The most elusive and enigmatic superstar in movie history, Greta Garbo is also one of the most recognizable, familiar even to those who have never seen one of her movies. Because the beautiful and talented Swedish import rarely granted interviews, retired early and lived the rest of her days in jealously-guarded seclusion, nearly everything we know about her, or think we know, comes down to us in the form of the perfectly-rendered, never-aging images she made iconic on the silver screen. To the extent that acting is a matter of invention, Garbo surely ranks as one of the greatest, since in a very real sense, she is purely a product of her own self-creation.
Of the two dozen Hollywood movies she made in a career that began with great fanfare in the waning days of the silent age and lasted until her sudden retirement in 1941, many movie fans and historians count her performance in Queen Christina as the best of her career. I count it as the best by a dramatic actress in 1932-33.
Queen Christina may have been Garbo's best performance—to my mind, it was at the very least her first great performance after the introduction of sound—but the choice of Garbo as best dramatic actress of 1932-33 was hardly a clear-cut one.
Like Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn consistently turn up on lists of the ten best actresses in Hollywood history, and Kay Francis, though little remembered now outside a small but devoted band of followers, was at the peak of her career in 1932.
Why, even Fay Wray, who isn't generally regarded as a great actress, made a vital contribution to the field, teaching a generation of damsels in distress how to scream—and scream she did. She screamed with her whole body, she screamed from her toes, and the horror genre has never been the same. Think about it: before 1927, it wasn't even possible to hear an actress scream in a movie, and before Fay Wray, it wasn't clear we were supposed to. Afterwards, we knew that the only proper response to being scared out of our wits was to scream, and nobody would ever do it better. So before we move on to talk about greater actresses in greater roles, let's stop to salute her contribution to movie history.
Done? Okay, let's keep moving.
Barbara Stanwyck would have been a good choice for the top acting prize this year. The Bitter Tea Of General Yen and Baby Face are terrific movies, better than any movie at issue here aside from King Kong. The former, one of director Frank Capra's best, is the story of an American missionary (Stanwyck) who falls in love with a Chinese warlord (Nils Asther) and in the process confronts her own racism and hypocrisy. The latter, about a woman who sleep her way to the top, is the most deliciously cynical movie of the pre-Code era and helped usher in tighter studio censorship.
But while Stanwyck did some terrific work in the 1930s—these two pictures, The Miracle Worker, Stella Dallas—it's really her work in the 1940s that made her a legend and since she's a lock for two best actress awards, in 1941 (The Lady Eve, Ball Of Fire and Meet John Doe) and in 1944 (Double Indemnity), I'm going to risk the wrath of her loyal fans and bypass her this year.
Likewise, Katharine Hepburn is one of the greatest actresses of all time—maybe the greatest—but I can think of at least five performances from the 1930s alone (Alice Adams, Stage Door, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday and even Sylvia Scarlett) that are more assured than the one she gave in Little Women. She's going to win two, three, maybe even four awards before we're done (assuming I live to be 140). I'm going to wait to recognize her accomplishments for a movie I really want to talk about.
Finally, we have Kay Francis who in the space of a little over two months starred in three of the best movies of her career, Jewel Robbery, One Way Passage and Trouble In Paradise, a phenomenal run. In particular, One Way Passage is a splendid showcase of her abilities. The story of two people (Francis as a cancer patient, William Powell as a condemned criminal) who fall in love on an ocean voyage not knowing the other has little time to live, it's one of those magnificently stylish weepers that once upon a time Hollywood cranked out in its sleep. If you haven't seen it, get cracking—I highly recommend it.
That said, though, it's was Greta Garbo who gave the most moving performance of the year, and in many ways, the most iconic of her career. The vote may have been close, but when the final tally was read, it was Garbo's name at the top of the list.
Queen Christina: Great Performance, Flawed Movie
As Queen Christina opens, Sweden is embroiled in midst of the Thirty Years' War, a destructive 17th century conflict that had its origins in the ongoing battle between Protestants and Catholics for control of central Europe. The country's beloved King Gustavus Adolphus has just fallen on the field of battle leaving his seven year old daughter to ascend to the throne. Raised as a boy and schooled in the arts of war (well, to the extent that a child can be), Christina tosses aside her regent's carefully-worded speech about "wag[ing] war with courage" and instead vows "to win it!"
