Judge Jesse Ataide lets Greta Garbo wear the pants in their relationship.
"I shall die a bachelor!"—Queen Christina
Queen Christina is generally considered to be one of Greta Garbo's finest hours as an actress—the brave, poignant expression caught in close-up as Christina sails into the sunset to face an unknown future has etched itself into the memories of several generations of moviegoers. And while the film itself may not be one of Garbo's best, the actress herself is in fine form.
Facts of the Case
After her father, King Gustavus Adophus of Sweden, falls in battle, his six-year-old daughter Christina ascends the throne. Inheriting a kingdom deeply entrenched in a bitter war, as Christina matures (transforming in Greta Garbo (Ninotchka) in the process) the intelligent and artistically inclined monarch begins to dictate policy more focused on social change and on establishing a "Court of Learning" than on war and territory acquisition, a decision which angers both her court and her people.
A shrewd, headstrong woman, Christina refuses to bind herself through marriage. Her thoughts towards love and marriage change, however, when she meets Antonio (John Gilbert, Flesh and the Devil), an emissary from Spain who she comes into contact with one snowy night while traveling through the Swedish countryside. Mistaking her to be a young boy, through a series of circumstances Christina and Antonio are forced to share the same bed in a rural inn, where Christina's true identity is quickly revealed. The resulting evening of passion entirely changes the direction of Christina's future as Queen of Sweden.
It must first be noted that the real Christina, the 17th century Swedish queen, is one of the most fascinating females in Western history. Independent, headstrong and unconventional from birth, Christina is known today more for her colorful personal life than anything she accomplished as the monarch of one of Europe's most powerful countries. Mistaken as a boy upon her birth because of her large, healthy body, it started a precedence of gender confusion that would become a defining element of her legacy. Raised and educated as a boy, as Christina grew up she preferred the ease and comfort of men's clothing and insisted on running her country in the best way she saw fit (i.e. without male interference). Refusing to marry, she indulged in a series of love affairs, with rumors widely circulating that both men and women enjoyed being the object of her affection. But it ended up being religion that ended up radically changing the real Christina's life: in 1654 she converted to Catholicism (an illegal religion in Sweden), and quickly abdicated the throne, fleeing to Rome where she was greeted by the Pope himself. She lived in the Italian capital for the rest of her life, remaining a celebrity until the end.
Despite its strong reputation, Queen Christina is a very creaky early talkie—and suffers from all of the problems movies in that category usually are stricken with, including stagy acting, settings and backgrounds that are obviously fake, and a contrived approach to plot development more suited for the stage than for the camera. That is why the most interesting element about Queen Christina today is the film's subversive sexual edge, and how it addresses the gender roles issues that are such a key element of Christina's famous story.
At first glance, it would seem that the decision to cast the luminous Greta Garbo as the homely Christina is Hollywood historical revisionism at its most overt. But the famed beauty, generally considered as one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen, actually turns out to be an ideal actress to play the masculine queen, for Garbo's beauty is essentially an androgynous one. Combined with her famous deep voice and the suit and large hat she wears through most of the film, Garbo certainly does resemble a young man (the numerous rumors of Garbo's own bisexuality and/or lesbianism certainly reinforce the androgynous quality as well).
To add to the gender confusion, Christina gives Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young) several kisses at different points throughout the film, including a full one directly on the mouth and a lingering one that is obscured by Christina's large hat. And after settling a dispute between a mob of drunk tavern dwellers over how many lovers the Queen has slept with over the last year (their best estimation is either six or nine, Christina proclaims an "even dozen"), Christina and Antonio sit down to enjoy a meal and talk together that is teeming with sexual attraction—well before Antonio is aware that the "young man" he is sharing a table with is actually a woman.
Another interesting facet about Queen Christina (that adds on to the sexual tension in the film) is John Gilbert's presence. Garbo's frequent costar during the silent era, their chemistry on the screen led to a tangled, torrid relationship off of it—with the enamored Gilbert ended up being rebuffed by the Swedish beauty so many times (she even left him standing at the altar on one occasion) that he took to drink, which destroyed his career and probably contributed to the heart attack that killed him in 1936 at the age of 37. Garbo tried to help revive the career her of former lover by insisting that he star opposite her in Queen Christina, but the role of Antonio ended up being his second-to-last screen performance, and certainly his last notable one. What's even more unfortunate is that the ridiculously coifed Gilbert is far from his best in the film, and beneath the bravado there are obvious signs of a man rapidly loosing the vitality and sexual swagger that had made him famous.
The picture quality of Queen Christina is very rough, full of scratches, blemishes, flickering and vertical lines. While the pictures quality improves slightly as the film goes on, this transfer shows its age. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is likewise weak, as is to be expected of a film this old. English, French and Spanish subtitles are provided. The only extra is a vintage theatrical trailer that proclaims Queen Christina "the talk of the world!"
While it's certainly not my pick as Garbo's best (I am a strong Flesh and the Devil supporter myself), this film seems to inspire devotion in many people, and they will be more than happy to have this film on DVD despite the shortcomings of its image quality. Everybody else should at least consider a rental to witness the Swedish Sphinx at the top of her game.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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