November 13, 2011

Queer Review: Queen Christina (1933)

Queen Christina
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: H.M. Harwood, Salka Viertel, Margaret P. Levino, S.N. Behrman, Ben Hecht
Cast: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith, Lewis Stone, Elizabeth Young, C. Aubrey Smith, Reginald Owen, Georges Renavent, David Torrence, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Ferdinand Munier

This rather fictionalized account of Christina, Queen of Sweden, served as a star vehicle for Greta Garbo. While there are scenes and elements to Queen Christina that have not aged well, it can comfortably be labled a genuine classic and what is particularly extraordinary is that it is among the earliest positive portrayals of a queer icon.

When her father dies at age 6, the crown passes to Christina. When she grows up, Queen Christina (Greta Garbo) finds herself compromised on several levels, mostly due to the fact that she must marry in order to fulfill the obligations of the thrown. This becomes an even bigger problem when Christina falls in love with the Spanish diplomat Antonio (John Gilbert). Soon, Christina must choose between abandoning Antonio or abdicating the throne.

The Queering
Queen Christina is well made (at least for the time period) and Greta Garbo's performance as the cross dressing, sexually ambiguous Queen, is legendary for a reason. Garbo plays the iconic queen with a masculine flair that I doubt any other performer could hope to imitate. Queen Christina herself is at times both beguiling and mysterious, refusing to see her own behavior as strange or unusual, whether it includes dressing as a man or staying up all night reading.

Speaking of dressing up as a man, I could not help but wonder if this behaviour were reversed, if a male member of the royalty dressed up as a woman, would this kind of behaviour flown at all? The Celluloid Closet did a good job of addressing the way effeminate men, or sissies, were portrayed (usually negatively or for the purposes of comedy) during the 1930's. As far as Queen Christina is concerned, outside of a situation where Christina is actually mistaken for a man, her cross dressing is not used for comedy and overall Christina herself is treated fairly respectfully. However, I could not help but wonder if this would have held true if the movie had been about a King dressing up as woman.

In any case, it's not really fair to judge a movie on what it is not, rather than what it does and Queen Christina itself represents a progressive and overall positive portrayel for a queer character. While Queen Christina is heavily fictionalized, the romance between her and Antonio appears to have been an almost total fabrication, many of the Christina, Queen of Sweeden's characteristics are portrayed reasonably accurately here, at least as far as my non-historical expertise self can tell.

Overall then, Queen Christina is a rather good movie, one that earns it's reputation as a minor classic and is deservedly known for it's portrayal of a historical queer icon.

Recommended for all queens and non-queens alike.

The Rating


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