…and many millions more in her Hollywood bank account!

Garbo’s 1932, two-picture deal would bind her to MGM at the tidy sum of $250,000 per picture, or $500,000 plus profit participation = $9.3 million + change today. Per her contract, L.B. Mayer cut Garbo a studio check on the spot. Standing before his desk, Garbo took the check for over $125,000 ($2.3 million) and didn’t have anywhere to put it. According to the star herself, her outfit had no pockets so she “took the biggest check I had ever seen…and stuffed it in my open shirt.”  

It turns out Garbo could make an entrance better than any movie star in history. But it was the threat of her exiting on her own terms that made her one of the most powerful women in Hollywood history.

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