A mesmerizing star-powered, ethereal masterpiece about non-conformity
Forget reality. After all, back then Hollywood was called the Dream Factory and with good reason. It was an assembly line of creating untouchable gods and goddesses, sumptuous tableaus, enthralling narratives, and visions of utopia – all in the name of escapism. And this week’s film, “Queen Christina”, is a supreme example of the Dream Factory at its height. Not only is this film lavish, dramatic, and moving, but it also shines as an example of how movie stars ruled the industry. It was a vehicle for the biggest star of her time, Greta Garbo, and like Garbo herself, it radiates glamour and mystery. This is one mesmerizing film.
A historical costume drama, ”Queen Christina" is loosely based on August Strindberg’s play “Kristina”, and the real life of seventeenth century Christina, Queen of Sweden, a Swedish monarch who went against social norms, dressed as a man and had a masculine manner, had relationships with women (including her lady in waiting, noblewoman Ebba Sparre), and refused to marry. She stood for peace and for an end to Europe's Thirty Years' War, and her love of the arts, religion, philosophy, books, and alchemy made her one of the most educated women of her century. The film takes major liberties with history (and the play), becoming more fiction than fact, as it was tailored to fit Garbo’s mystique. It does retain a few true historical names, events, and “Christina’s” desire to be free from conventions.
The film doesn’t venture heavily into politics and only dabbles in showing the Queen’s great knowledge, love of the arts, and demands for peace. Its main focus is her duty to wed a Swede to produce a Swedish heir. Her advisors and public expect her to wed her war hero cousin “Prince Karl Gustav”, but she doesn’t want “Karl” or marriage, and when her Chancellor says “But your majesty, you cannot die an old maid”, she replies, “I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor”. “Christina” soon meets Spaniard “Antonio Pimentel de Prado” and the two fall madly in love, and “Queen Christina” becomes an exploration of the struggle between giving your life over to duty versus living life for yourself.
At the center of everything is actress Greta Garbo. Unlike any other film, when I think of “Queen Christina”, the face and passion of its star are what come to mind. The film’s plot almost doesn’t matter because just watching Garbo’s overwhelming beauty and tangible magic is more than enough to hypnotize. She is sublime as the tormented “Queen”, bringing a depth of emotion most actors only dream of possessing. With a quality unlike anyone before or after, it seems as if she speaks directly from her soul, turning this film into an ethereal masterpiece. Upon the film’s release, Garbo was praised as having given her finest performance to date, and it certainly remains among her very best. You can read more about the life and career of Greta Garbo in my post on “Camille”.
Garbo is completely in her element, especially when letting her eyes express all the emotions of humanity, from love to disdain to despair, and everything in-between. It’s no coincidence that in the film’s two most famous scenes Garbo barely says a word. First is the morning after she and “Antonio” spent the night together, as “Christina” walks around the room caressing objects (including the bed) to memorize the room so she’ll remember every detail of their time together. And then there’s the film’s legendary final shot, which is simply a close-up of Garbo’s face. I’ll speak a bit more about that in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section below so I don’t spoil things for first time viewers.
Films like this, which indulge in and promote the persona of a movie star, don’t exist anymore. Garbo became a success with her first Hollywood film (“Torrent”), a star with her second (“The Temptress”), and a superstar with her third (“Flesh and the Devil”), all in 1926. Under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), she quickly became the studio’s biggest asset as audiences clamored to see every film in which she appeared. Her first three films solidly established her as an exotic, excitingly dangerous, romantic, and tragic vamp (which she disliked playing) who could arouse passion like no one else on the silver screen.
It was an era of total studio control, and publicity departments would write and often fabricate stories about their stars through gossip magazines to build and create a star’s magnetism. But Garbo shunned standard Hollywood star duties, refusing to do publicity, make public appearances, sign autographs, or give interviews. And because she stayed clear of the public, great mystery defined her on and off screen, igniting public fascination. Director Billy Wilder put it nicely when he said, “She [Garbo] said nothing, and let the world write her story”. Her evocative performances helped fuel the feeling that there was more to her than meets the eye, and MGM gave her film roles that capitalized on her mystery so as to rake in more and more money from her at the box-office. Her role as “Queen Christina” became the epitome Garbo's mystique.
