Queen Christina (1933) Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith (99 minutes)
The Divine Garbo plays the Swedish Queen Christina, (1626-1689) raised like a boy and, at the age of six crowned King of Sweden. In spite of her fondness for a lady in waiting (and one of the few same sex kisses in classic Hollywood), she falls in love with the Spanish envoy, played by Garbo’s former fiancé, John Gilbert, his wrecked silent film career briefly revived. Garbo revels in her character’s love of country and her androgyny, as Christina insists, “I shall die a bachelor.” “Queen Christina is smart, sophisticated, brazenly funny, and altogether uncategorizable…in a movie theater, in a nice, lush theater with a willing crowd, it is one of the best experiences you will ever have” (Pre-Code.com).
I don’t show many Greta Garbo films, because in many of them, she suffers and dies for love, a plot that I find frustrating and sexist. Anna Karenina, Camille, historical heroines or modern ones, she weeps, she aches, and there is no happy ending. Garbo on screen is thrilling, confident beautiful and sometimes androgynous, and she is punished time and again for her independence and her desires.
The many moods of Garbo…
Queen Christina is a different story. She was a real monarch (1626-1689) who inherited the crown at six, after her father, the popular King Gustavus Adolphus was killed in battle. Raised by her tutors, who treated her like a boy, they reported that, at 14, she “was not like a female, but courageous and with good understanding, so that if she escape corruption she will answer every hope” (Swenson 299). She was crowned at the age of 18, and brought Renaissance thinking to Sweden. Well educated, she decided to follow the example of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and remain a Virgin Queen, in part because of her attachment to one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre. Her greatest conflict was between her duty as queen of a Protestant nation, and her personal affinity for Catholicism. Together, her refusal to provide an heir and her love for Rome provoked a constitutional crisis, and she abdicated the throne.
Two female authors had written biographies of Christina in the 1930s, and the books were recommended to Garbo as a possibility for a film. The queen’s independence, her moody behavior and penchant for masculine dress evoked that of a certain queen of the movies. MGM felt fusing an actor’s life with her characters on screen was a powerful way to reinforce stardom, and clearly this was a part Garbo was born to play.
Garbo had a new contract that allowed her to choose her own scripts, and she embraced this one. She did a lot of the background research herself on a trip back home to Sweden, visiting palaces and libraries, art and history museums. As Sweden’s most famous import to Hollywood, and a huge star in Europe, secret files were opened for her and she took notes and made sketches of “costumes, details of embroidery, furniture and architecture” which were sent to California, and the studio was thrilled by her diligence and enthusiasm. “In every department, Greta Garbo was technical advisor as well as the star of Queen Christina” (Swenson 303). Her first choices for director were unavailable, but she was happy with Rouben Mamoulian, who would be her ally in shooting the film the way she wished, and she actually allowed him to direct her, a privilege she allowed few.
This photo is from the 1976 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Hollywood Costume Design exhibit, which showcased many items that were auctioned by MGM in 1970 in order to raise some quick cash for the studio.
Some items seem to have made their way to the Fashion Institute of Technology’s collection.
The casting for the Spanish envoy was a main sticking point. Many actors had been considered, and a young British actor, Laurence Olivier had been signed. But, Garbo froze in their love scenes, and Mamoulian wondered to whom she would warm. The producer called in John Gilbert to rehearse the scenes with his former leading lady, lover and fiancée. Garbo had, in fact, insisted. Out of fondness, and perhaps gratitude, for the way he had treated her when he was a big star, and she a newcomer. The most memorable scene in the film evokes their silent film heyday, as Christina moves around the room where they have spent a (presumably) ecstatic night, memorizing every detail before they must depart their separate ways. And the famous final scene is also silent, the director famously telling her to think of nothing, and let the audience write their own stories across her exquisite face.
Five years before, the electricity of the Garbo-Gilbert love scenes in Flesh and the Devil was apparent to all. Now, Garbo (who may have been having an affair with the director at the time) reminded Mamoulian that Gilbert was a married man with a new baby at home, and perhaps the love scenes should be played with less passion. Mamoulian relayed this note to Gilbert, who smiled and quoted a poem by Elizabeth Akers Allen, “Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight” (Fountain 235).
