A manly Greta Garbo

Garbo talks! Garbo returns! Garbo rules!

And so on.

Greta Garbo was a big deal when she was alive and her star ascendant. It’s difficult to really get a sense for someone’s popularity when it is read about historically and not something lived. How does someone growing up in the Beatles heyday communicate the zeitgeist of the period in a way that gets across the visceral feel?

Similarly, I can only know Garbo was a big deal in my head; I can’t have the feel of the period. Still, I do know she was big. And this is one of her best known films.

Queen Christina (1933)

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian

Ostensibly a portrayal of Christina, Queen of Sweden, the movie Queen Christina is a bio-pic in the best Hollywood style, taking a good deal of license as it plays fast and loose with the real events to make what it believed to be a more compelling drama.

In this case, the drama is romance.

Historians aren’t likely to be fond of the movie but for those who just like a good story, history be damned, this is a pretty good movie though it may suffer, for a contemporary audience, from its 1933 cinematic sensibility.

Using bits and pieces from the real Queen Christina’s story, the movie stars Greta Garbo in one of her most interesting and engaging performances.

Greta Garbo as a boyish Queen Christina and C. Aubrey Smith as the loyal Aage.

Sticking roughly to the facts, the young Christina is raised from birth to be a monarch and, because this is so, she is raised more or less as a boy.

She grows into an adult as a woman with a preference for doing things in a masculine way, taking part in masculine activities, showing disinterest in more feminine activities and, most significantly as a monarch, developing a very clear-headed, even brusque — but effective — approach to rule.

Garbo fits the role well because, while she is a famed beauty of the era, there is an androgynous quality to her — even a distant, almost asexual aspect to her look. Appropriately attired, it’s not too much of a stretch to see her as a woman mistaken for a man, albeit a man with an effeminate look but masculine ways.

Her performance as such a woman works on screen, but not simply due to her look. Garbo’s mannerisms, low voice and speech pattern all contribute to the characterization. Her movements, for example, often have the casual indifference of a man, such as when she dresses or walks.

Queen Christina (Garbo) disguised as a man and Spanish envoy Antonio (John Gilbert).

However, in the film’s story, she is a woman despite all this and eventually love enters the picture and the young queen’s problems begin coming to a head.

She is expected to make a political marriage. She has no interest in such a union.

She also takes the position that as queen it is her duty to rule; a decision like marriage is hers and hers alone.

And then she meets up with the Spanish envoy (John Gilbert), they spend several nights together in a snow-bound inn and Christina falls in love.

(The idyll in the inn is the first time in the film we see a more feminine Christina.)

The movie chooses romance as the reason for what subsequently happens and, from a story perspective, that is not surprising.

Historically, however, while that may have been an element (I’m not sure it was), there were other factors likely more significant such as her conversion to Roman Catholicism and, even more likely, a kind of profligate approach to rule that likely didn’t go over so well in the country or the court at Stockholm.

The movie completely ignores those elements. It’s a Hollywood movie, after all.

Queen Christina looks out over the ocean.

To use an over used term, Garbo is often luminous in Queen Christina. The film ends with a famous shot of her, face enigmatic as she looks out over the ocean, wind blowing, from the bow of a ship.

Queen Christina is one of her best known roles and many consider it one her finest.

The film also stars John Gilbert in his second last film before his early death at 37. His career is slipping from him at this point in his life, largely due to drinking.

It was Garbo who insisted on him in the lead male role. She and Gilbert been engaged at one time.

While his performance is adequate in the movie, it is certainly not distinguished or particularly memorable. Of course, the hair style the film gave him didn’t help matters.

In the end, the movie is a good, not great, melodramatic romance and costume drama.

Queen Christina debates a fateful decision.

Being a relatively early sound film, it suffers somewhat from the absence of a developed cinematic style. As with many early movies, it is still rooted in the stage; actors are still playing to the theatre’s back row.

There are exits and entrances; declamatory speeches and an overall stage sensibility to the movie.

Visually, it is generally in Garbo close-ups that it comes alive visually. While her words are enunciated in an overly theatrical way (at least to a 21st century audience), the camera loves her face.

Who could blame it?

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