Thanks to a glut of Westerns on TCM this month, there’s not a whole lot of pre-Codin’ going on right now. Still, out of the handful of pre-Code films airing in July, I did manage to find one for my pre-Code pick: Queen Christina (1933). Starring Greta Garbo in the title role, along with John Gilbert, Lewis Stone, and Ian Keith, the film tells the story of the real-life queen of Sweden, who reigned for more than 20 years.
The unorthodox and independent queen assumed the throne at the age of six, after the death of her father, who’d ordered her raised as a boy. After introducing us to this tyke (played by Cora Sue Collins) on the occasion of her coronation, the film fast-forwards to the adult Christina, centering on a relatively brief span of time, during which she calls for an end to the Thirty Years’ War, falls in love with Spanish envoy Don Antonio de la Prada (Gilbert), and abdicates her throne.
Action-wise, that’s pretty much Queen Christina in a nutshell. But it’s not the plot that makes the film worth your time – it’s primarily Garbo that’s a must-see. She’s beautiful, of course, but she also delivers an engaging portrayal of the young queen that makes her someone you’d like to know. Also, her luminous, unforgettable performance features two well-known scenes. The first comes after Christina has spent the night with Don Antonio in a snowbound inn and fallen in love with him. Knowing that she must soon return to her palace, she languidly takes a tour of the room, pausing to run her fingers over the various items – a spinning wheel, the bed, a religious painting.
“I have been memorizing the room,” she tells Antonio. “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.” It’s really lovely and quite moving. The other well-known scene is actually the final shot of the movie, which shows Christina after she has left the throne, at the helm of a ship that is bound for the next phase of her life’s journey. There’s no dialogue, just the lingering view of Christina’s face. It’s said that in order to help Garbo achieve the expression of combined sorrow, strength, and determination, director Rouben Mamoulian told the actress to think of nothing and avoid blinking, so that audiences could write the ending of the film themselves.
Sweden in the 1600s – Pre-Code?
As a period piece, Queen Christina isn’t your typical pre-Code feature, but fret not – it definitely has enough pre-Codian characteristics to go around! Here are a few:
Early in the film, Christina plants a tender, on-the-mouth kiss on her lady-in-waiting, Ebba (Elizabeth Young), who complains that the queen doesn’t have time to spend with her. “You’re surrounded by musty old papers and musty old men, and I can’t get near you.” Christina consoles her by promising that the two will go away together to spend a few days in the country. (It was rumored that the real-life Christina and Ebba were lovers.)
In an off-the-beaten-path tavern, two drunken patrons approach Queen Christina (who they think is a man, like everyone else in the tavern, because of her clothing and hairstyle) and ask her to decide a bet. One man insists that the queen has had six lovers in the last year. “I claim that’s a disloyal, libelous statement,” the other one offers. “I say there were nine!”And Christina’s decision? “The truth is that the queen has had 12 lovers this past year. A round dozen!”
Antonio has a brief exchange with a maid at the inn: “You’re very pretty, Elsa,” he tells her. “Are you also good?” And Elsa rejoins, “When I do not like a man, yes.” (Holy mackerel, what a line!)
Elsa flirts with Christina, telling her that the innkeeper says Christina is to have “everything you need.” She suggestively removes the scarf that had been covering her shoulders and gives Christina a lingering look before adding, “If you should need anything, my room is at the end of the passage.”
After Christina and Antonio first make love, Christina gushes, “This is how the Lord must have felt when he first beheld the finished world.” Censors objected to this line, but it remained in the film.
Originally, Garbo requested Laurence Olivier to play opposite her – she’d been impressed by the actor’s performance the year before in Westward Passage. Olivier was released, though, after rehearsals showed that the two had little chemistry. Olivier received his negotiated salary and was replaced by John Gilbert, whose career was in a tailspin at the time. Unfortunately, despite a good performance, the film did nothing to revive his prospects, and he only made one more picture after this one.
Queen Christina was the number one box office movie in the United States for 1933.
Garbo wears an elaborate, jeweled gown in the scene where she receives Antonio at court. The dress was featured in the “Hollywood Costume” exhibit seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2012 and at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles in 2014.
The real Queen Christina, who ruled from 1632 to 1644, did abdicate the throne at the age of 27, but it was not for romance, as depicted in the film, but because she had secretly converted to Roman Catholicism, which had been outlawed in Sweden. She never married.
Catch Queen Christina July 21st on TCM. You only owe it to yourself.
Don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem my pal Kristina is recommending for this month!