Apologies for a bit of a break; I’ve been out of town on a business trip for my day job, and I’ve also been dragging my feet because I really am not looking forward to the film that comes after Queen Christina on the list.
But also – ultimately, Greta Garbo was the best bit of what was a pretty meh film. Loosely based on the life of a 17th Century Swedish queen, the film was really just a run-of-the-mill tale of how an independent woman finally was Conquered By Love, and then Suffered a Tragic Loss. Like the real Queen Christina, Garbo’s Christina was the sole child of Sweden’s King Gustav II, who was crowned at the age of only six. She ruled during the Thirty Years’ War, ultimately bucking the advice of her advisors to bring an end to the war. She was an independent tomboyish woman who preferred hunting and horseback riding to the more genteel womanly arts. And she abdicated after only 20 years, yielding the throne to a cousin.
However, the real Christina abdicated the throne because of growing discontent with her rule, an increasing interest in Catholicism (a no-no in Protestant Sweden) and frustration with her advisors’ pressure to marry. The movie Christina, however, abdicates for love.
Movie Christina is also facing pressure to marry – pressure she escapes by often disguising herself as a random gentleman and hanging around the nearby inns and taverns. And at one such inn she meets Antonio, a visiting Spanish nobleman – and just so happens to get stuck boarding with him when a blizzard blows up, trapping the pair in place for three days. Antonio’s quick to take advantage of the fact that his charming new friend is actually a charming new lady friend, and the independent Christina is all too quick to yield.
At some point, Antonio reveals he’s on his way to Stockholm with a message for Christina. Christina keeps mum about who she is – deciding to surprise him with the truth when he arrives to deliver his message. But Antonio isn’t that happy with the surprise – for his message is a proposal of marriage from the Spanish king, and Christina’s actions have made him an inadvertent traitor to his ruler. Christina desperately keeps Antonio at court trying to patch things up, while the other two rivals for Christina’s affection try to stir up trouble between them. Mercy, what ever shall Christina do?….
Eh, I take a dim view of overly-romantic plots as a rule, especially when they’re historic films where the real story is so much more interesting. But I did appreciate Greta Garbo’s performance here; her presence pretty much kept the film from being a total loss for me. There’s a refreshing matter-of-factness to her Christina early in the film – she thinks nothing of kissing one of her ladies-in-waiting on the lips, nor of riding a horse in full gallop through the Swedish countryside. Her “drag” disguise is practically nonexistant – she simply wears pants instead of a dress, and it’s laughable to think anyone would really be fooled. But she still somehow pulls it off.
There’s also a fleeting moment that caught my eye, when a team of army officers are trying to mess with Antonio and Christina comes in to Lay A Smackdown and get them to let him go; she rides up to them, ordering them to let him go and claiming her royal birthright. A few of the officers protest at first, but ultimately they yield, letting Antonio’s carriage go on its way. And as Antonio starts to leave, Garbo’s stern royal countenance collapses into a look of relief – but just for a second, and then she resumes her Queenly Aspect again. It was a subtle moment, but an affecting one.
Some critics of the day felt it was a little slow and conventional (I agree!), but it was a big hit, thanks to the swooning romance of the plot and to Garbo’s beauty. And, I suspect, because of some titilation over sexy hijinks, both on screen and behind it; Garbo was rumored to be Romantically Linked with one of the women screenwriters, and had also flexed some muscle to get her former boyfriend John Gilbert into the part of Antonio. But everyone, critics and audience alike, agreed that Garbo was herself the best bit.