In the next scene, it's years later and we see the grown up Christina (Garbo) in trousers and a man's hat riding astride a galloping horse through the forests on the palace grounds. To a modern audience, this scene might mean nothing, but in 1933 a woman in trousers riding astride rather than sidesaddle, these are signals that Christina has taken to heart the notion that to rule the country means ruling as a man. And indeed, by the standards of the day's cinema, she dresses like a man, argues like a man, and, it is implied when she kisses her lady-in-waiting on the lips, loves like a man.
Despite Christina's skill and devotion as a leader, all is not well at home. The people clamor for more war, clamor for a royal marriage, clamor for an heir.
"In short," she says, "they clamor."
At the heart of the unrest is the desire that the queen should settle the question of the royal succession by producing an heir of Swedish blood, which of necessity requires her to settle on a mate, be it the handsome schemer Magnus or the aging war hero, cousin Charles. Christina sees marriage as a loss of her hard-earned freedom, a prospect that drives her to distraction.
"But majesty, you cannot die an old maid!"
"I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!"
Fed up with demands of power, Christina disguises herself (as a man, always as a man) and spends a few days riding alone in the wintery countryside to clear her head. There, she stumbles across the Spanish ambassador (John Gilbert) and his entourage stranded in the snow. The ambassador, Antonio, mistakes her for an impudent boy—a conceit the filmmakers expect you to roll with since Garbo looks no more like a boy than Jean Harlow looks like Abe Vigoda—and the two wind up sharing a room in a nearby inn.
Not until Christina slips off her outer garments does Antonio finally tumble to the fact that he's in the presence of a beautiful woman.
(To read about Garbo's real-life romance with Gilbert, click here.)
It's the goofiest sequence in the entire movie, one that always has me itching to turn off the player, but it's followed by what is not only the best scene in the movie, but to me, the best scene in Garbo's illustrious career.
Christina and Antonio have fallen into bed, no great surprise, but they've also fallen in love, an event so unexpected and new to both of them, they barely know how to express their joy and wonder. They recline sated before the fire, sharing a bowl of grapes and talking, but their spirits are soaring, and unable to contain herself, Christina finally gets up to wander around the room, as if first love were an out-of-body experience and she is following her soul around the bedchamber.
The scene works because it pays such close attention to the emotion, particularly the melancholy that colors Christina's happiness. She wanders around the room, touching everything that Antonio has touched—a dresser, a candle, a spinning wheel—memorizing by touch and smell and sight every inch of the only room in which she has ever known complete happiness.
"In the future in my memory," she says, "I shall live a great deal in this room."
You don't have to be a monarch to appreciate just how fleeting time is or how rare moments of pure happiness are.
It's telling that, as she tours the room, she watches Antonio's image in the mirror, and his image in turn watches her, as if she is already viewing the moment in her memory, and feeling already the exquisite pain associated with an ideal past we can never revisit.
It seems wholly appropriate to me that Garbo spends so much of the scene in front of both the mirror and, on the other side of the room, a religious triptych. Garbo was as much about images as she was about acting, holding poses that represent emotions rather than embody them from within, a style more akin to kabuki theater or the pantomime of the silent era than the Method approach actors have held to for more than fifty years. In that sense, Garbo's performance, like the triptych on the wall, is literally iconic—a pictorial representation whose form suggests its meaning. It's not "modern," but then when did we buy into the notion that "modern" and "better" were synonymous. In any event, I wouldn't want to throw out Garbo just because I also like Brando, any more than I'd throw out Rembrandt just because I also like Picasso.
In any event, as Christina feared, the moment is all too soon over. Antonio continues his journey to Stockholm, and she leaves by a different route to the same destination. Imagine Antonio's surprise when he discovers the woman he loves is a queen. Imagine the royal court's surprise when it discovers that their queen is in love with envoy of their enemy.
The latter conflict sets in motion the final act of the movie. For the Protestant Christina to pursue a relationship with the Catholic Antonio after thirty years of war between those two faiths would be like Nixon bedding down with Brezhnev at the height of the Cold War. It's not simply xenophobia or self-interest that drives the opposition to the romance, it's a genuine horror at the idea of having to refight, both at home and abroad, an issue that was settled at the price of so much blood and treasure. Christina must choose between love and responsibilities. The way she chooses, and the consequences of her choice, lead to the most famous scene of Garbo's career, that final enigmatic shot that I won't describe except to say every film buff must see it.
