Monday, December 22, 2008

Scandalous Movie Review: Queen Christina

Queen Christina is a 1933 film directed by Rouben Mamoulian. The film was written by Viertel LeVino and Margaret "Peg" LeVino, with dialogue by S. N. Behrman, based on a story by Salka Vierted and Margaret P. Levino. It stars Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith and Lewis Stone.

The movie is very loosely based on the life of the 17th century Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), who, in the film, falls in love during her reign but has to deal with the political realities of her society. It was billed as Garbo's return to cinema after an eighteen-month hiatus.

The plot in a nutshell: The film opens with the death of King Gustavus Adolphus during the 30 years war. The little Queen is brought into court and takes the oath of office. Years pass, and Christina is now grown up and chafing under the restraints of office. There is much speculation about who she might marry, including her cousin Charles, but Christina declares like Queen Elizabeth I of England that she will never marry. To escape the burdens of the crown, Queen Christina rides off into the countryside, dressed like a man. There she meets and secretly falls for the dashing Spanish envoy on his way to the royal court. The envoy is of course delighted when he finds out that his companion for the night is not a man but a woman. Of course, he doesn’t know that she is the Queen of Sweden. At court, Christina realizes that her people will never countenance her marrying a foreigner. Torn between her duty and her heart, Queen Christina makes a fateful decision to abdicate to live a life of a private citizen, leaving her cousin Charles Gustav as King of Sweden.

The film was made during what could be considered the Golden Age of the historical biopic. During the 1930’s Hollywood churned out film after film based on the lives of Marie Antoinette, Mata Hari, Marie Curie, Emile Zola, Disraeli, Alfred Dreyfus, Juarez, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Louis Pasteur. Although it was filmed solely on a Hollywood soundstage, the viewer gets the feeling that they are seeing what life was like in 17th Century Sweden. All the important personages of Christina’s life appear in the film, Ebbe, Carl Gustav, and Magnus. But the film goes off the rails when it imagines a love affair between Christina and the Spanish Ambassador Antonio (played by John Gilbert). It reduces the real Christina’s life to worn torn between duty and desire instead of over religion. Also the idea that Christina couldn’t marry Antonio because he’s a foreigner doesn’t wash. A marriage was once proposed between Christina and Archduke Ulrich, the nephew of the King of Denmark. Antonio being Catholic would have been the problem. In 1651, Christina made the momentous decision to convert, knowing full well that she would have to abdicate, Catholicism being illegal in Sweden at the time.

After her father's death, her mother, Maria Eleanora, insisted that Christina sleep with her, where a casket of her father’s heart was kept. The royal apartments were kept dark so that no daylight could filter in while priests intoned sermons day and night. This went on for three years and Christina never forgot the experience. From that moment on she was disillusioned with the state religion, Lutheranism. She felt that it was gloomy and spent too much time emphasizing sin.

The film does emphasize her other romances, one with Count Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, a nobleman who was half-French and half-Swedish. He was handsome and charming and Christina made him Colonel of the Queen’s Guards and Ambassador Extraordinary to France. However it only hints at her relationship with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Ebba Sparre, who she nicknamed Belle. The complete opposite of the Queen, Belle was timid and shy, with no intellectual interests. The Queen once shocked the English ambassador by declaring that ‘Belle’s’ inside was as beautiful as her outside.

Although the film plays fast and lose with the historical record, Greta Garbo gives a masterful performance as Queen Christina. Just watching the scene where she’s pretending to be a man and has to share a room with Antonio, is like watching a master class in acting. One could say that the role was one that she was born to play. Throughout the film, Garbo affects masculine attire just as the real Queen Christina preferred. She shared many traits with the Queen besides their nationality. Garbo was tall, with a deep voice, and a somewhat masculine demeanor. She never married, but was known to enjoy relationships with both men and women. Like Christina, Garbo was fiercely independent, and no qualms about finally giving up acting to live a private life.

Gilbert comes off less well. While Garbo’s acting is effortlessly natural, Gilbert’s is a little too theatrical. Despite the historical inaccuracies, the film is a remarkable accomplishment if only for Garbo’s performance and for introducing audiences to the strange and interesting life of Queen Christina.

Interesting fact: the young Laurence Olivier auditioned to play Antonio in Queen Christina but Garbo insisted that her former lover John Gilbert be cast to play the role. Olivier would later make his Hollywood debut playing Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

John Gilbert (1899-1936)

Gilbert was one of the biggest stars of the silent screen in the 1920’s. His greatest successes started in 1924, when he moved to MGM, particularly when he was paired with Greta Garbo. Their chemistry was electric from their first film together, Flesh and the Devil. They soon started a very public affair that was rocky from the beginning. While Gilbert wanted to marry Garbo, she was reluctant. While she may have never actually said, ‘I vant to be alone,’ Garbo was notorious for her inability to commit. Gilbert finally wore her down and a wedding date was set for September 8, 1926, the only problem was that Garbo never showed up. Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, allegedly made a crude remark about Garbo, calling her a fat Swede, and Gilbert decked him. According to many this was the end of Gilbert’s career as an actor. When sound came along, Mayer allegedly fiddled with the recording so that Gilbert’s voice sounded high-pitched. The truth is that Gilbert was never again given the quality roles that he had gotten early in his career. The worst being a film called Glorious Night where he kept kissing his leading lady over and over again while murmuring ‘I love you.’ The scene was later parodied in Singin’ in the Rain. By the time he appeared with Garbo in Queen Christina, he was sliding down the slippery slope into full blown alcoholism, which eventually killed him at the age of 36.