The studio knew that the scene at the country inn would challenge censors. Catholic zealot Joseph Breen was just taking over the Production Code office, and MGM wanted to slip Queen Christina into release before he could get his scissors on it. An industry committee ignored the recommendations of the Production Code and approved the film for release. Breen was furious when the film opened in New York without his approval. Martin Quigley, a Catholic layperson who published the influential Exhibitor’s Herald trade paper spotlighted the scene, “which registers with voluminous and unnecessary detail the fact of a sex affair. The sequence is emphasized and dwelt upon beyond all purposes legitimate to the telling of the story, thereby assuming a pornographic character” (Viera 154).
This famous still of Gilbert and Garbo’s last great love scene is from Grand Illusions by Richard Lawton
Although the original producer, Irving Thalberg, found the hints of same sex attraction between the Queen and her lady in waiting delivered an interesting complexity, audiences at the time found it a little confusing. Is THAT why Garbo is so mysterious and unattainable? MGM had already been scolded when they submitted the script for approval, “We assume that you will be careful to avoid anything in this scene which might be construed as lesbianism” (Viera Forbidden 221).
Here is the queen in male attire, with her lady in waiting, played by Elizabeth Young. C. Aubrey Smith is in the background.
Greta Gustafsson was the third child of a low paid day laborer and his wife, a kitchen maid. Her father died when she was 14, and she was already working as a lather girl in a barber shop. At fifteen, she started in the millinery section of a large department store, and was soon modelling hats, which led to acting in some short advertising films. She auditioned for and got a place in the Academy of the Royal Dramatic Theater, and soon after was sent for an audition for the man who would become her mentor, director Mauritz Stiller. She had a pivotal role in The Saga of Gosta Berling and then in Pabst’s The Joyless Street, in Germany, two important European silent films.
MGM’s Louis B Mayer had come to Europe to hire Lars Hansen to co-star with Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter, and wooed the director to come to Hollywood as well. He insisted that his protégée was part of the deal. After waiting endlessly for Stiller to negotiate his contract to direct The Temptress, by Vincente Blasco Ibáñez which would become her second film, MGM decided Garbo would first star in Ibáñez’ Torrent, a big budget, $250,000 film under William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan insignia, and Monta Bell, not Stiller would direct her. Stiller was disappointed, but it was the screen test he directed of her that caught the studio’s attention, and so he urged Garbo to accept this prestigious assignment with another director. Her silent film career was monumental, so much so that MGM delayed her talkie debut until they had the perfect vehicle, Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. She went on to become an icon of early cinema. Even if you have never actually watched one of her movies, chances are, you know her face.
This is a feature from the March, 1934 issue of Photoplay magazine. The facing page reads…”Or Hepburn? One rules with personality, the other with artistry, but only one can be queen.”
Part of her first rush of fame was falling in love with John Gilbert on the set of Flesh and the Devil. During the romantic scenes, their passion was so heated that the crew would stop the camera and tiptoe off the set. They became one of the great tabloid romances of early Hollywood, and, when she left him at the altar, her abandonment began Gilbert’s tragic downfall in the eyes of movie fans.
John Gilbert was one of the great leading men of the silent screen, was for many years memorialized as one of the talkies greatest casualties. Yet, if he had made no other films than King Vidor’s magnificent The Big Parade, he should be remembered as one of the 1920s greatest actors. Gilbert made exceptional films during the 1920s by anyone’s definition, including Lon Chaney’s He Who Get Slapped, La Boheme (with Lillian Gish) Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow, and several films with Garbo. Yet, his reputation was tossed in the trash after the poor recording techniques and creaky dialogue of His Glorious Night deep-sixed his career in 1929.
