I have encountered three Greta Garbo films on the list. “Ninotchka” I already wrote about and “Camille” is yet to come. The subject of the entry “Queen Christina” is in my opinion the best of the three. In fact, having been through an entire box set of Garbo films this one is the best of the whole lot.
This is in no small part because the role as Queen Christina is as made for Garbo. She fit it like she was born to it, something I cannot say about her character in “Camille”. Queen Christina is haughty, powerful and dominating, but also passionate and longing and these traits are all inherent in Garbo. Even when the role does not require it she exudes these qualities. Not exactly the young courtesan, but definitely the queen. Add to that that she is actually Swedish and I could not imagine a better actress for the part.
She plays alongside John Gilbert and that is a curiosity in itself. Gilbert starred some early sound movies with sound quality so bad that he was libeled unsuited for talkies and so like a dinosaur of a past age was destined to go extinct. His heyday was with “The Big Parade” in 1925, but by 1933 he had become unwanted. Garbo had a thing going with Gilbert and so insisted that he get the part as Antonio. He proved that he was fully suited for talking pictures and does an excellent job here, but alas it was too late. He soon succumbed to alcohol and died in 36. It is not entirely unthinkable that the “The Artist” was modeled on John Gilbert. Jean Dujardin even looks like John Gilbert.
“Queen Christina” is a historic drama telling the story of legendary Queen Christina of Sweden, particularly the climax around her abdication in 1654. As is always the case with Hollywood interpretations of historic events the actual circumstances have been pimped up, but in this case not as much as I would have feared. I have checked a number of background details and they are surprisingly correct. An example is that Christina rides for the border at the end of the movie. My first thought was, aha, there is no border between Stockholm and Helsingborg, but in fact there was. The peace agreement at Brømsebro in 1645 only gave Halland to Sweden, whereas Skåne where Helsingborg is located was only ceded in 1658 in the Roskilde treaty. Christina did indeed leave Sweden by the way of a ship in Helsingborg and it was no trivial affair for Swedish royalty to cross through hostile Denmark to get to the ship. It would have been easy to gloss over this, but the movie does not and I applaud it for it.
I have not been able to verify if a meeting really happened at an inn with the Spanish envoy shortly after his arrival, but he is a historic character and she was indeed infatuated by him and created an order of knighthood around him. One of the rules of the knighthood was to never get married. Christina herself was indeed known for going around in men’s attire and a supporter of the arts. She eventually ended up in Rome as a patron of the arts and is one of the few women to have been buried in the Vatican crypt. Her weaknesses however are glossed over. She was wasteful with resources as beside waging expensive wars she doubled the nobility class in Sweden granting land and resources from the royal coffers far beyond their capacity. Also she took little interest in the actual ruling of the country leaving Axel Oxenstierna de facto ruler of Sweden. In Garbo’s version she is entirely the responsible leader, not afraid to take action, and very concerned with the costs of waging war.
Well, I suppose I cannot blame director Rouben Mamoulian for embellishing the story. For a movie from the 30’ies these modifications are quite modest.
Apart from the historical element “Queen Christina” has number of interesting features. I love the mistaken identity scene at the inn. The two peasants coming up to the queen asking her to settle a wager: Did the queen have 6 or 9 lovers in the past year? To which she declares that it was 12! How rare to have a female lead brag of being quite a, well, stud. The play between Gilbert and Garbo is also delicious both before and after he realizes she is actually a woman. And his expression is priceless when he realizes he has been bedding the queen herself.
Although the supporting cast appear rather wooden and theatrical they are still believable, maybe because the scenery with them in the castle look like so many old paintings. There is a certain tableau quality to the scenography.
Finally it is refreshing with a female protagonist, especially one as strong as Garbo, not a dainty flower to be tossed around but a force to be reckoned with. Too bad that love is made to be her undoing. Such a character deserves better than a cliché fate. Well, queen or not, to Hollywood she was first and foremost a woman.