Best Pictures of 1933 (#7) – Queen Christina

Queen Christina (U.S., Rouben Mamoulian)

Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina purports to relate the story of the seventeenth century Swedish queen’s life and reign, but is so far from reality that it’s a miracle the movie is as good as it is.  Mamoulian and screenwriters H.M. Harwood and Salka Viertel avoided any historical context and invented a storyline that not only isn’t accurate, but obscures the true reasons for Christina’s abdication of the Swedish throne in 1654, probably in an effort to placate a religiously diverse U.S. population (more on that in a moment).  The good news is the fictional story they tell is worth seeing in its own right, a tale of the clash between forbidden love and national (and, at the time, the intertwined religious) duty.

Greta Garbo delivers one of her most accomplished performances as the emotionally embattled queen.  She chaffs under the social confines of her royal station, periodically donning common clothes (as a man no less) and venturing into a Sweden over which she rules but has little direct contact.  It is on one of these trips, when she gets snowed into a country inn, that she meets and falls in love with Antonio, the Spanish ambassador played by John Gilbert in one of his last roles.  Her relationship with Antonio causes a fair amount of scandal.  Not only did most assume that she would marry national war hero Karl (Reginald Owen), but Catholic Spain is a natural enemy of Protestant Sweden and had been fighting on opposite sides of the Thirty Years War for – well, almost 30 years.  Christina labors to balance her duty as the leader of a Protestant nation and her love for a Catholic man, ultimately ending in her abdication of the throne.

This movie would end up higher on my list had the studio not skirted the issue of religion and the wars waged over it.  We know that Sweden has been heavily involved in the Thirty Years War (which concluded in 1648), but Mamoulian avoids probing the causes of the war – both the religious and diplomatic (not necessarily different things at time).  Catholics and Protestants are vaguely defined and as far as what we see on screen the friction might as well have been caused by divergent pound cake recipes rather than the theological and geopolitical quarrels that tore Europe apart.  In reality Christina secretly converted to Catholicism well before she abdicated and her abdication was directly related to her inability to reconcile her religious beliefs with her obligations to Protestant Sweden.  (After her abdication she moved to Italy and became a fixture at the Vatican.)  These would have been fascinating aspects to explore, but Mamoulian and MGM eschewed frank discussions about religion.  After all, they were trying to sell their product to a religiously diverse nation and probably wanted to avoid appearing to take the side of any specific denomination.  Instead of dealing with the touchier (and potential richer) subject of religious intolerance, they fell back on a standard love story trope.  But the fact that Mamoulian is able to create a compelling love story out of this bastardized history lesson is telling of his skills as a filmmaker.  Garbo and Gilbert are, as always, magnetic together, bringing tenderness to their parts that would have been missing had they remained faithful to the historical record.  I don’t like to see history willfully ignored in movies, but when it is I hope to see it in a movie as well done as this.

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4 Comments

Filed under 1933, Yearly Best Pictures

4 responses to “Best Pictures of 1933 (#7) – Queen Christina

  1. Jason: I fully understand your minor issues with religion, though films of this kind rarely maintain fidelity in this sense. You have chosen a great film here for your #7 positioning, and one that again showed how diverse a director Mamoulian was, helming a great musical (LOVE ME TONIGHT), a celebrated horror film (DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE) and this exquisite and witty historical drama. Garbo may well have delivered her greatest performance here for a brilliantly written character. And there is as you rightly note a chemistry with Gilbert. Christina’s quandery between a love for a man and her job as head of state is hardly unique, as Elizabeth I went through a similat dilemma during her reign.

    You have penned an insightful appreciation of a film worthy of this attention.

    • Oh, I don’t think we can praise Mamoulian enough. He is one of the great overlooked directors of the studio era. This is the second time you have brought up “Love Me Tonight” and you are convincing me that I need to revisit it.

      And thank you for your much appreciated kind words for my work here. We’ll see what happens though when you start disagreeing with my choices. Here’s a little teaser: If you think this is Garbo’s greatest performance you may be a little surprised by my choice of best actress for the year. I’m not sure I’m not surprised by my choice, but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. Stay tuned….

  2. Garbo is one of the least convincing “boys” ever, but maybe notions of youthful masculinity were different back then — in the 17th century, I mean. The impluasibility of it probably adds to the film’s erotic and romantic power. As a historian by vocation, I join you in wishing that the religious conflicts had been included in the drama. We’d seem to get our wish in Anthony Harvey’s THE ABDICATION from 1973, but I haven’t seen the film yet.

    • Yeah I didn’t buy Garbo as a boy either, but that’s one of those things we come to accept, like Lucy and Ricky fooling each other with the flimsiest of disguises.

      “The Abdication” is a movie I have been on the lookout for for a while, but haven’t seen it yet either. I will be curious to see how the material is handled.

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