The historical Queen Christina when she was born, it was thought at first that she was a boy. It was probably wishful thinking on the part of her father King Gustavus Adolphus because when her body was examined several years ago, it was quite clear that physically she was a woman. To this day, historians are undecided about whether or not Christina was bisexual or a lesbian. Whatever the truth from the beginning her father raised her as a boy. “As a young girl,” she later wrote, “I had an aversion to everything that women do and say.” In her portraits, she certainly looks more masculine than feminine. She loved talking and swearing like a man, she rode astride instead of sidesaddle and she was a total misogynist. Her favorite hobbies were sports, riding and hunting bears. By the time she was 15, she could read and speak five languages, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Latin, which proved useful when she later converted to Catholicism. Her father decreed that she would have an education fit for a prince.

It was after her abdication that the more interesting part of Christina's life took place. She took of her skirts and put on a pair of pants, and headed for Rome. From then on, she rarely wore female dress, and she cut her hair short, and frequently wore a sword. In 1654, Christina was accepted into the Catholic Church. It was a huge kudos for the church which was still dealing with the aftershocks of the Protestant Reformation.

Although Christina was no longer a Queen, she still had the tastes of a Queen. In Rome, she moved into a magnificent palace, the Palazzo Farnese, which was partly designed by Michelangelo. She began to scandalize Roman society by removing the strategically placed fig leaves off statues and the draperies off paintings. She also shocked them by her behavior. She frequented the theater and bawdy entertainments. Allegedly she also had a string of lovers, one of whom was her Master of the Horse. She was frequently pushy rude and ambitious. After a few years, she began to regret her decision to abdicate.

Since Sweden was out of the question, Christina began to look around for another kingdom to rule. Her first choice was the Kingdom of Naples with military help from Italy and France. Seizing Naples would also help her out financially. Although she was paid an allowance by Sweden, the money was not enough to fund her lavish lifestyle. She was often forced to pawn her valuables, or to live off loans and gifts from admirers. Her plans fell through when Monaldeschi apparently revealed her plans to the Pope. Christina got her revenge when he was murdered by members of her entourage while they were in France.

Unfortunately people were appalled by his murder; she was ostracized by the French. The Pope told her that she was not welcome back in Rome. Christina went anyway and was ostracized by Rome society as well. But Christina was not done yet. Her next play was for the Polish crown in 1668. The Polish monarchy was elected, not hereditary, and Christina thought her chances were good since her family had provided several monarchs for Poland already. But Poland was not ready for a Queen, particularly one that was not married and probably could not provide heirs at the age of 42. She also had a pretty murky reputation by this time thanks to the murder of Monaldeschi.

Bereft of a kingdom to rule, Christina turned to intellectual pursuits. She became interested in astronomy which was guaranteed to piss off the Catholic hierarchy (think of what they did to Galileo!). She also dabbled in archeology and employed her own theater troupe, which was known for their bawdy plays. Later in life, she became interested in a form of Christian mysticism called Quietism which had been banned by the Church. After a short illness, Christina died in Rome in 1689 where she was buried in the Basilica of St. Peter’s.

Queen Christina lived her life unapologetically, with verve, indulging her adventurous nature in a way that she could never have done with the weight of the Swedish crown on her shoulder. While others might feel that she should have put her duty to the crown before her personal needs, Christina was not the kind of person to do what others told her to do. She was not without her flaws, she was arrogant and pushy, and kept her imperious manner even without a throne, but she was also a generous patron to the arts and sciences.


Heather Carroll said...

My interest is peaked! She sounds so interesting. I'm always a fan of the rule-breaking queens though!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Heather. Yup, Queen Christina broke all the rules, which is why she's so interesting. I was trying to imagine who would play her if they ever did a mini-series on her life, but the only person I could come up with was Cate Blanchett, but she's not really masculine enough.

Heather Carroll said...

There's always Tilda Swinton, but I guess she would be more androgynous than masculine. I would love that mini-series though; there hasn't been nearly enough mini-series on lately!

~Sol~ said...

Thank you for a very interesting piece about Queen Kristina (as spelled in Sweden). Many here know about her abdication etc but few know that she ever regretted doing it.

What about Kathy Bates av Queen Katarina? She is masculine enough when she wants to be.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

That's true, and she certainly could play the older Queen Kristina. I also like the suggestion of Tilda Swinton.

Judith Weingarten said...

A bit more on Christina -- and what she got up to -- at Zenobia Survives: Collateral Damage Takes Out Queen of Sweden Instead

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks Judith. Interesting article about the sculptures.