Greta Garbo Queen Christina movie masterpiece. (Photo: Greta Garbo as Queen Christina.) One of the most ambitious productions of the early ’30s, the Greta Garbo star vehicle Queen Christina remains surprisingly modern in its execution thanks in large part to director Rouben Mamoulian’s classy, assured touch. Those looking for historical accuracy in the film, however, will be greatly disappointed, for credited screenwriters H.M. Harwood and S.N. Behrman kept themselves busy concocting a highly fictionalized version of the Swedish queen’s life.
In Queen Christina, the masculinized 17th-century monarch — who in real life may have been sexually attracted to women — experiences an all-consuming love affair with a Spanish envoy. Although this may sound like a simplistic, box-office-friendly way of telling the real Christina’s story, Mamoulian and the film’s writers fully succeed in conveying human relations — whether personal, social, or political — in a complex manner.
At first, for instance, the envoy is puzzled by his attraction to a young "man" — who happens to be the queen and with whom the envoy will be sharing his bed. In further gender-bending mode, Queen Christina also features a “lesbian” kiss between the queen and her protegee, played by Elizabeth Young.
Though the ultimately tragic romance between queen and envoy is pure fantasy, that in no way detracts from Queen Christina‘s majestic qualities. Personally, I find it all but impossible to expect a true depiction of actual events in a black-and-white, dreamily shot (by Greta Garbo’s favorite cinematographer, William H. Daniels), studio-bound, early ’30s MGM movie featuring a highly — and beautifully — stylized central performance.
John Gilbert: A shadow of his former self
Queen Christina‘s one weak link has nothing to do with the screenplay: that’s silent screen superstar John Gilbert as the queen’s love interest. For missing from Gilbert’s dashing, passionate Spanish envoy are both dashingness and passion; his performance lacks the inner fire that a mere five or six years earlier had made him one of the most luminous movie stars in the world. That’s probably because by 1933 Gilbert, by then no longer an MGM contract player, had become a has-been with a serious alcohol problem.
Out of loyalty to her old friend and former lover, Garbo had demanded that the studio hire Gilbert as the film’s male lead. (MGM had wanted relative newcomer Laurence Olivier.) Yet, even though Queen Christina turned out to be a personal triumph for Greta Garbo, John Gilbert’s career continued its downhill slide. Gilbert would die of heart failure at the age of 38 in January 1936.
Greta Garbo transcendental
But as the title implies, Queen Christina belongs to Greta Garbo. Albeit at times a mannered performer (see Anna Christie, Romance, Grand Hotel), Garbo is flawless in this particular role. In fact, never before had the actress exuded as much mystery as in her complex, ethereal portrayal of the androgynous queen. Perhaps it was the character’s all-encompassing — and unsettling — mix of "male" and "female" qualities that allowed the actress to manifest a transcendental form of romantic passion the likes of which have rarely been seen on screen. Or, dare I say, in life.
Aboard a departing ship in the film’s final sequence, Queen Christina is about to forever leave her old life behind. As the wind blows, Garbo’s queen looks straight ahead, but sees only nothingness as the camera slowly approaches her face to capture what may well be the most awe-inspiring closeup ever recorded on film.
Queen Christina (1933). Director: Rouben Mamoulian. Cast: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith, Lewis Stone, Elizabeth Young, C. Aubrey Smith, Reginald Owen, David Torrence. Screenplay: H.M. Harwood and S.N. Behrman. (Salka Viertel was also credited, though reportedly was not an actual contributor.*)
* In Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy, Mark Vieira states that another credited screenwriter, Garbo’s close friend Salka Viertel, did not contribute at all to the actual screenplay.