The character of “Christina” had much in common with Garbo. Both were Swedes who went against conventions, liked to dress in men’s attire, referred to themselves as boys or men, and had lesbian or at least fluid sexualities (rumored to be a lesbian, Garbo had a known romance with lesbian writer Mercedes de Acosta among others), and “Queen Christina” is permeated with gender fluid and homoerotic elements. Often dressed in the masculine dress of the day, “Christina" takes pleasure when people mistake her for a boy. There is the way she kisses “Ebba” (her lady in waiting) directly on the mouth, then proceeds to invite her to spend a few days alone together in the country to get away from the “musty old men”. There’s even a bubbly blonde maid who overtly flirts with “Christina” (thinking she’s a boy), telling her with a kittenish smile, “If you need anything, my room is at the end of the passage”. While innocent and innocuous to mainstream audiences, Queer viewers knew exactly what was going on in these coded moments. It was as far as Hollywood would go in depicting any type of non-heterosexual characters, and would be as far as Hollywood could go for decades.
Before the film was made there were issues about portraying a lesbian Queen. MGM’s head of production Irving Thalberg told screenwriter Salka Viertel to be "mindful" with how “Christina" was portrayed, and in their mission to “purify” the cinema, the censors warned MGM to avoid any reference to lesbianism, so just the kiss and some visible affection remain. To further erase anything lesbian, the film openly alludes to the unmarried “Christina” having had sex with several men.
Just as “Queen Christina” was finished, Joseph Breen was appointed the new head of the Motion Picture Production Code, and “Queen Christina” was his first assigned film. MGM quickly snuck it by Breen in time for its premiere, and the film was released as made. Funny enough, Breen’s main concern with the finished film was the “memorizing the room” scene. Though it slipped past Breen's scissors, about half a dozen or so state censor boards edited or removed that scene themselves for their local audiences.
On July 1, 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code took full effect, and “Queen Christina” was the last sexually relaxed film to be made by Hollywood for decades. For under Breen's hands, depictions of sex between unmarried people would now be banned, and any portrayal, reference, or even trace of homosexuality was now to be wiped away from American films. Clever directors found ways around the Code, but all things sex would now be ambiguous, coded, or implied. You can read more specifics about the Motion’s Picture Production Code in my post on “Red Dust”. Just click on the film title to open that post.
In addition to being the star, Garbo was also behind the making of “Queen Christina”. Having just made two 1932 hits, "Grand Hotel" and "As You Desire Me", she was at her height and "Garbomania" had taken the world by storm. Her MGM contract was about to expire and she headed back to her homeland of Sweden with threats of not renewing her contract.
While in Sweden, her friend and advisor, screenwriter Salka Viertel, gave her a script about Christina, Queen of Sweden. After reading it, Garbo negotiated her new MGM contract. She asked for (and got) $250,000 a film, unprecedented creative control over her films (including script, director, cast, and cinematographer approval), an obligation to make no more than two films a year, and that her next film would be “Queen Christina”. Along with H.M. Harwood, Viertel was hired by MGM to write the screenplay. This film marked Garbo’s return to the screen after an absence of over a year.
Out of Garbo’s list of acceptable directors for “Queen Christina”, the one who was available and took the job was one of Hollywood’s hottest at the time, Rouben Mamoulian. His stunning direction helps create grandeur with a gorgeous selection of shots, including many breathtaking closeups of Garbo's bewitching face. You’ll also notice how he moves his camera back to reveal the majesty of places, such as the throne room, “Christina’s” bedroom, and even the room at the Inn. There is always a sense of location and that these characters are grounded in some impressive place. His direction also worked to humanize the unattainable Garbo, particularly by showing her laugh, and this film is credited with showing Garbo laughing for the first time in movies (even though her first comedy, 1939’s “Ninotchka”, advertised itself as “Garbo Laughs!”).