The publication of Leatrice Gilbert Fountain’s biography of her father, Dark Star, was the first step in the reassessment of Gilbert’s career, and is essential reading for anyone interested in his story. Gilbert was born in 1899, unwanted and unloved, to a small time actress named Ida Adair, and her husband, John Pringle, and named John Cecil. He had a miserable childhood, spent sometimes with his neglectful mother, migrating from one shabby stock company to another, and sometimes with an assortment of relatives and acquaintances. When he was 8 years old, his mother married a comedian named Walter Gilbert, and her son, now called Jack, took his last name. The boy virtually raised himself, learning to read from discarded scripts backstage. When he was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, and his step father gave him $10.00, his mother’s make-up case and clippings, and told him he was on his own. But, after a couple of dispiriting years at odd jobs, Walter Gilbert did write him a letter of introduction that secured him a $15.00/week job as an extra at Thomas Ince’s movie studio, Inceville. Working long hours, John later wrote “I rode cow ponies for Ince and made no impression on the directors…but I collected my extra’s wages at the end of each day and carried them home…even though I was not succeeding quite as I’d hoped, I was happy. For the first time, I belonged” (Fountain 23).
Rouben Mamoulian (center) directs his stars.
His roles got bigger, and then, in 1917, he was finally cast as a leading man in Princess of the Dark. He also wrote scenarios and directed films in the teens, loving every moment of his long, grueling days at various studios. He was briefly married and divorced, and then fell in love with Leatrice Joy, with whom he had a daughter. Leatrice’s star began to rise when Cecil B. De. Mille starred her in a series of sophisticated sex comedies, and DeMille demanded her complete loyalty, creating an estrangement from her husband. About the same time, Gilbert starred in John Ford’s Cameo Kirby, and Gilbert’s career, too, was on the ascendant. In 1924, he would be one of the first actors signed by the newly formed studio, MGM.
There he would star in a string of excellent films, beginning with the racy Eleanor Glynn romance His Hour, a bit of romantic fluff directed by King Vidor about a passionate encounter between two Russian aristocrats. Glynn, who considered herself the “High Priestess of Romance” and, along with MGM’s visionary Thalberg and director Vidor, helped convert Gilbert into first a rival, and then a successor to the screen’s great lover, Rudolph Valentino. The strategy worked. Nearing the end of his career, Garbo demanded he co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933) his one undisputedly excellent talking picture. Despairing of his career, and suffering from alcoholism, he died of a heart attack–or of a broken heart, as some would have it–at the age of 36.
During most of her career, Garbo was dressed by MGM head designer, Gilbert Adrian. His dramatic design sense enhanced her unique star quality, and in spite of her hatred for fittings, they collaborated on remarkable costumes. Queen Christina was set in the 17th century, but her costumes evoked drama, rather than historical accuracy. The dress in which she receives the Spanish envoy was sewn of ivory velvet, with bands of silver thread, cut steel and small diamonds. It was the most expensive costume MGM had ever made. Fifteen seamstresses spent six weeks hand sewing the trim. “By modification of Sweden’s exorbitant styles for women at the time, and aided by authentic reproductions from other countries of the period, I believe we have clothed Queen Christina more faithfully than any other agency of the present era could do” (Gutner 87). As you might imagine, the gown was extremely heavy. During her first fitting of the completed costume, she couldn’t walk, but Adrian resisted any change to his design to lighten the load. Elizabeth Young, who plays the Countess Ebba remembered, “Mamoulian kept impressing on me that I had to float through the picture…But the first time I tried on one of my costumes I told him nobody could ‘float’ in such clothes. They were frightfully heavy. Even Garbo couldn’t take a step in them without tottering” (Gutner 87).
Here are Gilbert and Garbo, she is wearing her elaborate court robe.
I can’t identify this exhibit, but since the gown behind Garbo’s is one Adrian designed for Marie Antoinette, it could have been from a gallery devoted to Gilbert Adrian’s designs. Perhaps, it is from Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ Hollywood Costume exhibit that originated at the V & A.
