How Garbo Complicated Queen Christina

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MY FIRST GRETA GARBO experience was the 1933 film Queen Christina. From the moment she appeared on the screen, I found myself breathless, overcome by her cinematic presence. I barely paid attention to the story or the other characters; all I saw was Garbo. I went back to see this film several times. I had no idea what was going on for me. Never before had I been so riveted by a performer.

            During this period, I experienced a synchronistic occurrence—a Greta Garbo sighting. I had just left Hunter College and was walking on 68th Street toward Lexington Avenue, and I stopped at the corner to wait for the light to change. I was busy with my briefcase looking for subway money when I realized that I was standing next to Greta Garbo, who was wearing a large floppy hat and belted trench coat. I was frozen in place. I wanted to tell her that I loved her movies but remained silent and staring. By the time I recovered my senses, she had crossed the street and was halfway up the block. The feelings that I had experienced during this strange encounter were similar to those that I felt while watching her as Queen Chris-tina—feelings of veiled passions.

            Many years later, during the Covid lockdown, I watched Queen Christina in a DVD format. I wanted to see what my reactions would be some 54 years later. This time, I paid attention to the film through a queer theoretical gaze. The film was a 1933 pre-Hays Code historical extravaganza depicting the life of the Swedish Queen Christina. Played by Garbo, Christina is expected to marry, yet she keeps putting off this obligation. She falls in love with the Spanish Ambassador, Antonio Pimentel de Prado (John Gilbert), who’s Roman Catholic and thus ineligible to be her husband. To be with him, she abdicates the throne, but then Antonio dies in a duel, forcing Christina to carry on alone. The movie fades out with Garbo at the prow of a ship, her hair windblown, her expression blank so that viewers can project their own thoughts and feelings onto the one-time queen.

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Irene Javors is a frequent contributor to The G&LR and lives in New York City.

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