Garbo on the Air – Sort Of

The 1930s and 40s are known collectively as the Golden Age of Radio for several reasons. Among them is the fact that virtually every major Hollywood film star appeared on radio broadcasts. A few, such as Bing Crosby and Edward G. Robinson, starred on their own weekly shows. During the Second World War (1939-1945) even the few holdouts among the movie stars joined in to boost morale. Perhaps the only major star who never broadcast was the reclusive Greta Garbo. Her voice would be heard via radio only when it was lifted from her movie soundtracks and broadcast to promote her films.

Of course, the Divine Garbo never appeared in a color film either, but we can rectify both her colorless image and her absence from radio here at OLD HOLLYWOOD IN COLOR. First, the radio broadcast: “Garbo Laughs” was the ad line on her 1939 hit film, NINOTCHKA, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The following year, radio’s Screen Guild Theater broadcast an adaptation starring Spencer Tracy in the role played by Melvyn Douglas on the screen, and Rosalind Russell playing Garbo’s role, the title character. Roz Russell was a versatile actress who became even more accomplished in her later years. But tackling a role so recently impressed in everybody’s mind by Garbo herself seemed risky if not foolhardy, even on radio.

But Roz surprised everyone by not merely giving a believable performance as the cynical Soviet operative, but by pulling off a dead-on impersonation of Garbo herself. Anyone tuning in late to the show would have sworn they were listening to Garbo in person. Here then is the closest that OHIC believes we will ever come to hearing the Divine Garbo on radio, courtesy of Rosalind Russell.

Click the Play arrow below to hear the complete half-hour live show, NINOTCHKA, on Screen Guild Theater, exactly as broadcast on April 21, 1940, starring Spencer Tracy and Rosalind Russell as “Garbo.”

While you’re listening, these color transfers may be of interest. Garbo’s first American film was TORRENT (1926) and is available today on dvd:

With Lucy Beaumont

A late 1920s portrait in the then-typical soft focus:

An iconic photo of Garbo and her offscreen lover John Gilbert in FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1927):

An unusually modernistic poster design for 1928:

An exotic Garbo in Java with Nils Asther in WILD ORCHIDS (1929):

And a decade later in NINOTCHKA (1939):

An original color poster

Spencer Tracy made his first color appearance in the glorious Technicolor outdoors epic of 1940, NORTHWEST PASSAGE. He would not appear in color again until the 1950s:

An original color poster

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