Like all of Garbo’s films, this was a closed set, allowing only the cast and crew to be present during filming. She was known to have directors leave the set when she did love scenes, but Mamoulian refused to do so, and because of her respect for him she allowed him to stay. On the first day she informed him that her first take was always her best and therefore she never rehearsed. He persuaded her to film one shot unrehearsed and then again after rehearsing, after which she told him not to print the first take. They rehearsed every scene from then on.
Mamoulian wanted the film’s famous “memorizing the room” scene to be like a sonnet, capturing “sheer poetry and feeling". He wanted Garbo’s movements to be like a dance, so he choreographed her and had her move to a metronome during filming. The sequence is spellbinding. Mamoulian and Garbo worked well together and he was able to extract a glowing performance.
After directing on the London stage, Russian Empire-born Rouben Mamoulian came to the US and directed opera and legitimate theater, creating a buzz with his use of sound in “Porgy and Bess”. Desperately in need of directors who weren’t afraid of sound, Hollywood called him. Sound was new to films at the time, and because people were amazed by seeing an actor’s lips move and hearing their voice, this visual medium suddenly became all about dialogue. To make matters worse, cameras had to be placed in gigantic soundproof enclosures and actors had to stand near microphones, severely limiting what could be done creatively with a camera. Mamoulian was one of a very small handful of important directors who changed all of that.
The first feature film Mamoulian directed was the 1929 sound film “Applause”, and in it, he decided to shoot several scenes without sound and add dialogue later, allowing him to use a small silent camera which he could move any which way he pleased. There’s a scene in which he wanted to hear a mother singing at the same time we hear her daughter whisper her prayers before going to bed. The sound man and cameraman both thought it was impossible, but Mamoulian figured out a way of recording mother and daughter on two separate tracks and combining them in printing. It worked and became standard moviemaking practice. Mamoulian’s innovative use with sound also included overlapping dialogue, sound flashbacks, and use of synthetic sound, and he became one of cinema’s greatest sound pioneers (alongside a few other groundbreakers like King Vidor, Lewis Milestone, and Ernst Lubitsch). Many of Mamoulian’s inventions became cinematic norms.
Mamoulian followed his technical landmark “Applause” with more innovative hits, including 1931's horror classic "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and the 1932 musical "Love Me Tonight”. Including “Queen Christina”, he directed almost a film a year through 1942, including vehicles for other major stars such as Marlene Dietrich in "Song of Songs", William Holden in "Golden Boy”, and Tyrone Power in both "The Mark of Zorro” and "Blood and Sand”. He also directed the first three-strip Technicolor film, "Becky Sharp” in 1935. Mamoulian directed just 16 films in his career, ending with the 1957 Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse musical "Silk Stockings”. His fiercely independent nature got in his way, and he was fired from directing 1944's “Laura", 1959’s "Porgy and Bess” (though footage he shot remains in the film), and 1963’s “Cleopatra” (which was the end of his film career). He returned to Broadway in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including directing the original productions of "Oklahoma!", "Sadie Thompson", "Carousel", and "St. Louis Woman". In 1982, he received the Directors Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award. He was married once until his death. Rouben Mamoulian died in 1987 at the age of 90.
"Queen Christina's" cinematographer is William Daniels, Garbo's cameraman of choice. They worked together for thirteen years in nineteen films, and Daniels' lighting and camera work helped create and show off the Garbo creation probably more than anything or anyone else. He said her face had no bad angles, was most alluring when reclining, close-ups were especially wondrous, and that he would "always try to make the camera peer into her eyes to see what was there". Other Garbo films he shot include "Flesh and the Devil”, "The Kiss", "Mata Hari", "Grand Hotel", "Anna Karenina", "Camille", "Ninotchka", and 1930's "Anna Christie", which earned him his first Best Cinematography Academy Award nomination. Daniels won his first Oscar for 1948's "The Naked City", another nomination for 1958's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", and a second Oscar win for 1964's "How the West Was Won". Other non-Garbo classics from his 170 films include "Greed", "The Merry Widow", "Dinner at Eight", "The Shop Around the Corner", "Girl Crazy", "Brute Force", "Winchester '73", "Pat and Mike", "Von Ryan's Express", and his final, “Move" in 1970. Ohio-born William Daniels died in 1970 at the age of 68.
