In this unabashedly Hollywood historical drama, Greta Garbo’s portrayal of the 17th century monarch is spellbinding. Queen Christina rose to the throne at the age of six, so for the first part of her reign, in which Sweden was involved in warfare, the country was led by her (male) advisors. Christina often dressed as a man when hunting, to assert her status to them, also blurring where her sexual preferences lay. Having rejected Magnus as her suitor she meets and falls in love with the Spanish emissary Don Antonio (John Gilbert) whilst on a hunting expedition. The conflict between her patriotism and love for Don Antonio forms the core of the story. (Cert U)
Dir: Rouben Mamoulian 100 mins USA 1933
USA 1933 100mins Cert U
Queen Christina is one of Greta Garbo’s quintessential, most-remembered screen portrayals – and one of her finest films – with glowing scenes, enhanced by her favourite cinematographer William Daniels, that reflect the mystique of the lovely, enigmatic actress. An MGM production, it was Garbo’s first and only film with director Rouben Mamoulian, who captures luxuriously the graceful allure and persona of one of Hollywood’s most famous and lovely performers, especially in its final enigmatic closeup. However, this romantic tragedy was poorly received as measured by box-office appeal* but, after it, Garbo would go on to make some of her greatest films, including Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936) and Ninotchka (1939).
A biopic of the independent-minded, controversial Christina, queen of 17th century Sweden, the film paired Garbo with popular silent-screen actor John Gilbert, her former fiancee and co-star, who was also purported to have been her passionate, off-screen lover. Although Gilbert’s career star was fading, Garbo insisted that he play the male lead role, despite Laurence Olivier having been the original choice. The plot, ending with the Queen’s abdication from her kingdom and withdrawal into self-imposed exile in order to follow her heart to Spain and return her slain lover to his homeland, prophetically echoed the sort of conflict that Garbo struggled with in her private life.
It was Garbo’s first film in a year and a half and her long absence from the screen and residence in her native Sweden were widely interpreted as a retreat from cinema altogether. (She gave up film-making eight years later.) And Gilbert, who had been relegated to second-class status following the advent of the talkies, starred in only one other film (The Captain Hates the Sea (1934)) before his death in 1936.
History is partially rewritten in this costume melodrama of strength, sacrificial love and duty but since Queen Christina (1626-1689) was herself bisexual in orientation, the story was provided with a pretext for its Lesbian leanings. Furthermore, the cross-dressing and gender disguises of Garbo, her romantic attraction to her own lady-in-waiting and her notorious bedroom scene at the inn with Gilbert not only troubled the film’s censors but engendered in audiences a heightened curiosity for the glamorous star.
* The film was not nominated for any Academy Awards.
Acknowledgements: Tim Dirks, Filmsite Movie Review
Queen Christina – Greta Garbo
Antonio – John Gilbert
Magnus – Ian Keith
Oxenstierna – Lewis Stone
Aage – C Aubrey Smith
Director Rouben Mamoulian
Producer Walter Wanger
Screenplay H M Harwood, Salka Viertel
Cinematography William Daniels
Original Music Herbert Stothart
“Greta Garbo’s magnetic beauty lifted this to an altogether superior level.”
“Vintage Hollywood at its best!”
“A gold-plated Hollywood melodrama – and fabulous to behold! (Room too hot tonight)”
“A great star in a very entertaining film”
“Powerful story about the tyranny of duty – especially for those born into a particular role, whether a royal or a blacksmith.”
“A solid piece of Hollywood history. Whilst the technical aesthetics are still influential for modern viewers, the clichéd script produced a pace that at times struggled to keep up with Garbo’s performance and the beautiful music.”
“Beautifully filmed. The silent film legacy was still showing – but no matter!”
“The old values of a timeless romance. A spectacular and touching performance from Garbo.”
“Swedish history recast as a Western, so where was Errol Flynn? And what a wonderful self-replenishing fruit bowl!”
“What would Lucy Worsley have to say about this view of Swedish history?”
“Greta Garbo did a great job of being Greta Garbo … otherwise unremarkable.”
“Wonderful costumes but somehow I was left unmoved.”
“A queen abdicating for prince Charles?”
“Can I have a beer mug like theirs? What scenery they have in Sweden!”