Queen Christina: That Hypersexual Film From The 30s
By Alex Cranz
Queen Christina of Sweden, like Greta Garbo, was a woman who did what she want when she wanted. She didn’t care about social contrivances or niceties. If she wanted to wear pants she wore pants. If she wanted to cuddle in bed with her best friend Ebba then she cuddled in bed. If she wanted to engage in spirited debates with Descartes then so it was.
But like Garbo, her rejection of the norm meant rumors plagued her. Chief among them were rumors of her sexuality. Her refusal to marry, dressing in men’s clothes and sword fighting, and her passionate and vocal love of her best friend were fuel to the fire.
And Greta Garbo, with director Rouben Mamoulian, have no qualms stoking the flames. Queen Christina is a sensual film and Garbo as Christina oozes sex. She has no problems holing up in a cabin with a Spanish lover for days. She holds and later shuns her friend Ebba like a lover and Mamoulian’s camera delights in framing Garbo like a painting in shades of gray.
The frank and unabashed sexuality and the embracing of alternative lifestyles are revolutionary in the here and now. But Queen Christina came to theaters in 1933. Seventy eight years ago. And while age shows itself in the quality of the print and the overly bombastic sound design (Jazz Singer came out only six years earlier) it’s wholly absent from Garbo’s swagger. This is a woman who honestly does not give a f*ck what anyone thinks.
The film starts much like history tells it. Christina’s father is killed during the Thirty Year War, and Christina, a precocious child, waltzes into the throne room surveys all the lords who’d swear her fealty, and announces herself King. We then cut ahead a few decades and Christina rides towards the palace and leaps off her horse with the kind of dashing bravado usually associated with Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn.
For all intents and purposes Christina is good at her job. The people and the aristocrats lover her and she’s brought peace to Sweden after the Thirty Year War. She’s a popular woman.
But like all good monarchs on film she’s chafed by the rigidity of the monarchy. She does her work but sometimes stares off idly into space. She needs a bit of freedom.
One morning after waking up, walking outside and washing her face with snow, she spies her best friend Ebba speaking in hushed tones to a man. Ebba is in love and wants to marry the man but fears Christina’s ire. Their scenes play less like friends and more like lovers. Jealously tinges Christina’s words and Ebba is apologetic like a cheating spouse.
Christina, not one to keep her best friend from true love, finally agrees to let Ebba marry. She then promptly rides out for a sojourn in the frigid countryside. There she finds her way to an inn. With that deep voice and a sword on her hip everyone assumes she’s a man, including the Spanish ambassador, waylaid by a storm. They share sultry talk over ale and while she teases and flirts he finds himself delighted, aroused, and because he assumes she’s a man, just a tad confused.
The ambassador is played by John Gilbert. A heart-throb of the Silent Era he’d become something of a pariah by 1933 due largely to a fist fight with studio head Louis B. Mayer at a double wedding. The cause of the fight? Mayer was talking ill of Garbo, who was supposed to marry Gilbert that day, but instead stood him up. Despite not marrying the guy she still cared deeply for Gilbert and when the role of the ambassador was being cast she insisted on him over the preferred Laurence Olivier.
With his all-American accent he doesn’t call to mind a sultry Spanish lover, but his fabulous facial hair and easy smile make up for it. For exes Garbo and Gilbert maintain great chemistry and it’s easy to see why his Spanish ambassador is so smitten with the boastful young man.
After hours of drinking and talking Christina opts to go to bed, but the ambassador is without a room. He begs to share her room, the finest in the establishment. And she agrees. Upstairs there’s a few minutes of comedy as Christina tries to hide her sex, but finally she just say’s “f it” and takes off her doublet. The ambassador is completely delighted to find that the man he was attracted to is actually a woman. And the sex commences.
They spend days wrapped up in each other in bed and they don’t make any effort to tell people that Christina is a woman. A few gay jokes are alluded to but never made outright and the Ambassadors entourage is surprisingly okay with their boss taking, ostensibly, a male lover.
Back at court the ambassador is surprised to find his lover is the queen, but she’s QUEEN CHRISTINA and she don’t care. She maintains her affair with him, rejects her cousin the war hero’s marriage proposal and just has a great time being queen and coming home to this.
At this point the film has to start coming to a close, so the major conflict begins. The people start RIOTING because they hate Spain so much and they want her to marry her cousin. Rather then get her incest on (even though it was totally cool in the 1600s) she chooses to abdicate the throne and move to Spain with her lover.
This makes the people EVEN MORE UPSET. At the abdication ceremony they symbolically remove her crown and then she calmly walks out of the throne room. Only every single person there (expect Christina) starts weeping. They throw themselves before her and beg her to stay. But she’s chose John Gilbert over a kingdom rebuilding itself after thirty years of Protestant/Catholic conflict.
The ambassador rides ahead of her so he can have one last sword fight with the man who riled the people against Christina. But it doesn’t go well and when Christina gets to the boat her Spaniard is dying, her throne is gone, and Ebba is off to get married. Ever stalwart Christina doesn’t cry. She walks to the bow of the ship and looks out to sea in the most famous moment of the entire film.*
Queen Christina is a perfect example of how amazingly nuanced women were in Pre-Code talkies. Garbo as Christina is unabashedly sexual in a way that wouldn’t fly only a year later. Her abdication of the throne isn’t a punishment for her wanton ways, but a punishment of the people for their bigotry and selfishness. A year later the film’s ending would have been much less uplifting and emancipating and drenched in quite a few more maudlin tears.
Watching the film you may get teary eyed, but that will be because you’ll realize just how hurtful the Hayes Code was to women. In fact it’s taken what seems like the entirety of those 78 intervening years to get close to the open-mindedness on display in Queen Christina. Something the titular character would not be okay with.
*No screengrab of the moment because you should really rent to movie and watch it or you’ll be robbed of it’s great emotional weight.