Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Underrated Movie #80: Queen Christina

Title: Queen Christina
Year: 1933
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: H. M. Harwood, Salka Viertel, Margaret P. Levino, and S. N. Behrman
Stars: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith, Lewis Stone, Elizabeth Young

The Story: The kick-ass 17th century Swedish queen reads books, dresses like a man, and refuses to get married, laughing at those who try to impose gender roles on her. You’d almost think she was a lesbian if she didn’t have so much uninhibited sex with men. She’s allowed to get away with all of it until she tries to shut down the military-industrial complex, resulting in a whisper campaign that brings her regency to a crisis.
How it Came to be Underrated: Mamoulian combined the sensuousness of Ophuls with the brazen good-naturedness of Hawks, but only in recent years have moves like this, Applause and Love Me Tonight been treated like the masterpieces they are.

Why It’s Great:
  1. This movie is very much a product of that magical period from 1929-1933, after the arrival of sound but before the strict enforcement of the production code, when Hollywood movies enjoyed a brief flowering of sexual sophistication. Most “pre-code” movies used that freedom to tell tales that were lurid and dark, but this one used its frankness to celebrate sexual liberation in a way that was positive, political, and progressive. It’s pretty gobsmacking to watch it today.
  2. I love Ninotchka and Grand Hotel, but I would say that this is my favorite Garbo performance. She gets to laugh and cry, deliver speeches and still enjoy great silent moments, such as when she caresses every object in a room because “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”
  3. Movie about monarchs almost always fall into the “power corrupts” paradigm, so it’s shocking to see an unironic portrayal of a truly heroic political figure in this context. This movie is brazen in many ways, but nothing is more shocking today than its idealism.
  4. The queen meets the love of her life while cross-dressing of course, and, unlike your average “Twelfth Night” or “Merchant of Venice” production, we actually believe she might pull it off, because of her naturally deep voice combined with the excellent costuming. Garbo also refuses to inject coquettishness, even when a prostitute offers herself up to her! This is such a shocking, delightful movie!
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: As far as great pre-code bio-pics of cold weather queens go, this makes for an extreme contrast with Von Sternberg’s even more lush (and far more lurid) The Scarlet Empress. Consider them a sort of “Goofus and Gallant” pairing: one queen becomes the personification of wisdom, the other descends into total wickedness. (But both have a lot of fun along the way)

How Available Is It?: I has a nice looking DVD with no features.

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Senile_Seinen said...

I have to ask - have you ever seen The Scarlet Empress? If so, how would you compare it to this? If not - hie yourself to your favorite chair and prepare to be surprised by what looks to be '30s Hollywood formula movie about Catherine the Great and turns out rather different.

Matt Bird said...

Oh yes, and I like that one just as much. I've never covered it here because it's on the borderline of being pretty well-known, but so is "Queen Christina", so I really should do "Scarlet Empress" as well.

How can you not love a 1933 movie where they hang naked people inside bells and ring them to death?