In this week’s old movies column, we take a look a queer-coded film from the Pre-Code era – Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina.
Pride month may be over, but that isn’t going to stop me talking about classic queer films. In this week’s column, I’m looking at one of my favourite queer-coded Pre-Code movies from one of my favourite directors – Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933). You may be familiar with that title as I’ve mentioned it a couple of times before, but this time we’re taking a much closer look.
In the film Greta Garbo plays the titular Queen Christina, the famed Swedish monarch who took the throne when she was just six years old after the untimely death of her father. When she turned 18 she could finally assume command as a wise and peace-loving ruler. Yet when she falls in love with a Spanish ambassador, her love for her country could be put to the test.
The Swedish-American actress is so iconic that I bet she’s one of the first people you think about when you think of Old Hollywood. Here is no different, playing a role that bends with gender stereotypes and fluid sexuality.
The film is perhaps without the poeticism than you would expect of Rouben Mamoulian’s work. However, he does steady work here. Drenched in historical shadows and candlelight, Christina stalks grand sets and Mamoulian lets Garbo take forefront here, setting her beauty against the snow drenched Sweden or the dancing of the fireplace.
Honestly, though, what a perfect casting. A legendary Queen of Sweden with the Swedish Queen of Hollywood. Garbo is certainly commanding here. She delivers incredible monologues that are either mournful or merry. The highlight, however, comes where Christina meets Antonio (played by the King of the glower – John Gilbert), who immediately thinks that she is a lord – so do the rowdy men in the tavern.
They chat like friendly fellows and the conversation turns to talk of the Queen. Under her assumed pretence, the pair chat about Christina until Antonio is somewhat forced to sleep in her cabin. The chemistry between them is great. But Garbo is astonishing, and she really sells this royal in disguise sequence that, actually, comes across more comfortable in a room of drunken lads than as a Queen in a dress. The pair even flirt with the same maid.
The scene that follows sees Christina undress in front of Antonio who believes her a man up until she removes her suit. It’s an intriguing moment – stripped back in silence to simply the dialogue and the roar of the fireplace. When Antonio sees her figure for the first time, he is taken aback and merely says; “Of course, it had to be. I felt it. A presence. Life can be so gloriously improbable.” To which Garbo’s Christina utters a sultry “hmm,” which is simply drenched in meaning.
Garbo herself was a rumoured bisexual which makes her casting even more perfect. Though it was never admitted by the actress herself, silent film star Louisa Brooks confirmed an affair, and there were many deep, loving relationships with women that Garbo would conduct throughout her life.
The real Queen Christina was considered a much more iconic lesbian figurehead than she is in the movie. Her father initially raised her as a tomboy and Christina would happily romp around in britches and short hair, conducting herself in the same manner as the men around her. Queen Christina’s friend Ebba is often considered the monarch’s possible lover. In the film, there’s a kiss between them, and Christina shows visible jealousy when she discovers Ebba’s affair with a man.
There’s little talk of her correspondence between the female friend, and their relationship isn’t explicitly stated. Christina is eventually paired off with the Spanish ambassador, and the fluidity in both gender and sexuality is made obvious here.
What, perhaps, is more renegade is her attitude in court and on the throne. Queen Christina is reminiscent of Catherine the Great. She rules with passion and intelligence. In her reign, she brought in scientists and sorted out education – reading and ruling in equal fervent manner.
Even without the obvious and clear lesbianism (with this era you usually have to infer these things), Queen Christina is still a ground-breaking film in its portrayal of gender roles. Much like Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, Garbo is certainly the one who wears the trousers…and kisses the women.
If Queen Christina interests you, then fear not, because the Cinema Rediscovered Film Festival will be screening it on the 22nd July at Bristol’s Watershed! There is a whole heap of Pre-Code films and talks about women in that era of Hollywood.
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