The men’s costumes are a different story, inspired by paintings of the era. Gilbert’s attire was based on a series of portraits at the Prado Museum in Madrid painted by Velásquez. For his first audience with Christina, he wears a copy of a suit worn by King Phillip IV of Spain’s brother, constructed of hand-woven cut velvet, with gold thread and amber stone embroidery. Adrian uses the contrasts of stiff and confining court attire with the softness and ease of Christina’s wardrobe when away from the duties of the crown to tell a story of her conflicts between her personal desires and regal responsibilities.
Adrian said, “When designing for Garbo, I worked from no mold, no formula. No existing fashion was of interest to me. Garbo was unlike anyone else; she should be dressed unlike anyone else. Thus, I went about my task with no sense of limitation and with an almost religious fervor. The studio gave me creative freedom. As a result, these designs were not only effective on the screen, but also influential in the world of fashion” (Stanley 118). And because Garbo’s clothes are not strictly historical, they became trend setters when adapted for retail designs, as unlikely as that seems. “The fine cartridge pleating, the large, face-framing, linen collars, the heavy velvet doublets and the leather jerkins of Queen Christina were adapted for retail, and sold at Macy’s, Gimbel’s and Saks Fifth Avenue” (Maeder 82). The most notable fashion moment was a severe black dress. “The stiff white collar presents the Garbo head as on a platter, with little else to detract from it. This interesting neckline created a mini-vogue, and adaptions of the white square collar were sold at stores like Macy’s Cinema Shop for $15-35.00. They were also Modern Screen Magazine patterns” (Bailey 307).
Off screen, Garbo preferred masculine clothes. She had a male servant with the same size feet buy her men’s oxford shoes, and shockingly to contemporary audiences, she dressed in slacks, with tailored shirts and ties. Margaret Talbot wrote in The New Yorker, reviewing Robert Gottleib’s biography, “The movie role she liked best was the learned seventeenth-century monarch Christina; it allowed her to stride around in tunics, tight-fitting trousers, and tall boots, to kiss one of her ladies-in-waiting full on the lips, to declare that she intended to ‘die a bachelor!’ (as plenty of gender studies scholars will tell you, this is one queer movie.) She expressed a longing to play St. Francis of Assisi, complete with a beard, and Oscar Wilde’s vain hero, Dorian Gray. In today’s terms, Garbo might have occupied a spot along the nonbinary spectrum. Gottlieb doesn’t press the point, but remarks, ‘How ironic if The Most Beautiful Woman in the World really would rather have been a man” (Talbot 74).
The film was not a success. Depression era audiences weren’t interested in costume dramas, or the angst of monarchs. There wasn’t enough of Garbo and Gilbert in the film to cement a comeback of their partnership. Times had changed.
Cora Sue Collins, who played so many MGM stars as children, is still alive, and was at the last TCM Classic Film Festival in LA (2019). She remembered holding Peter Lorre’s hand in Mad Love.
Like the review, above, this back cover advertisment is from the March, 1943, Photoplay. I live in Durham, NC, home of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Not long ago, the whole town smelled of toasting tobacco every fall.
Dark Star: The untold story of the meteoric rise and fall of John Gilbert by Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, “John Gilbert” by Lawrence J. Quirk in the March 1956 Films in Review, Greta Garbo: A Life Apart by Karen Swenson, Garbo: A Portrait by Alexander Walker, Greta Garbo: The Mystery of Style edited by Stefania Ricci, Sex in Soft Focus by Mark A Viera, Forbidden Hollywood by Mark A Viera, Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years 1928-1941 by Howard Gutner, Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film, edited by Edward Maeder, including the essay: “Hollywood and Seventh Avenue: The Impact of Period Films on Fashion” by Satch LaValley, Adrian: A Lifetime of Movie Glamour, Art and High Fashion by Leonard Stanley, text by Mark A Viera, Those Glorious Glamour Years: The Great Hollywood Costume Designs of the 1930s by Margaret J. Bailey, Hollywood Costume: Glamour! Glitter! Romance by Dale McConathy and Diana Vreeland, March, 1934 issue of Photoplay magazine, “The Retiring Sort” by Margaret Talbot in The New Yorker, December 30, 2021, Garbo by Robert Gottleib.