She is certainly the most iconic movie star of all time, and this is the Greta Garbo Blogathon, hosted by IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.
As usual, I invite you to point your browsers to the blogathon page for a complete list of the participating blogs and a lot of great articles about Garbo and her movies.
And once you’re done, come back here, because we are going the swashbuckler way again— well, sort of.
We’re gonna talk about the 1933 pre-Code classic, Queen Christina.
Queen Christina should have been a simple affair, at least on paper. Pairing Greta Garbo with her regular foil John Gilbert, the movie is a historical drama focusing on the plight of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), a strong, highly cultured queen that was crowned at the age of six (!) and ruled Sweden from 1644 to 1654.
As the image above shows, Christina was nothing like Garbo – but her role was well suited for the actress: Garbo came from Sweden, and her cool, aloof beauty and style were just what the production required.
And there was also a nice side serving of scandal – Queen Christina had after all refused to marry, renounced her throne and converted to Catholicism, before she moved to Rome to become sort of a poster-girl for the Counter Reformation.
A character at the same time akin and opposite to Queen Elizabeth of England, in many ways.
The scandal bit was granted to bring the punters to the cinemas, and the direction was assigned to Rouben Mamoulian, that in 1931 had directed The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde starring Frederic March – possibly the best adaptation of Stevenson’s book, and a movie showing Mamoulian deft hand when handling scandalous subjects.
This was pre-Code, remember.
The movie is not very interested in Christina religious and political motivations. Her decision not to marry is “explained” with a tragic love for Antonio, the Spanish envoy to her court,played as a romantic rake by the suave John Gilbert – even if Garbo would have preferred Lawrence Olivier.
Denied the love of her life and surrounded by political enemies, Christina goes into self-exile. All of which is historical poppycock, but what the heck, it makes for good drama.
While the screenplay jettisons most of the true historical events in Christina’s life, it does indulge on the matter of her sexuality and orientation. The gentlemen of MGM knew how to sell tickets.
Was the historical Christina of Sweden a lesbian? She did fuel this assumption herself, in her 1681 Autobiography, and if her penchant for male attire and graceful court ladies was the talk of the courts of Europe, it is likely that the whole matter was inflated by gossip and political propaganda. Indeed, the accusations of homosexuality or of being a hermaphrodite moved to Christina by her contemporary critics were the same leveled a few decades before to that other Protestant queen that refused to marry – Elizabeth. And one wonders what the Roman Catholics made of their attacks when Christina converted.
Most historians today seem to agree on the fact that Christina of Sweden was probably happily bisexual, or maybe not.
The movie plays the card of Christina’s (and Garbo’s) sexual preferences by showing her in male costume, and having her exclaim
“I shall die a bachelor!”
There is also a hinted lesbian relationship with one of her ladies in waiting.
And then yes, of course intrigue and the Thirty Years War and all those things, but it’s obvious the movie wants to be a romantic drama – and as such works wonderfully.
It was a triumph – Queen Christina was to become one of the most commercially successful Garbo movies, and it was the top box office show of 1933.
Garbo of course is beautiful – and this also thanks to Mamoulian inventiveness. For the classic, legendary closing shot (in which the director requested Garbo not to blink), Mamoulian invented a special filter, allowing him to zoom in on Garbo’s face while progressively softening the contrast, thus eliminating any skin blemish from the close-up. Granted, that’s the scene in which the wind blows in the opposite direction to the ship’s movement, but boy, is Garbo stunning!
Another scene, in which Garbo moves through a room memorizing every element of it in view of her future losses, was choreographed so tightly, Garbo had to move to a metronome. And the scene is one of the most famous in the history of the movies.
So, all’s well that ends well?
Not for John Gilbert, whose star was waning. Many said he had been unable to transition to the talkies due to his unpleasant voice – but if Queen Christina’s a reliable sample, that too is poppycock. But after Queen Christina, Gilbert would vanish from the public’s eye.
Queen Christina is 84 years old, and it’s as historically reliable as a Walt Disney cartoon. But it’s a classic, and well-deservedly so.