Bucket List Movie #429: Queen Christina (1933)
Bucket List Movie #429: Queen Christina
So in late 2012, while browsing the 2005 edition of The 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die in the library, I decided to check off (on a separate piece of paper, for I’m a good patron and respectful of books) what I’d already seen. I am embarrassed to say I don’t remember the exact number, but while I had seen a more than respectable amount, it was hardly enough to make a dent. In fact, it was rather mortifying how many classic films I hadn’t seen. That’s when I decided to copy the list and tackle as many of the 1,001 movies from the above mentioned edition as I possibly could. Yes, I’m aware the book is often updated, but I will stick to the edition I checked out because, one, I’m a lazy pig, and two, most of the major releases since 2005 have been a mixed bag of good but not great or plain overrated.
I sometimes toyed with the idea of blogging about this, and when I finally decided to give it a shot, I discovered that there is another blog covering a project like this and it is easily superior. So my Bucket List Movies (or BLMs) will be more of a side note, instead of the main focus. As of February 28, 2014, I have seen a grand total of 429 of the movies on the 2005 edition of The 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. The 429th film in question is:
Queen Christina (1933)
Not long ago, People magazine erroneously compared the singer Adele to Greta Garbo, simply because Adele is a private person who avoids major events and we don’t see her face sprawled across every rag magazine at CVS. The Southerner in me feels like saying to the good folks at People, “bless your hearts.” It wasn’t just that Garbo protected her privacy with staunch ferocity: she flat out quit. A pragmatic woman all too aware of the ephemeral quality of youth, beauty, and stardom, Garbo essentially left the business at age 36, still at her peak, and never looked back. Unless Adele plans to wash her hands of the business and live a quiet, ordinary life out of the limelight, no one has any business comparing her to Garbo.
Greta Garbo (1905-1990) ruled the box office during the 1930s, and almost at the exact same time that she quit, in 1941, another talented Swedish beauty, Ingrid Bergman, began her reign. I confess, I’ve always been more partial to Bergman than Garbo. I found her acting style more timeless and accessible, and when you’re in films such as Casablanca, Notorious, Gaslight, and Autumn Sonata, who can compete? But I’m not here to dismiss the great Garbo. On the contrary, just from the few films of hers I’ve watched, I can certainly see her appeal. Garbo rose to stardom late in the silent film era, and ascended to the pantheon of screen icon after the transition to sound. She had an expressive, husky voice, an alluring Swedish accent, and she combined the grandiose dramatics of silent film with a more earthy acting style better suited to the sound era. There are three Garbo films that made the book’s list: Camille, Ninotchka, and Queen Christina. I didn’t care for Camille, since I’ve never liked the trope of pretending to reject your lover in order to save him or her from your wicked ways, even though said lover is an adult capable of making his or her own decisions. Ninotchka is a delightful romantic comedy with well-written characters (little surprise, since Billy Wilder co-wrote the screenplay). But the movie I saw today, Queen Christina, is probably the finest Garbo film I’ve ever seen. Moving, compelling, and beautifully directed by the great Rouben Mamoulian, Queen Christina feels remarkably fresh and ahead of its time-indeed, of our time, because of its incredible title character.
Based on the real Queen of Sweden (but since this is Hollywood, we’ll just ignore the historical inaccuracies), our heroine is a no-nonsense woman with a level head and a will of iron. Society has always held princesses in higher favor, forgetting that they have little or no power, and never really have to get their hands dirty. Christina is a queen, and owns her power wholeheartedly. She succeeds her father on the throne at six years old without fear or hesitation. There is no weeping over missing out on the joys of life and love. She’s a queen, she doesn’t have time for that nonsense. The one time she does complain about her lot in life, it is only for not having enough time to read. As an adult, she favors pants and boots over dresses and jewels, and maintains the same short, practical haircut she’s had since childhood. She ignores the pleas from her advisors to marry and produce an heir, not because she’s waiting for love, but because, well, she’s ruling just fine on her own, thank you very much. “You cannot die an old maid,” one character exclaims, to which Christina retorts “I have no intention to... I shall die a bachelor!”
So good is she, exuding masculine self-reliance, that when Christina goes out riding one day and is lost, she successfully passes herself of as a man (obviously people in this world suffer from the same facial blindness as the citizens in Metropolis), and while at an inn she meets a representative from Spain, Antonio (John Gilbert). He is impressed with this fascinating, outspoken youth, so much so that he doesn’t even mind being forced to share a bed at the inn. Christina reveals herself as a woman, and later, the queen, which is certainly one of the more unique Meet Cutes in cinema. Antonio handles this shattering news remarkably well, and they fall in love, despite the public outcry of the queen carrying on with a foreigner. But the lovers’ road is paved with broken glass, for Christina is being urged to marry her distant, older cousin Karl Gustav (Reginald Owen), while her oily would-be suitor Count Magnus (Ian Keith) devises every machination to drive Antonio away. With her people in an uproar over her romance with an outsider, her royal responsibilities eating away at her as they never have before, and finally knowing the pleasures of love, Christina is forced to make the inevitable choice between her man or her country. Contrived? Yes, but the outcome of her choice is more surprising, complex, and, ultimately, more heartbreaking than you could imagine.
As Helen of Troy possessed the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships, so Garbo had the Face that Launched a Thousand Close-ups. Not that she was the first actress to receive them, but no one ever conveyed such eerily calm power under the camera’s gaze. In fact, for the film’s now famous final shot, director Mamoulian devised a special filter for the camera to better enhance his leading lady’s intense gaze and natural beauty. There is also an extraordinary close-up at the 71 minute mark of just Garbo’s eyes, and it is easily the most striking moment in the film.
A side note of trivia involves Garbo’s co-star, John Gilbert, with whom she frequently worked and was once even engaged to marry years earlier. One of the biggest myths regarding Gilbert was that his allegedly “squeaky” voice killed his career at the advent of sound. Queen Christina debunks that myth, for Gilbert’s voice is perfectly adequate, but the same cannot be said for his acting and lack of charisma (he was once Valentino’s competition, go figure). There are so many contributing factors that it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for Gilbert’s faltering career, but even co-starring with Garbo in an otherwise successful film didn’t help him regain his footing. Career deaths in Hollywood are nothing new, but in the 1920s and 30s, they were especially brutal: Fatty Arbuckle, Louise Brooks, and Harry Langdon are only a few casualties of that unforgiving era. No reality shows, no state fairs, no Twitter accounts to help garner attention. Back then, when you were gone, you stayed gone. Gilbert’s career merely continued its steady erosion until his tragic, early death in 1936 at the age of 38.
Which brings me around to my first point, that whatever the generation, show business can be cruel. That’s why you have to admire stars like Garbo: sometimes it’s better to quit than be fired.