SPOTLIGHT: Gorgeous Pre-Code Garbo (V)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the conclusion of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the divine Greta Garbo (1905-1990). We’ve already covered two of this Queen’s Pre-Codes: Susan Lenox (Her Fall And Rise) (1931) and Grand Hotel (1932), but in this spotlighted series we’ve featured  Anna Christie (1930), Inspiration (1931), Mata Hari (1931), and As You Desire Me (1932). Today…

 

Queen Christina (1933)

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Queen Christina of Sweden is a popular monarch who is loyal to her country. However, when she falls in love with a Spanish envoy, she must choose between the throne and the man she loves. Starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith, Lewis Stone, Elizabeth Young, C. Aubrey Smith, and Reginald Owen. Screenplay by H.M. Harwood and Salka Viertel. From the original story by Salka Viertel and Margaret P. Levino. Dialogue by S.N. Behrman. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. 

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The Divine One is certainly in her element in this period romance that takes its inspiration from Swedish history and allows its heroine to dress up in men’s clothes and kiss women on the lips. (This film could also be called Queen Greta, and the effect would still be the same.) Garbo gives her best Pre-Code performance in this magical and unforgettable film. What better way to conclude our series than to feature her final Pre-Code picture, perhaps the quintessential Garbo film, Queen Christina? 

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“Following the death of her father King Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years’ War in 1632, six year old Christina ascends to the throne of Sweden. The ruling Christina grows into an adult who loves literature and the arts, and who often dresses as a man to appear more authoritarian. But the war rages on with massive casualties on both sides. Despite the Swedish side seemingly winning the war, Christina would rather have peace. In addition to the successes of the war, the queen’s loyal subjects also have her love life on their minds, as a married queen who produces an heir will ensure longevity of the nation. Most believe she will and should marry Prince Charles Gustavus, the hero of many a battle in the war in name of the queen and of Sweden. Count Magnus, the Lord Treasurer, mistakenly believes he himself can have the queen. But she has forsaken the pursuit of love for the pursuit of knowledge and the attention she has paid to fighting the war.

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“Her thoughts change when she meets Antonio, the visiting envoy to King Philip of Spain, in a snowbound inn. As she falls in love with him in their forced time together at the inn, he falls in love with her, not knowing her true identity. Once he learns her true identity, they have to decide how their relationship fits into the bigger scheme of her life as a queen and his as a representative to one of her suitors. Their troubles increase when Count Magnus, wanting Christina for himself, incites a public uprising against Antonio all in the public name of patriotism.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of IMDb.)

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Historical fiction has an automatic appeal in a vein similar to the 21st century’s current obsession with reality television. Human beings like watching other human beings — perhaps in a fundamental yearning for connectedness — and nothing is more striking than watching “real life.” Though most historical fiction is more fiction than history, it comes from truth: real people with real problems. And that’s undeniably fascinating. So this picture automatically brings its audience in and captivates in a way that other Garbo films of the era (save Mata Hari) simply cannot. Additionally, the script is fairly measured in its action. Things happen, but they don’t happen without motivation, and there’s plenty of breathing room in between for character exploration and quiet moments in which the actors shine. Most importantly, however, the film is never boring. And for those 21st century viewers who need constant stimulation, rest assured that you can find it in Queen Christina.

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While I was quite impressed with the script (and being a writer, it is often the thing to which I am most drawn), it is impossible to discuss this picture and ignore the striking visuals. Of course, with the revolutionary Rouben Mamoulian at the helm, it should come as no surprise. Every single frame in this picture is a work of art, and even in the most ordinary of moments, the eye marvels at how simply extraordinarily this film is composed. Along with the sets and the costumes, the cinematography matches the story’s tone with a grandeur befitting the most epic of love stories and — most thrillingly — does so without overwhelming its viewer by infringing upon the human elements of the film: the performances.

And the performances are indeed remarkable. Garbo is at her peak, giving it her all, effortlessly, in a role that seems to be her precise milieu. Not only is she playing a Swedish queen, but she’s playing a Swedish queen who likes to dress up in men’s clothes (as Garbo was wont to do) and has casual relationships with women (as Garbo was also wont to do.) Yes, Garbo kisses her lady-in-waiting and plans to go away for the weekend with her. More surprisingly, however, is how nonchalantly this moment is played. Perhaps this is done to de-emphasize the lesbian overtones, but the result is much more effective regardless. This is simply Queen Christina. This is simply Greta Garbo.

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And finally Garbo has a screen partner whom we can realistically call a partner; she shares it with him, for he is one of a select few who can match her in both style and quality. Yes, I’m speaking of the appropriately tragic John Gilbert, Garbo’s former paramour, who gives a performance that combines romance with sincerity (something that is even more important in epics and period films). The most memorable scenes are the ones that they share. They’re magic together — and the sexual chemistry is nearly palpable. This is indeed a hot Pre-Code film — not a smarmy or dirty affair, but a romantic, adult one. And it’s, oh, so exciting to watch. Queen Christina comes highly recommended to EVERYBODY. Buy it, rent it, DVR it, ask me for a copy. Just see this film.

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Come back next Friday for more Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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