Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Rouben Mamoulian | Queen Christina
garbo gets her wish
by Douglas Messerli
H. M. Harwood and Salka Viertel (screenplay), S. N. Behrman and Ben Hecht (dialogue), Rouben Mamoulian (director) Queen Christina / 1933
To me, it’s fascinating to compare the 1933 film, Queen Christina, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, with the 1935 movie I reviewed the other day, Sylvia Scarlett, directed by George Cukor. Cukor’s film—shot during the increasingly restrictive years of the Hays Code, established in 1934 and continuing until 1968—was at least superficially more effected by the Code rules which did not even permit the mention of homosexuality, let alone allow its depiction, was far more open-minded regarding its depiction of a young woman intentionally dressing in male garb and all the benefits and difficulties that might entail. As I wrote, by picture’s end, we are not even sure that the star of Sylvia wasn’t thoroughly accepted as a kind of cross-dresser by the man with whom she had fallen in love. Although she briefly transformed herself in a woman by donning a dress, as the apparently heterosexual couple make a getaway she is once more costumed as a male similar to the film’s very first scenes.
What’s more, Hepburn’s role, based on the character in Compton Mackenzie’s 1918 novel, might have easily been more extensively rewritten, as most Hollywood adaptions are, in this case allowing the character to remain in her flowery summer frock—without any hints of fluid gender shifts—and still win the man she loved in the end. No need, in such a revision, for Cary Grant to think pleasantly of sharing his bed with a young hot boy! Or, for that matter, for Brian Aherne to have “a queer feeling” when looking at Sylvester/Sylvia.
Mamoulian’s central character, played by Greta Garbo, on the other hand, was based on a Swedish queen (actually named King Christina since the ruler was part of a patronymic line) had a great deal of established historical fact that might have justified more risk-taking and could even be perceived as necessary to appeal to knowledgeable critics and audiences alike.
First, the King/Queen was raised as a young boy by her father, educated as a male, and taught all the male-oriented athletic activities such as horse riding, fencing, and hunting. Tutored in religion, philosophy, Greek, and Latin (she also knew German, Dutch, French, Italian, Arabic, and Hebrew), she was taught politics by her Chancellor Oxenstierna, and was especially interested in Tacitus. The Chancellor wrote: “She is not at all like a female,” describing her in the context of the sexist principles of the day as having “a bright intelligence.”
In religion she studied Neostocism, the Church Fathers, and Islam, and purchased, with the help of the kabbalist Menasseh ben Israel, a large quantity of Hebrew books.
She loved theater, particularly Moliere and Corneille, and opera. In philosophy she became interested in the writings René Descartes, inviting him to reside for a while in Sweden which eventually he agreed to, dying in its cold climes in 1650. Christina would also, over the years, both as the King and after her abdication, assemble one of the most important collections of art in the world.
In short, unlike Isaac B. Singer’s Yentl, who dressed as a man so that she might continue her religious education, Christina, who dressed as a male almost all of her adult life, had a thorough education within the court, sleeping only a few hours every day because of her interest in her studies.
No need for her, as H. M. Harwood, Salka Viertel, and S. N. Behrman would have it, to fall unexpectedly in love with a Spanish nobleman, or to abdicate her crown in order to marry him. Christinia, an avid believer in celibacy—at least when it came to relationships with men and women—abdicated, which many her court were pleased about having financially ruined the Swedish economy, because of her conversion to Catholicism, not because of her passion for a man of that faith as in the movie. In her autobiography she wrote of having “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “all things that females talked about and did.”
Most historians believe she had a lesbian affair with her female courtier, Ebba Sparre, who whom she shared a bed and, after leaving Sweden, to whom she wrote a series passionate letters.
As a bisexual moreover, Garbo as Christinia—particularly since script writer Viertel was rumored to have been one of Garbo’s lesbian lovers and the fact that instead of Mamoulian's and the studio’s choice to play the Spanish envoy Don Antonio de la Prada was Laurence Olivier, while she insisted upon John Gilbert, said to be her former fiancée with she was purported to have had a passionate off-screen affair—might have also argued for a screen version of the notable King’s life somewhat closer to the facts, particularly in the last pre-code days.
What Mamoulian’s Christina mostly does is plead—in an impassioned voice that sounds a great deal like her later Russian envoy in Ninotchka—for the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the restoration of peace, and the necessity of giving a say to the peasants:
“There are other things to live for than wars. I have had enough of them. We have been fighting since I was in the cradle and many years before. It is enough. I shall ask the powers to meet for a speedy and honorable peace. There must be an end!...Spoils! Glory! Flags and trumpets! What is behind these high-sounding words? Death and destruction! Triumphals of crippled men! Sweden victorious in a ravaged Europe. An island in a dead sea. I tell you, I want no more of it. I want for my people security and happiness. I want to cultivate the arts of peace. The arts of life! I want peace and peace I will have.”
Or later, once she has become “smitten” (in this instance an old-fashioned expression of having been fucked) by Don Antonio, Garbo moonily stares at the objects and columns of the room in the inn where she has been bedded so that she might “always remember them.” Even Gilbert gives a sly comic wink during these antics, asking what on earth she is doing.
Garbo may always be lovely to look at, but, I am afraid, is far too repetitiously melodramatic in most of her roles for my taste. I liked her better as the young noble boy she was pretending to be when Don Antonio asked might they share a bed, in an inn with no other rooms to rent, for the night. Like Aherne in Sylvia Scarlett he finds himself strangely attracted to this young man and, perhaps even like Grant in that same film, doesn’t at all mind the idea of being warmed up by his body heat. But, true to traditional Hollywood form, this Spaniard is relieved once she has taken off her coat to see that the attractive young man has breasts.
Those LGBTQ-friendly film writers, I assure you, will boast of just how much hidden sexuality takes place in this work. And, there are, I will admit, a few interesting moments filled with a couple of clever innuendos.
As with the historical King, this Queen Christina, we are told, has also been brought up as a boy by her father Gustavus Adolphus and continues to dress in male attire, particularly when escaping the palace on hunting trips with her loyal servant Aage (C. Aubrey Smith).
Like King Christina of Sweden, this Queen does not at all take to the idea of marriage, particularly the man for whom the public clamor, the Swedish hero, her cousin Karl Gustav (Reginal Owen), who appears to be more interested in listing his war achievements than seducing this distant female intellect. In one wonderful moment during an interchange between Christina and Aage, after having been discovered reading a book for most of the night, she openly laughs (yes, Garbo actually laughs several times in this pic) “Oh, what a clever fellow is this...Moliere...He writes plays...He makes fun here of pretentious ladies. 'As for me, uncle, all I can say is that I think marriage is an altogether shocking thing. How is it possible to endure the idea of sleeping with a man in the room?'”
Later, in conversation with Lord Chancellor Oxenstierna (Lewis Stone), they debate over the need for marriage vows:
Christina: This eternal talk about Charles. I cannot tell you how it wears me. I do not see eye-to-eye with Charles about anything...There are varieties of heroes. He's a hero with fighting and fighting bores me. His only gift is with a sword.
Chancellor: The sword has made Sweden great, your Majesty.
Christina: Yes, do we not exalt that gift too much, Chancellor?
Chancellor: Ah, you cannot remake the world, your Majesty.
Christina: Why not? Look, Chancellor, the philosophers remake it, the artists remake it, the scientists remake it now, why not we, we the power. The people follow blindly the generals who lead them to destruction. Will they not follow us? We'll lead them beyond themselves where there's grace and beauty, gaiety and freedom.
Chancellor: Your Majesty, it is for Sweden. It is your duty.
Christina: Why is it my duty? My days and nights are given up to the service of the state. I'm so cramped with duty that to be able to read a book, I have to rise in the middle of the night. I serve the people with all my thoughts, with all my energy, with all my dreams, waking and sleeping. I do not wish to marry and you cannot force me.
Chancellor: You must give Sweden an heir.
Christina: Not by Charles, Chancellor.
Chancellor: You are Sweden's Queen. You are your father's daughter.
Christina: (in a stylized pose with her face looking heavenward, in a closeup) Must we live for the dead?
Chancellor: For the great dead, yes your Majesty.
Christina: Snow is like a wide sea. One could go out and be lost in it and forget the world and oneself.
Chancellor: But your Majesty, you cannot die an old maid.
Christina: I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!
That last line is one of the best in the movie; how I wish there were more of them and less of her stylized poses and hackneyed metaphors. But, alas….
Even Christina’s lesbian relationship with her woman-in-waiting Ebba is alluded to; the scene which suggests it being quoted in length as if it were a testament to the film’s progressive attitudes concerning queer sex. Reporting that she is too busy at the moment to attend to Ebba, Christina kisses the girl full on the lips, followed by a short dialogue:
Christina: But we'll go afterward, Ebba.
Ebba: Oh, you always say that, but at the end of the day, you're never free to go anywhere. You're surrounded by musty old papers and musty old men and I can't get near you.
Christina: Today, I'll dispose of them by sundown, I promise you, and we'll go away for two or three days in the country. Wouldn't you like that?
Ebba: Oh, I'd love it.
Yet that relationship is quickly squashed when the queen hears Ebba on the staircase with her male lover complaining of her inability to tell the queen about her desire for marriage and complaining that the Queen is too selfish and strong for her to disobey.
We have to presume that any further outings with Ebba will never occur, and it is in lieu of that sundown trip that Christina and Aage go hunting only to encounter the Spanish envoy in route to Stockholm and the court.
Once the Queen has been transformed by the love of Don Antonio the movie, in my estimation, goes quickly downhill as her former love-interest, the Lord High Treasurer Count Magnus plots Antonio’s downfall by spurring up anti-Catholic interests throughout the country, resulting—after the peasant’s storm the castle to be met alone by the strong-willed Queen on the palace staircase reminding them of her dedication to Sweden—finally in the revocation of Antonio’s passport and, ultimately, her abdication in order to join him on his voyage back to Spain—the last a refreshing dramatic event during which, when all other refuse, she is forced to remove her own crown.
Unknown to her, Antonio and Magnus have agreed, once the Spaniard clears the Swedish border, to engage in a duel, and by the time Christina reaches the ship, her lover lays dying. As the sails begin to fill, she orders the anchor to be lifted.
The only hope I might imagine for Christina to regain her previous Amazon-like presence is for her to sail off to Don Antonio’s white cliff-bound home is that once she reaches her destination she will take over not as his dedicated fiancée but as a powerful landowner, returning to her male attire to help out the Spanish granjeros with their crops.
But that, obviously, is only wishful thinking. Mamoulian directed Garbo, for the filming of his iconic last scene, to empty her face of expression in order to permit the audience to imagine whatever future for her they might desire.
Thinking back, I realize now how brilliant Ernst Lubitsch was when working with Garbo in Ninotchka, in allowing her to get all her deadpan preachments out of her system in the first third of the film in order to permit her character to have great fun with her crazy Russian cohorts and the somewhat dissimulating would-be lover, Count Léon d'Algout. In Queen Christina the actor preaches and pleads with her various audiences until the very end, even if her favorite subject has shifted from her love of country and the end of war to the transformative powers of heterosexual sex—something we can imagine would be a total anathema to the real Swedish female King.
Los Angeles, September 22, 2020Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).