Having casting approval, Garbo first chose Laurence Olivier to play “Antonio Pimentel de Prado”, the “Queen’s” love interest (a fictional character and romance invented to help cover up any trace of the “Queen’s” lesbianism). Olivier began by filming a love scene with Garbo, and according to his autobiography "On Acting", his film acting at the time was lacking in charm and vitality, and he goes on to say, “I took Garbo in my arms to ‘awaken her passion’. There was no famous flicker of an eyelid or of the corner of her mouth, however faint; only shyness and cold eyes. I was miserable and overacted. She became bored with my twitchiness and saw my lack of personality, a mouse to her lioness”. Olivier was fired.
Garbo’s next choice for “Antonio” was John Gilbert, a major silent movie star with whom she’d costarred in three silent films beginning with “Flesh and the Devil” in 1926. Already a major silent film star at that time, he was cast opposite Garbo to help boost her career. Their torrid love scenes in that film were the most erotic seen at the time, and it made her a sensation. MGM created publicity that they were having an off-screen affair, and to this day it isn’t 100% clear if they were actually romantically involved, friends in a movie star publicity stunt, or that Gilbert had unrequited romantic love for Garbo. Whatever it was, the two sizzled onscreen like no one else. But by the time “Queen Christina” rolled around, Gilbert’s career was near dead and he was at rock bottom. MGM did not want him in the role, but Garbo’s power and casting approval prevailed. However, fearing he would hurt box-office turn out, MGM excluded Gilbert's name and image from the preview trailer.
The son of two actors, Utah-born John Gilbert began in theater before heading to the big-screen in 1915 as an extra, soon becoming a leading man and sometime screenwriter. He signed with MGM in 1924, who quickly turned him into a major star beginning with "His Hour" and culminating with "The Merry Widow" and "The Big Parade" (the most profitable film of the silent era) both in 1925. Second only to Rudolph Valentino in male movie star popularity, Gilbert became nicknamed “The Great Lover”, and his silent pairings with Garbo (”Flesh and the Devil”, “Love”, and “A Woman of Affairs”) placed him at the height of his fame. When sound arrived to cinema, Gilbert became the poster child for its casualties, for he went from being one of the biggest silent matinee idols to washed up almost overnight. There were several reasons. For one, his voice didn’t quite match his manly, romantic silent screen persona. And possibly more importantly, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer despised the womanizing and rebellious Gilbert and began assigning him inferior sound films. Gilbert also never fully shed his silent film acting style or screen persona, which didn’t work as well with sound or changing audience tastes. When you combine these elements, it spelled doom. So with the coming of sound, Gilbert’s career took a nose dive.
Becoming more and more depressed, he began drinking heavily and was in poor health and spirits. It is generally thought that to pay Gilbert back for boosting her career, Garbo requested he play “Antonio”, hoping it would get him back on his feet, but it didn’t. After “Queen Christina”, he made just one more film, "The Captain Hates the Sea" in 1934, before dying from a heart attack. Other films from his 102 include "Show People", "The White Heather", "He Who Gets Slapped", "Desert Nights", "La Bohème", and "Twelve Miles Out”. He was married and divorced four times, including marriages to actresses Leatrice Joy, Ina Claire, and Virginia Bruce. John Gilbert died in 1936 at the age of 38.
Lewis Stone plays "Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna", the chancellor who has looked over "Queen Christina" since her birth. Stone blends a weightiness with benevolence, making us believe this is a real person in a high powered position who is very fond of this young girl. “Oxenstierna” is eloquent and caring, and as always, Stone turns in a fine performance. A long-reigning character actor (MGM's longest-contracted actor, and at the time of his death, the longest ever under contract to a studio), Stone appeared in seven films with Garbo as well as countless other classics. The wonderful Lewis Stone appears in a film already on this blog, “Red-Headed Woman”, where you can read more about his life and career.
