One of my all-time favourite movies is Queen Christina.
It was released in 1933, a good bit after the heyday of female filmmakers in Hollywood, but it was the first production under Garbo’s new deal with MGM, which made her the highest-paid woman in the US and gave her creative control over her pictures. As a result, it embodies the spirit of those early female-driven days of Hollywood.
At heart, it is about a woman learning to prioritise herself over her duty to others.
I’ve always thought that it set the stage for Garbo’s own “abdication” of her movie career a few years later. In her mid-thirties, she bought herself out of her own MGM contract and retired to New York to spend the rest of her life going on walks. In the eighties, she told her biographer that she had spent 40 years “looking for the perfect sweater.”
The movie tells the story of a Queen Christina, who abdicated the Swedish throne in 1654. In reality she abdicated to become a Catholic, but in the movie, it’s for the love of a lowly Spanish ambassador, played by John Gilbert. Though he and Garbo had split up a couple of years earlier and Gilbert had married actress Ina Claire, Garbo fired a fresh-off-the-boat Laurence Olivier and replaced him with her now washed-up ex.
It contains one of my absolute favourite lines of dialogue.
Early in the film, Christina’s chancellor is pitching her various diplomatic marriage proposals and she’s basically swiping left on all of them. He says “but your majesty, you cannot die an Old Maid!” and she replies “I have no intention to Chancellor, I shall die a bachelor!”
YES, is all I have to say to that.
Moreover, there’s an anecdote I’ve read half a dozen times in half a dozen books or articles from the shooting of Queen Christina.
Every version goes roughly like this:
Though she trained at the prestigious Dramaten theatre school in Stockholm, Garbo had a complex about never having worked in theatre and considered herself “not a real actress.” She believed that her every performance was a fluke she had no control over, and as a result she refused to rehearse, fearing that she’d use up the ‘magic’ while the cameras weren’t rolling.
The director of Queen Christina, Rouben Mamoullian, on the other hand, came from a theatre background. He studied at the famous Moscow Arts Theatre under Stanislavsky, who, as you might know, is the grandfather of the famous “Method” style of acting. So Mamoullian was big into rehearsal.
The story goes that they came to an impasse, with him insisting on rehearsing and her refusing, when he came up with an idea. He suggested that they shoot the first take of a scene, then rehearse, then shoot the second, and Garbo could decide which to print. They do so, Garbo watches both then comes running to Mamoullian, all mortified, begging him to burn the first one because he was right and she was wrong.
This version has never sat quite right with me.
Don’t get me wrong, Mamoullian was undoubtedly a great, innovative director, but at this point, he was pretty new to Hollywood. He’d made three features, all of which had done moderately well. He was on his way.
But he was no Divine Garbo.
It’s hard for us to fully grasp what a huge star Garbo was at the time. I don’t think we have anyone to compare today — maybe Tom Cruise pre-couch jumping? Think Elvis, the Beatles — that was the kind of hysteria that surrounded her. The previous year, she’d taken several months off and gone home to Sweden, and there had been almost daily global headlines speculating as to whether or not she was going to come back. (There was a Depression getting started, some shouty wee guy taking over the German government… but everyone wanted to know if Garbo would act again.)
Yet this brand new director with three features under his belt was schooling her on how to rehearse?
And then I came across this. A direct quote from Mamoulian himself, in conversation with Garbo’s biographer Sven Broman:
“My first take is always the best,” insisted Garbo.
“… But if it doesn’t work, can we agree that we will work according to my methods, i.e. rehearsal?” he replied.
“Don’t worry,” said Garbo.
“Garbo was right,” admitted Mamoulian. “She really could act. She was an intuitive actress. It was something of a miracle, a divine gift… Garbo was simply unique.”
Well now that makes a bit more sense.