Now, I'm going to be up front with you: Queen Christina is one of the more problematic entrants in the Hollywood film canon. Even TV Guide in its glowing 5 (out of 5) star review describes the script as "great clumps of unleavened bread," which is a charitable way of saying that parts of the movie are preposterous—can anybody, for example, accept on the film's own terms the notion that John Gilbert could mistake Greta Garbo for a man? I don't care how dark that inn is or how mannish Garbo's clothes, unless Gilbert's character has an affinity for Swedish lads with rouged lips and plucked eyebrows, there's no way to watch that scene without thinking that either director Rouben Mamoulian set out deliberately to undermine his own movie or that the makeup man and cinematographer made some pretty grievous errors in professional judgment.
Then again, many critics have suggested that that is the point. Historically, Christina was thought to be bisexual, Garbo was almost certainly bisexual, and Mamoulian was gay; perhaps without being able to say it explicitly during a time when even pre-Code permissiveness didn't permit a frank exploration of such things, Garbo and Mamoulian set out to investigate the limits of sexual orientation and wound up suggesting that, rather than being distinctly straight or gay, we reside on a sliding continuum between the two. And that, thus, in the right moment with the right person, even John Gilbert's Antonio could find himself attracted to a young Swedish lad on a cold, cold night.
Or maybe Garbo should have scrubbed off her makeup and cut her hair, ala Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett, and really played the part instead of pretending to play it. But given the degree to which Garbo hid behind the mask of her perfect face and her professional mannerisms, asking her to strip all of that away and hang herself out there emotionally naked might have been as impossible as asking her grow wings and fly to the moon.
Besides, did anybody ever argue that Tony Curtis, Milton Berle, Dustin Hoffman or Bugs Bunny should have made greater efforts to look like women when they played such in their movies? God forbid—the lack of illusion was half the joke.
Anyway, I suspect that I'm bringing 21st century expectations of "realism" to a 1933 movie and that an audience of the time, with the conceits of the silent era's cross-dressing comedies still fresh in their minds, wouldn't have expected Garbo to look like a man, but would simply have accepted the comic set-up and moved on.
I don't know.
What I do know is that when Queen Christina works, it works as well as any movie Garbo ever made.
"They usually ask me if it was easy or difficult to direct Garbo," Rouben Mamoulian said years later, "and the answer is that it was either easy or impossible. If she respected you as an artist, and if you gave her something that was better than what she had in mind, she was the easiest, most professional person to work with. In the case of Queen Christina she was simply marvelous."
A Troubling Pattern: Garbo In Eclipse
Queen Christina premiered in New York the day after Christmas, 1933, with a nationwide release on February 9, 1934. Reviews were mixed. Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote that Queen Christina was "a skillful blend of history and fiction" and that Garbo, "alluring as ever, gives a performance which merits nothing but the highest praise." Variety on the other hand, called the movie "slow and ofttimes stilted" and criticized Garbo's performance as "too often apace of the script's lethargy."
It turned out Variety knew American audiences better than Hall did. The film didn't perform well in the U.S. Garbo's sensibilities had always been foreign to American audiences, and while during the silent era that may have suggested a "desirable metropolitan European sophistication" (to quote Marcia Landy and Amy Villarejo writing in the BFI Film Classic study of the movie), by the time of the Great Depression, American audiences had become increasingly hostile to Garbo (and to her German counterpart, Marlene Dietrich).
These same sensibilities, however, be they uniquely European or simply a product of Garbo's own matchless talents, helped make Queen Christina a big hit overseas where it made back twice its budget in Britain alone, establishing a pattern that would hold true for the remainder of Garbo's career. From Queen Christina forward through the end of her career, Garbo's movies made far more money overseas than in America, and more than any particular desire on Garbo's part, it was the outbreak of World War II, which closed off the foreign market, that hastened her early retirement from pictures. (After the war, Garbo sent out tentative feelers, thinking to make a comeback, but found no interest.)
Ironically, despite her waning domestic box-office appeal, with Queen Christina Garbo had hit her stride as an actress and would soon produce the best movies of her career, including Camille and Ninotchka. But we'll talk about those in their own good time.
[For a post on the production of Queen Christina, click here.]
Programming Note: Tuesday, August 24 is John Gilbert day on TCM and on the schedule is a showing of Queen Christina. Check your local listings and mark your calendar.