C. Aubrey Smith plays "Aage", the "Queen's" personal butler, turning in a sensitive portrayal filled with personality from the moment he first wakes "Christina" in her bedchamber. Smith is another character actor undoubtedly familiar to classic movie watchers, as there are many classics among his 113 films. London-born C. Aubrey Smith was a star cricket player before heading to the stage in his 30s. Two decades later he began appearing in silent films with "The Builder of Bridges" in 1915. After over a dozen silent films, he began appearing in sound films, establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s dependable character actors, mostly portraying upper-crust, stiff-upper lip British gentlemen. Just some of the classics in which he appeared include "And Then There Were None", "Love Me Tonight", "Tarzan, the Ape Man", "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "The Four Feathers", "The Prisoner of Zenda", "Bombshell", "The Scarlett Empress", "Cleopatra", and as "Colonel Julyan" in a film already on this blog, "Rebecca". His final appearance was as "Mr. Laurence" in the 1949 version of "Little Women". Smith founded the Hollywood Cricket Club in 1932, was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1938, and knighted in 1944. He was married once for over fifty years, until his death. C. Aubrey Smith died in 1948 at the age of 85.
Yet another staple of classic films in "Queen Christina" is Reginald Owen, who plays "Charles X Gustav of Sweden", "Christina's", war hero cousin and expected husband-to-be. After a start on the British stage and appearing in several silent films, the English-born Reginald Owen headed to New York, making it to Broadway in 1924, then moving to Hollywood in 1928 where he first appeared in 1929’s "The Letter”. He worked nonstop in films through 1951 (sometimes in as many as eight films a year) before turning primarily to television in 1957. He accrued 146 film and TV credits in a screen career spanning over six decades. Some of his other classics include "Of Human Bondage", "Woman of the Year", "Captain Kidd", "National Velvet", "A Tale of Two Cities", "Platinum Blonde", "The Great Ziegfeld”, "Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, as "Dr. Watson" in "Sherlock Holmes”, and with Garbo in both “Anna Karenina" and “Conquest". Perhaps his best known role is as "Ebenezer Scrooge" in the 1938 version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". Though I haven't previously written about him, Owen appears in two classics already on this blog, "Mrs. Miniver" and "Mary Poppins". He was married three times, including to actress Lydia Bilbrook. Reginald Owen died in 1972 at the age of 85.
Readers of this blog should recognize two more names in the film’s credits. First is recording director Douglas Shearer, whom I’ve mentioned in many posts, particularly “Mrs. Miniver”. And costume designer Adrian, who helps make Garbo look magnificent, emphasizing both her androgyny and her elegant beauty through his extravagant designs. You can read about the life and career of Adrian in my post on “The Philadelphia Story”.
This week’s entertaining classic has a gripping story, top-notch direction, magnificent sets and costumes, and intoxicating star power. It is filled with sensuality and is a true moviegoing treat. Enjoy “Queen Christina”!
This blog is a weekly series (currently biweekly) on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications for every new post. Visit THE MOVIES page to see a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog with family, friends, and on social media, and subscribe so you don’t miss a post. Thanks so much for reading!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
The final shot in "Queen Christina" has become one of cinema's most iconic. It begins in a wide shot with "Christina" standing like a figurehead at the prow of a ship, and ends on her eyes. To get the shot, Mamoulian suggested they create four graded diffusers to use in front of the lens so the camera could move from a wide-shot to a close-up while keeping Garbo in focus. This became standard practice.
The shot is noted for Garbo's famous expression, and in a 1961 Sight and Sound magazine interview, Mamoulian commented:
“Garbo asked me: ‘What do I play in this scene?’ Remember she is standing there for 150 feet of film – 90 feet of them in close-up. I said: ‘Have you heard of tabula rasa? I want your face to be a blank sheet of paper. I want the writing to be done by every member of the audience. I’d like it if you could avoid even blinking your eyes, so that you’re nothing but a beautiful mask.’ So in fact there is nothing on her face: but everyone who has seen the film will tell you what she is thinking and feeling. And always it’s something different. Each one writes his own ending to the film; and it’s interesting that this is the scene everyone remembers most clearly… “.
Ah, the magic of the movies and the incomparable Greta Garbo.