I have been friends with Caroline, the author of Garbo Laughs, since we were classmates at Mills College, a whopping 6 years ago. We started our blogs within 5 months of each other (Garbo Laughs is 5 months older!), and since then, because of our personal friendship and blogging style, Garbo Laughs and Backlots have been intertwined in many ways. Caroline is a gifted writer, and I’m certainly honored to be associated with a blog of this caliber.
For the second year in a row, Garbo Laughs is hosting its Queer Film Blogathon, a celebration of, in Caroline’s words, “lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, or otherwise non-heterosexual, non-gender-binary depictions or personages in film.” Last year I submitted a profile of Judy Garland, because really, what would a queer blogathon be without any mention of Judy Garland? This year, I will try my luck with Queen Christina, a riveting historical account of a monarch, a fascinating study of lesbian depictions onscreen, and of what movies could get away with before the implementation of the Hays Code.
Based loosely on the life of Queen Christina of Sweden, the film takes particular care to hint subtly at the queen’s real-life sexual identity, alleged to be transgender or intersex (the queen often wore men’s clothes, had a strong, masculine voice and masculine features, never expressed an interest in marriage, and displayed a general manner that was described as being manly. The historical evidence mounted so high that in 1965 an archaeological undertaking was commissioned to explore the possibility of Queen Christina being intersex. The results were inconclusive.) It is particularly interesting that this part of the queen’s life was kept intact, while other, less controversial details of her life were fabricated or exaggerated for the movie.
The most famous scene in Queen Christina is one in which the queen kisses a duchess firmly on the lips in a good morning greeting. Though the textual layer of the film suggests that they’re just friends, when one reads into the subtext, in this case the facial expressions and acting technique of Greta Garbo, one is enticed to question exactly what this relationship is.
Another scene that toys with the audience’s perception and interpretation of the film is this exchange, between the Chancellor and the queen:
CHANCELLOR: But your majesty! You cannot die an old maid!
QUEEN CHRISTINA: I have no intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!
In the days before the implementation of the revised production code in 1934, filmmakers had a much freer reign and tighter artistic control over their work, and thus many plots, scenes, and situations that we today would consider racy or controversial were frequent occurrences in the era before the Code. After the Hays Code went into effect, we began to see far less outward expression of homosexuality, as the Hays Code stipulated that “sex perversion [homosexuality] or any inference to it is forbidden.” The first known lesbian kiss onscreen occurred in 1930 in the Marlene Dietrich film Morocco:
In Queen Christina, Greta Garbo’s portrayal of the queen is striking. Her physicality in conveying the character is masterfully executed–walking with a cat-like stride, with slumped shoulders and decidedly masculine intonation in her voice, this is not the Garbo that audiences were used to. Interestingly enough, however, it seems that this was an outward expression of Garbo’s own bisexuality, which was scarcely a secret in Hollywood. She had affairs with many women over the years, notably playwright and poet Mercedes de Acosta, whose correspondence with Garbo was released in 2000. Though the Rosenbach Museum possesses love letters between them, they have not been made available to the public.
Queen Christina is a unique film with a unique place in cinema history. It is important not only as an early expression of sexuality on film, but also as a veiled hint at the sexuality of an explosive Hollywood star, and, apart from the LGBT aspect of this film, it is considered one of the best of the 1930’s and an essential classic in the Greta Garbo pantheon of films.