Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith, Lewis Stone, Elizabeth Young, C. Aubrey Smith, Reginald Owen, Georges Renavent
Written by: S.N. Behrman, H.M. Harwood, based on a story by Margaret P. Levino, Sakla Viertel
Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 97
Date: 25/12/1933
IMDB

Queen Christina (1933)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Her Royal Highness

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Queen Christina on DVD

Greta Garbo so overpowers Queen Christina that it seems like there was no director involved at all. She encompasses every frame the way Chaplin does with City Lights or Welles with Citizen Kane.

But there was a director, Rouben Mamoulian. His most visible contribution to the film is its stunning final shot, Garbo standing in the bow of the ship, the wind in her hair, gazing into nothingness, as the camera slowly zooms in. For years, movie fans argued over what she was thinking, but it was Mamoulian who told her to think about "nothing... absolutely nothing."

In the movie, Garbo is Queen Christina, the queen of Sweden (where Garbo was actually born). Her subjects wish her to marry a war hero named Prince Charles, but she doesn't love him. She's also bored, and can never have fun with her sister. One day she leaves the castle dressed in pants. This simple disguise not only hides the fact that she is the queen, it also hides the fact that she is female. Stuck because of heavy snow, she spends the night at an inn, and meets Don Antonio (John Gilbert). They are forced to share a room, and soon fall in love. When Garbo returns to the castle, she must make up her mind between love and duty.

This simple and rather quaint old story works so well because of Garbo's passion, elegance, intimacy, and energy. Many men stronger than I have fallen for her image on the screen. She's perhaps not a classic beauty, but we can sense how extraordinary she is. Thus, in the scene where she walks around the room at the inn, memorizing its details, it becomes sensual poetry. When she jumps up on the table and settles the bet on how many lovers the queen has had, she overpowers the many larger men in the room. When she uncovers the king of Spain's portrait and responds, "oh... does he really look like that?" -- we know from her voice how many previous unworthy suitors she has had.

Of course the story ends tragically. There can be no other ending for powerhouse like Garbo. The unfulfilled love makes her all the more fascinating and endearing to her movie audience. We feel closer to her, like we're the only ones who will truly never leave her.

I had only seen two other Garbo movies before this. Ninotchka (1939) is a masterpiece, but Garbo's power is equaled by her director, Ernst Lubitsch, and her writers, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. In a sense, she is slightly snuffed. In Grand Hotel (1932) she shows a tremendous passion in her few scenes, but that creaky ensemble piece was beneath her. Nonetheless, it showed me enough of her extraordinary presence for me to seek out other Garbo movies, and for that, I'm glad.

(Special thanks to San Francisco Chronicle film reviewer Mick LaSalle for giving me the Queen Christina tape.)

DVD Details: Warner Home Video, which holds the rights to all the old MGM stuff, has released a truly spectacular DVD box set, Garbo: The Signature Collection, certainly one of the all-time greats. It includes no less than ten Greta Garbo films, plus both English and German-language versions of Anna Christie (1930). Other films include: The Temptress (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1927), The Mysterious Lady (1928), Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Kareninna (1935), Camille (1936) and Ninotchka (1939), plus a new Turner Classic Movies documentary Garbo. Other extras include a snippet from the lost film The Divine Woman, an alternate ending for The Temptress, audio commentary tracks on selected films, a featurette about composing the new scores for the silent films, a photo gallery and a trailer.