On Greta Garbo’s Greatness: An Appreciation of the Silent Icon’s Sound Star Turn in Queen Christina

“Spoils, glory, flags and trumpets! What is behind these high-sounding words? Death and destruction, triumphals of crippled men, Sweden victorious in a ravaged Europe, an island in a dead sea. I tell you, I want no more of it. I want for my people security and happiness. I want to cultivate the arts of peace, the arts of life.”

Thus speaks Queen Christina (Greta Garbo), calling—against the demands of her whole court—for an end to Sweden’s participation in the 17th century religious conflict of the Thirty Years’ War. Yet when she calls for the pursuit of “happiness” and “the arts of life,” Christina is not only naming her desire for her country; she is also naming her own most desperate yearning. A young, compassionate, and idealistic queen, Christina is also an independent and lonely woman. Christina tells her Chancellor: “I have been a symbol of eternal changelessness, an abstraction. A human being is mortal and changeable, with desires and impurities, hopes and despairs. I’m tired of being a symbol…. I long to be a human being—it’s a longing I cannot suppress.”

Queen Christina is a literate, intelligent film that explores the conflict of duty vs. happiness with poignancy, style, and surprising explicitness. This conflict escalates when Christina’s wish—to be a woman—is granted.

Lobby card featuring Queen Christina star Greta Garbo. Image courtesy of MGM

Tired of the burdens of leading a nation, Christina flees to the countryside and meets the dashing Don Antonio de la Prada (John Gilbert), a Spanish envoy carrying a peace treaty and a marriage proposal to her from the Spanish king. Allowing him to mistake her for a young man, Christina helps free Antonio’s carriage from a ditch and gallops off to a nearby inn where she has recommended he spend the night. Christina dines with him, conversing spiritedly of Velasquez, Calderon, and other intellectual topics. Caught in her own deception and not wanting to insult her new companion, Christina agrees to share her room—the last available at the inn—with Antonio. In the bedroom they continue their conversation of “great love,” travel, and life, when Antonio starts undressing for bed. After he expresses his surprise that his friend isn’t undressing, Christina slowly unclothes. Antonio looks up and stares in shock and joy at the woman standing before him like a beautiful statue, smiling femininely, aware of her own value but not sure of his reaction to her offering. Antonio rushes to her, “It had to be. I felt it. I felt it…. Life is so glorious, the improbable.” Christina affirms this with a purr and they make love, for the next three days.

On the last day, one of the most poignant love scenes in cinema unfolds. Slowly, wordlessly, Christina moves around their room, to a dresser, a candlestick holder, a spinning wheel, the wall, touching them as if sacred objects. Lying on their bed, she caresses their pillow with her cheek, breathing it in. We see a close-up of the longing and wonder on her face. Smiling, Antonio asks her what she is doing. Christina replies, “I have been memorizing the room. In my memory I shall live a great deal in this room.” Upon their parting, Christina does not reveal she is the queen he must soon kneel before, but says, “I promise you that we shall meet again.”

John Gilbert as Antonio and Greta Garbo as Queen Christina in a scene from Queen Christina. Image courtesy of MGM

The rest of the story develops the thematic conflict of Christina’s choice to stay a dutiful but unhappy queen or to somehow be a happy woman with the man she loves. The drama is escalated by Count Magnas, Christina’s jealous former lover, who turns the court and people against Antonio, endangering his life. The conflict builds to one of the most famous climaxes in film history.

As excellent as this story and its execution are, with imaginative plotting, artful directing, and stylized acting, the greatest value the film has to offer is the incomparable Garbo.

Born in Sweden in 1905, Greta Garbo had by 1926 become a major silent star in the United States and across the globe. Considered one of the most beautiful faces and best actresses in movies, she famously retired from the screen in 1941 and never returned (including turning down an opportunity to star in The Fountainhead ). Queen Christina was made in 1933 and is among Garbo’s best films (see also CamilleMata HariNinotchka)—and it showcases brilliantly her great abilities and rare presence and appeal.

When watching Garbo, as in Queen Christina, you are aware that you are not watching an ordinary person, a woman from next door, but rather someone who looks as if she is a goddess just descended from Mount Olympus.

First there is Garbo’s face. Not classically beautiful, it is seductively attractive, intelligent, and always interesting in its expressions and reactions. It has often been remarked that Garbo’s face was the most sensitive and expressive in the movies, that with the lift of an eyebrow, the pursing of her lips, or a burst of laughter, she could reveal more than any other actor. And what her face revealed more than anyone was her “thinking,” her intelligence at work and her expression of a vast range of human needs and passions.

Then there is the way Garbo moves: looking up at a man femininely but confidently in love, standing resolute like a great king against all demands, speaking with masculine strength and dignity, lying innocently on her bed reading the latest great play or striding purposefully with two mastiffs at her side—all are the unique and stylized expression of self-assuredness and greatness of spirit.

If one were to try to describe Garbo in one word, it would be “exotic.” She is exotic, not because she is Swedish or playing a Renaissance queen, but because she is exotic in spirit. What Garbo projects is the spirit of what a queen should be: regal, intriguing, and most of all greater and larger than life. Her staircase scene in Queen Christina is quintessential Garbo: standing alone atop her palace staircase, she faces a mob of rampaging peasants and, armed only with her moral confidence and power of personality, persuades them to leave. Garbo is exotic because she is not like anyone you know.

It is no surprise that Garbo was Romantic novelist Ayn Rand’s favorite actress, and in Rand’s 1934 play Ideal, the lead character of Kay Gonda is based on Garbo. Ayn Rand summed up the spirit Garbo projected on the screen in a statement by Gonda’s press agent, Mick Watts: “Kay Gonda does not cook her own meals or knit her own underwear. She does not play golf, adopt babies, or endow hospitals for homeless horses. She is not kind to her dear old mother—she has no dear old mother. She is not just like you and me. She never was like you and me. She’s like nothing you bastards ever dreamed of!”

Garbo also has special appeal because of her exotic femininity. She is the exact opposite of the helpless, weak, or cute women who have crowded the screen, from sweethearts in the Silent period to interchangeable actresses today who believe that sex appeal entails chewing gum and swearing or being seductive with sweetness or a giggle. Garbo is always a woman who plays strong and by her rules. When a man watches Garbo he stands on his toes, ready for adventure or trouble. And to women, Garbo is larger than life, but she is the concretization and promise that a woman, also, can be a giant.

The stylized world Greta Garbo radiates is not of the gutter, the vulgar or the cheap, but a world of glamour, elegant strength, greatness of spirit—and especially the dramatic, a world where one knows exciting things will happen.

The expression on the screen of these values is what made Greta Garbo a great star—and that, combined with the thematic and plot values of Queen Christina, make it one of the greatest films ever made. MM

Featured image courtesy of MGM. 

2 Comments

  1. Raam

    August 3, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    Excellent analysis of the film and the star….Scott has an eye for detail an transports you to the
    aura of queen Garbo.

  2. Shelly Reuben

    August 3, 2018 at 5:01 pm

    Well, that is just a marvelous article about Greta Garbo, her impact on movies, her talent, intelligence and beauty. Wonderfully written. Now I have to find all the films you mentioned and watch them. I’m in the mood for a little “Larger than life!”

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