Monday, October 24, 2011

Queen Christina (1933)

In 1932 perhaps no actress was more highly thought of than Greta Garbo, but after the release of the star-studded mega MGM picture Grand Hotel, the Swedish born star of the silver screen seemed to have vanished into thin air. Garbo was known for avoiding the press and the eager public, gaining the reputation of always wanting to be alone, but on December 26, 1933 movie audiences got a late Christmas present. After a mysterious 16 months where the public had lost contact with Grabo, she would return to the big screen with Queen Christina. With many rumors floating around town about her mysterious disappearance the star actress would grace the movies once again, full of life in one of her finer performances. Starring alongside old friend, John Gilbert, the public would forget about her unexplained lack of time on the screen and enjoy watcher her doer craft.

Queen Christina is a historical fiction film based loosely on the life of the 17th century’s Queen Christina, and her decision to relinquish her power to pursue a life of happiness outside of the monarchy and politics. Garbo stars as Christina, the Queen of Sweden from the very young age of six, who after years grows tired of wars and the politics of ruling a country. The story centers on romantic love of the queen, which is a difficult subject, for royalty marriage is to be also about power and affairs of state. The people want her to keep the crown within Swedish blood and have her marry a war hero of the country. Count Magnus (Ian Keith), whom has had an affair with the Queen before, wants Christina to himself. Meanwhile there the possibility of marrying the prince of Spain, for the purposes of fortifying an alliance of military means. All this queenly trouble has Christina stealthily leave on a small excursion to get away from these things where she happens to meet and fall in love with Spanish envoy, Antonio (John Gilbert), whom she courts secretly until she can no longer put up with how the thrown controls her life. Christina surrenders the thrown to the war hero and sets to leave the country to live in freedom, but is met with tragedy as her loving Antonio being killed from a duel with Magnus, leaving us with the brave Christina looking out into an unknown future ahead.

No doubt that at the time of its release fans was looking forward to Garbo acting on the screen again. They would not be let down. Garbo seems to be full of life in this performance. Maybe it was the rest in between pictures, or the new found power she had received from the studio, but Garbo seemed to be at the top of her game and excited for the picture. The film uses some wonderful lighting and the special filters directors loved to use for star actresses to make them glow. In a film about a country, it manages to keep the story simple about a love between two private individuals wanting what they cannot attain because to the monarchy. This would be the fourth and final matching of the Garbo and Gilbert in their careers and the two on-screen, and rumored off-screen, lovers make you feel that they are ones that can in fact fall deeply in love with each other despite the political strife that keeps them apart. It is a good, solid film.

Of course when you first talk about the picture, you must talk about its star, the one and only Greta Garbo. As mentioned before, Garbo was mysteriously missing from the public eye since the opening of Grand Hotel the previous year. Keep in mind, stars at that time were treated just as property of studios, and usually acted in many films in a given year. Some stars were worth more than other for their appeal. Well, Garbo was definitely an actress worth more than most, and MGM knew haw valuable she was to their stock. In the summer of 1932 Garbo and MGM had a great contract dispute that won her control of her movies and who starred in them. She had power, but that had nothing to do with her disappearance. Rumors in time would swirled for the reasons why she was gone from movie so long. It is said that she went on a long trip to Europe. Why? One legend says she became pregnant from an affair and temporarily moved to Europe to hide the fact and either give birth or have a highly controversial abortion, giving her time to recover from either version of the story. Another legend is of a lesbian affair she was having and she got away to enjoy her lovers company. Many of these legends make for some great tabloid material, but it was understood that Garbo was a very private person, kept to herself, and very well could have just taken an extended amount of time off to reenergize after a busy and stressful career.

To direct Queen Christina, giving the film life and heart, was the gifted Rouben Mamoulian. Not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue or jumps off the page, but he was gifted nonetheless. With a strong past from stage plays, his short list of films he had directed encompassed some really great pieces, including the drama filled Applause, the dark Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even the light-heart Love Me Tonight. He knew how to use the camera and his actors. Each of his films seemed to get better and you can see his stock rising in motion picture production as this film flows so easily allowing the mix of a queen suppressed by her own power and the love story she shares with Antonio.

To play across Garbo as her love interest would be the veteran actor John Gilbert. His face was no stranger to the screen; unfortunately it was the silent screen. Considered to be one of the greatest lovers of the silent era, rivaling that of the legendary Rudolf Valentino, Gilbert was in numerous pictures throughout the silent era, including three pictures with his co-star, Ms Garbo. Their time on screen together was equaled with the amount of rumors of an off screen romance, even a possible marriage. (A legend never confirmed) But with the advent of sound, Gilbert’s success plummeted, and not because of his voice. In an early talking performance in His Glorious Night (1929), Gilbert was given a terrible script to work with as director Lionel Barrymore had him perform an awkward love scene where he kissed his co-star over and over exclaiming “I love you, I love you.” Critics mentioned and audiences noticed how uncomfortable the scene was, seemingly pushing his career in a downfall, as many actors moving to sound did. (This scene would be parodied in Singin’ In the Rain for its comedic effect.) It is said studio head, Louis B. Mayer, had it out for Gilbert as well, putting him in bad spots to kill his career. Despite these stories, it was Greta Garbo that requested her old friend for the role after the original actor intended to play Antonio, Laurence Olivier, failed at creating chemistry with Garbo, manifesting the power she was given over her pictures.

Cast as Magnus was Ian Keith, a veteran character actor which of late was seen in The Sign of the Cross. Keith was an ever busy actor, whose stock grew and shrunk many times through his career from the silent age to Queen Christina. He had worked with many of the best actors and directors and would continue to do so for decades.

In a small role as Oxenstierna, a statesman that helps Christina many times through the picture with silent care, was another veteran Lewis Stone. Stone would appear in many Garbo films as minor characters while performing in greater roles outside of his Garbo pictures.

The film would be rather successful for its time as well as years later. The picture, even though historically inaccurate by great means,(Christina left the crown for her conversion to Catholicism, not romantic love) the film plays as a nice love story without any kind of fairytale ending. It even contains some underlining controversies that paralleled both Christina and Garbo, hinting at bisexuality as Christina is seen kissing and enjoying the company of her hand madden and being cared for by older men rather than younger men. Both the queen and Garbo were hinted to be of this curious nature, but those are only rumors.

Well Garbo was back. It was shouted to the mountain tops and people came to see it. A box office and critical success, Queen Christina makes for a fine picture. With good direction and the first-rate performance of its big star the film can be called enjoyable and a first rate film for its time. Audiences waited for her and she did not disappoint.

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