Film review by Jason Day of Queen Christina (1933) the romantic historical drama about the titular, 17th century Swedish monarch. Starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert and directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
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The largely romanticised, Hollywood take on the “loves” of Queen Christina, Sweden’s monarch in the mid-17 century who famously abdicated her throne. In this movie, the reason is her love for a dashing Spanish diplomat (John Gilbert).
Review by @Reelreviewer
Greta Garbo, that most taciturn of Hollywood legends, always treated LaLa Land with a mixture of polite scorn and contempt. She rarely socialised, hardly went to premieres (even her own), and showed little interest in her career that up until Queen Christina was being developed was hardly what one would call auspicious. Grand Hotel (1932) and a couple of good silents aside, she starred in more duds than delights.
But in 1932 she signed a new contract with studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer that gave her something unprecedented in Hollywood – her very own production unit.
This unique deal sprang from Garbo’s past tendency to jump continents and return to her native Sweden whenever she felt her bosses weren’t treating her well. So desperate were they to have her return and work only with them they and to make whatever films she wanted, with whomever she wanted.
She never really used this fantastic advantage to the fullest as her interest but she did at least take an interest in what stories she would take part in. And she only signed on the dotted line if Queen Christina was the first movie under that new contract.
MGM agreed and they gave her one of the most innovative and intelligent directors – Rouben Mamoulian. Without a doubt, this is one of two of her greatest films (the other being Camille, 1937).
Mamoulian and the writers dwell on the sensual aspects of the script, the sort of tactility that would appeal to the star. She is at her most relaxed and joyously entertaining in Queen Christina, perhaps because of her colleagues, perhaps because she has control, perhaps because she is playing a Swede and a character she could identify with (she gets to wear trousers, Greta’s favoured apparel). The movie should have been advertised with the tagline “Garbo has fun!” rather than “Garbo returns”.
At the start of the movie, she wakes up by jumping outside and rubbing her face in the fresh snow (according to Mamoulian the snow was actually soap shavings).
In the movie’s immortal and most much-discussed sequence Garbo surveys the room where she has just made love. She slowly, methodically touches, and visually consumes various items as if in a trance. Mamoulian had the neat idea of having a metronome brought on set to help her time and slow down her movements. She says:
I have been memorising this room. In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.
Dialogue is a key ingredient to any movie but in Queen Christina, it sparkles throughout, written by pal Sam Behrman alongside her close friend Salka Viertel (whom Garbo holidayed with for years).
Christina verbally jousts with her councillors:
- “We need new wine in old bottles” – on allowing foreign academics to teach in Sweden and ‘mix things up’ a bit).
- “Snow’s like a wide sea…one could get lost and forget the world. And oneself.”
- “I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!” (on not marrying and becoming an old maid).
The gender-confusing storyline is divine – it’s a wonder what we see on screen ever got past the censor – as Christina plants an obviously lesbian kiss on her lady-in-waiting Ebba (Elizabeth Young) and then throws a strop when Ebba slags her mistress off because she wants to marry a man.
Christina’s aide Aage (C. Aubrey Smith) huffs and puffs when she has to swap from her splendid masculine clothing to a gaudy court dress, fussed over by female servants.
She strides her dominion in male attire, stroking her boots and slapping her thighs – lovely, although you never believe for a moment that this radiant creature is a man unlike lusty bar wench Elsa (Barbara Barondess, who once was Greta’s unofficial stylist).
Not that any of this is in the least accurate. Christina didn’t look as lovely as Greta, she was raised as a boy (in fact, although she was referred to as Queen her official title was King) and she was more than likely a lesbian who never fell for a Spaniard, no matter how dashing.
There are some ‘guffaw’ moments. The Swedish currency is noted as being the dollar (?!) and the torches inside Swedish taverns of this period clearly breach any ‘elf and safety regulations.
The male performances are a bit hit and miss. You can’t fault former cricketer and all-around cuddly curmudgeon Smith (he’s the same in every movie) but Keith as Count Magnus is wooden and Gilbert (Garbo’s silent movie leading man) is a bit hit and miss.
Once the biggest male star in the world, by the early 1930’s his frequent clashes with MGM top brass had left him isolated and his career was on the down. Garbo fired MGM’s suggested leading man for the film – a young Laurence Olivier, no less – and insisted on casting her former lover.
The spark is still there and Gilbert is adorably, sweetly over-ardent, but he slips into panto performing. His spaniel puppy eyes contrast sharply with the self-declared man of passion who tells Christina that “the arts and graces of love” only be made in a hot climate, but shakes her hand the morning after they have sex. Typical man!
But first and foremost this is Garbo’s movie. As Sweden is Christina’s dominion, Garbo likewise rules over her film set, co-stars, and technicians. The final scene is the movie’s most indelible mark on the human consciousness. Now a monarch no more and realising she gave everything up for a man who has just died she stares out to see from the ship that is whisking her away from her home (in real-life, Christina left Sweden and spent the rest of her life elsewhere in Europe). Mamoulian instructed her to clear her mind and keep her facial expressions to a minimum, to be blank and let the audience interpret what she is feeling.
Her epic, unblinking visage is a terrific way to end the movie – nearly 100 years later, we are still left wondering what the character and the actress are thinking.
Cast and credits
Director: Rouben Mamoulian. 1hr 39mins/99mins. MGM. (U).
Producer: Walter Wanger.
Writers: H.M. Harwood, Salka Viertel, S.N. Behrman.
Camera: William Daniels.
Music: Herbert Stothart.
Sets: Edgar G. Ulmer.
Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith, Lewis Stone, Elizabeth Young, C. Aubrey Smith, Reginald Owen, Georges Renavent, David Torrence, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Ferdinand Munier, Barbara Barondess.