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History met Hollywood, and Hollywood came out the winner when Greta Garbo decided to return to the screen after an 18-month absence as one of her native Sweden's most famous rulers, Queen Christina (1933). But if the glamorous Garbo was a far cry from the real Christina - a troll-like, hygienically-challenged figure given to dirty jokes - the sexual politics on the set certainly mirrored the spirit of Christina's decidedly unconventional life. Garbo developed the project with actress-writer Salka Viertel, who was rumored to be her lover, insisted that the male lead go to her former fiance and silent screen co-star John Gilbert, then ended up in a liaison with the film's director, Rouben Mamoulian.
None of that got into the press of course. MGM's publicity department was too busy heralding Garbo's return to the screen in the role she was born to play. As a fictional character, the Christina in the film was indeed perfect casting for Garbo. The aloof, independent queen in the film gives up her throne for love of a Spanish nobleman and, when he dies, leaves Sweden to take her slain lover back to his native land. The real Christina was a lesbian, who gave up the throne to pursue artistic studies in Italy, where she lived as a man under the name Count Dohma. Ironically, the character Garbo played in her first big film, The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924), was named Countess Dohma. The only concession to the real Christina's sexuality were some subtle hints that the film character was romantically attracted to one of her ladies in waiting and scenes of Garbo hunting and meeting with advisors dressed as a man - which only added to the star's glamour.
According to Hollywood legend, MGM hired the young Laurence Olivier to play Christina's fictional lover, Don Pedro, but she insisted they hire Gilbert instead. That's not exactly what happened, however. Garbo had complete approval on every person hired for her films. That's why she insisted that people she trusted, like cameraman William Daniels and character actor Lewis Stone, work on so many of her pictures. Before she met Olivier, she had seen his early film work and knew of his growing reputation as a stage star. Some sources even suggest that she was the one who suggested him for the role.
During rehearsals, however, Garbo found herself unable to relax with him. In fact, every time he touched her, she froze. Frustrated, director Rouben Mamoulian asked nobody in particular, "Is there any man this woman will warm up to?" Out of the darkness came a voice, "John Gilbert!" So, producer Walter Wanger called Gilbert in, ostensibly for some rehearsals, but Mamoulian had the cameras rolling. The results were magical, and Garbo demanded that Louis B. Mayer hire him for the role.
That Garbo got her way is a testament to her power at MGM. Mayer hated Gilbert and had done everything in his power to sabotage his career back when he was the studio's biggest star. In part, Garbo was repaying her old friend for all the help he had given her when she was just starting out in film. She may also have realized that Gilbert's biggest battles with Mayer had been over the stars' romantic relationship. Gilbert signed a seven-year contract at one tenth of the salary he'd commanded as an MGM star in the silent era. He also was promised that if his comeback role scored with fans, the studio would build up his career once more.
Unfortunately, Queen Christina was not a big winner at the box office. By 1933, audiences were more interested in gritty images of Depression life. Garbo's romantic tragedies played well in the big cities, but died elsewhere. As a result, the film only grossed $632,000 on an investment of $1.4 million. It would be years before foreign revenues and reissues brought the film into the profit column. In addition, the studio publicity department virtually ignored Gilbert's performance. In some previews for the film, he wasn?t even mentioned.
And yet both Garbo and Gilbert were in top form. Critics have often hailed the film as her best ever, while Gilbert received very strong notices on its premiere. Queen Christina's box-office failure ended Gilbert's hopes of a career comeback. He died three years later, a victim of alcohol and the city of broken dreams. For Garbo, the picture pointed to the gradual decline in her career. Though she would continue to make great films: Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1937) and Ninotchka (1939) chief among them, dwindling box-office returns in the U.S. coupled with the loss of the European market during World War II, would end her reign as queen of MGM.
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Producer: Walter Wanger
Screenplay: H.M. Harwood, Salka Viertel, S.N. Behrman
Based on the Story by Viertel, Margaret Levino
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Alexander Toluboff, Edwin B. Willis
Music: Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Greta Garbo (Queen Christina), John Gilbert (Don Antonio de la Prada), Ian Keith (Magnus), Lewis Stone (Chancellor Oxenstierna), Elizabeth Young (Egga Sparre), C. Aubrey Smith (Aage), Reginald Owen (Prince Charles).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller