Blonde Norwegian star Greta Nissen is mostly remembered for a role she didn't play; or, rather, a role that was eventually re-filmed with someone else. The daughter of an army officer and a child prodigy of sorts, Nissen (born Grethe Rutz-Nissen) made her professional debut appearing as a member of the corps de ballet at Copenhagen's Royal Theater. She was all of six years old and reportedly sponsored by Norway's Queen Maud. After studying with choreographer Michel Fokine in Paris, Nissen made an early screen debut in the Danish Daarskab, Dyd og Driverter (1923), a vehicle for the comedy team of Pat and Patachon. It was to be her only film in Scandinavia and the experience, she would later admit, had been less than endearing.
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Arriving in New York with a ballet troupe in 1924, the blonde looker received an offer to appear in George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly's lavish revue Beggar on Horseback and her performance was duly noted by Paramount's Jesse L. Lasky, who signed her to a contract. Making her American screen debut in In the Name of Love (1925), Nissen was singled out by critic Mordaunt Hall, who found her "an appealing and clever actress with a striking personality," and the die was cast. There were several sophisticated comedies with Adolphe Menjou and director Raoul Walsh turned the Scandinavian beauty into an exotic seductress in such costume extravaganzas as The Wanderer (1926) and The Lady of the Harem (1926). MGM, meanwhile, borrowed her for The Love Thief (1926), originally conceived, it was said, for that other Nordic Greta, Greta Garbo.
Most of Nissen's silent films were potboilers -- if usually successful ones -- but Hell's Angels (1930), a stunt-flying extravaganza set during World War I and produced by the unpredictable Howard Hughes, would in all likelihood have made her a major contender. Unfortunately, Hughes kept tinkering with the aerial sequences and his grand epic became a casualty of the sound revolution with Nissen's Norwegian accent mentioned as the chief liability. Her scenes were summarily scrapped and remade with newcomer Jean Harlow and the rest, as they say, is history.
Rebounding somewhat with a contract from Fox, Nissen eventually proved that her accent could easily have been turned into an asset, but the fall-out from the Hell's Angels debacle followed her for the remainder of her screen career. After starring or co-starring in a series of B-films that included a George O'Brien Western and a couple of British "quota quickies," the Norwegian bombshell retired with little or no regrets. Divorced from former Fox contract star Weldon Heyburn, Greta Nissen later became the wife of California industrialist Stuart Eckert and spent the remainder of her life in fashionable Montecito, CA. ~ Hans J. Wollstein, Rovi