[Note: This is another one from the Primer essays I wrote a few years ago.]
Queen Christina (U.S., 1933) * * * *
D: Rouben Mamoulian
In my review of Midnight Cowboy I mentioned the advent of “The Code,” which was instituted as a method of tempering questionable moral content in Hollywood films in the 1930’s. This film, Queen Christina, was screened as part of TCM’s marathon of Pre-Code gems, most of which feature women in stronger roles that defied convention. Indeed, Greta Garbo, as the title character (a Swedish monarch who reigned from 1640-1654), could not embody the freedom of Pre-Code women’s roles more fully. Here, she dresses as a man, takes “a round dozen” lovers with a masculine lack of guilt, and commands from her throne with absolute authority. She is in charge of her sexuality—which is sometimes ambiguous, given her close relationship with a lady of the court, “Belle” Sparre (Elizabeth Young)—but never compromises her power and charm, which are great. Even in the brilliant opening scene, which does not feature Garbo but her five year-old counterpart, we can see an independence to be reckoned with, one which seizes the attention of the court, and rouses them: the young Christina, accepting her ascendance to the throne and reciting the speech given to her by her late father’s chancellor, Oxenstierna (Lewis Stone), abruptly ad-libs and gains cheers from her audience. It is as though, even at this young age, she was able to read the room and play to it. This quality will become invaluable during her reign. Much later in the film, an angry mob marches against her palace. She demands they be let in, and her guards dismissed. Facing the mob alone, she is able to emotionally disarm them, using another speech to turn the tide in her favor. This is not the sort of role you would see granted to women a few years later.
Granted, the plot is a strictly heterosexual romance. Christina, dressed as a nobleman and exploring the Swedish countryside (in that famous Garbo way, she wants to be “alone”), comes across an ambassador from Spain en route to her palace. He is Don Antonio Pimentel de Prado (John Gilbert at his most Lyle Waggoner-esque). When they are forced to share a room at an inn together, he naturally uncovers her true gender; they spend a passionate, Pre-Code night of sex, which is off-screen—although the post-coital scene, with Garbo in pure rapture mode and lovingly devouring grapes, is as sensuous and erotic as the movies get—and then depart. He does not know that she is Queen until he meets her again at the palace, where he gives a look that is a mixture of surprise and horror. Horror, we learn, because the purpose of his visit is to bring a marriage proposal from the Spanish king. Garbo, in private audience, reassures him that she loves him, which creates an awkward situation: his extended stay in the palace frightens the country into thinking she is taking the Spanish king’s proposal seriously, and will not marry the favored suitor, her cousin Charles. There is also the problem of an ex-lover, Magnus de la Gardie (Ian Keith), a diplomat who, out of jealousy, wants to see the Spanish ambassador dead.
If this sounds like melodrama—well, I’m not exactly sure of the definition. I tend to think of a love triangle with a lot of tears and anguish and improbable plot twists. So I will look up the term. Webster’s says it is “a drama, as a play or film, concerned with exaggerated conflicts and emotions, stereotyped characters, etc.” Do you think dictionaries should be using the word “etc.”? Doesn’t that kind of negate their whole purpose? But anyway. I would say this film does not fit that definition, as there are few “stereotyped” characters (the only possible exception is Magnus, who becomes the stock villain). No, with Greta Garbo perfectly embodying the forward-thinking, arts-loving Queen Christina, you have thrown all stereotypes out the window. “Exaggerated conflicts,” on the other hand, might be accurate, as the plot of the film departs from the real-life history of Sweden’s Queen Christina in order to provide a romance and a conflict.
Yes, all these characters truly existed, though to varying degrees of accuracy. Magnus really was a lover of Christina’s, and she did become close friends with the Spanish ambassador (though there is no evidence they were lovers). There was even a “Belle” Sparre she was close friends with (though there is no evidence of lesbianism and, to be fair, the film does not necessarily indicate otherwise). Christina seems to be a pretty close portrait. She was a great lover of philosophy and the arts, even becoming a pen-pal of Descartes later in life. The ending of the film is historically accurate, although Christina’s motivations are invented. But the truth of Christina—that she really was a feminist ahead of her time—brings the most delight in seeing Greta Garbo cast in the role. Of course, Garbo herself is Swedish, providing the only authentic accent in the film (even if it seems less Swedish than it ought to be).* But she gives the character a personality which seems particularly distinctive of this actress. She is constantly laughing; not in that guarded feminine way, but throwing her head back and really going at it, fists on her hips, legs apart. She looks like Douglas Fairbanks in his old adventure films. And that’s the thing: she’s absolutely comfortable in her pants and cap, leaping atop a table at the inn and declaring her round dozen to settle a wager. Every line she speaks is equally full of life: she delivers them as though they are the highest form of poetry. You should be thrilled that Garbo talks—and how she talks, in particular. It is, in this light, easy to see why Antonio falls in love with her so quickly. She overwhelms him with her passion—not just for him, but for the world around them. She has a great speech in that post-coital moment in the room at the inn, when she looks around and says she is memorizing every detail so that she can inhabit this happy place in her memory for the rest of her life. That theme—of holding moments of happiness in your memory, where they can always live—is reiterated later on, and we soon realize that she could almost be referring to her rule, which is destined to be transient.
As for the pre-Code stuff, the dirt, it’s marvellous. In the early scenes, between staid scenes of Christina going about her boring diplomatic duties, we get the sense that she has become a lover of half the people in the palace.** Later, we see a tavern girl roundly groped by drooling, drunken patrons, and in that great disrobing scene, where Christina, sharing a room with Antonio, realizes that she must reveal her sex to him, we are ever certain that the reason he figures it out so quickly is that she is bare-breasted beneath her shirt. After their night of passion, Antonio’s servant enters the room to find the curtains drawn around their bed. The fact that they will not come out—and are sleeping in—brings a look of shock (he is not aware that Christina is a woman, and now assumes they are having a homosexual affair). These moments would not necessarily raise this film’s rating above a “G,” but they seem particularly adult and un-conservative for a film from the 1930’s. In fact, it was only when the Code was introduced that the 1930’s actually became the decade we remember it as, and this sort of mature honesty would not re-emerge for another three decades.
But enjoy this capsule for what it is: ahead of its time, a feminist portrait to be embraced and entertained by. Garbo talks, she struts, she raises an eyebrow and sensuously hugs each line of dialogue; she is a wonder.
* Most of the accents in the film are either British or American. Even though neither accent is appropriate, it is the American voices that are the most distracting. In a scene at the inn, two drunken Swedes are arguing over how many lovers the Queen has had. Both say they are from Stockholm, which is apparently Stockholm-by-way-of-Texas. And they look like old prospectors—that doesn’t help much, either.
** In fact, scholars now think she retained her virginity throughout her life. In the film, on the other hand, she seems to advocate and enact a feminist sexual liberty that makes one think that the Pill came to Sweden centuries earlier than the rest of the world.