Films: Queen Christina, Love Me Tonight
Format: DVDs from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
Often, these films are nothing more than names on a list to me until I actually watch them. Such is the case with Queen Christina. I had no idea this film concerned the reign of the historical Swedish queen of the 17th Century. As it happens, I recently read a book on the life, philosophy, and strange fate of the remains of philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes died in Sweden after being summoned there by Christina herself. A strange little coincidence for me (and it was a personal joy for me to hear a Descartes mention early in the film).
The historical Christina (according to “Descartes’ Bones”) was an unusual monarch. She had been essentially raised as a boy, and comported herself as a man, so much so that there are a few historians who believe she may have been one. The historical Christina abdicated her throne eventually because of her conversion to Catholicism—a scandal in the almost exclusively Protestant Sweden. We won’t have to worry about any of this here—Christina is played by the entirely feminine Greta Garbo, and this film is a romance.
There are a few nods toward the real Christina here—Garbo tends to go clad in men’s clothing, and successfully passes herself off as a man at one point in the film. While this film hardly purports itself to be anything like historical truth, it’s nice that there’s at least something of a wink toward the reality.
Anyway, Christina is named Queen of Sweden at the age of six when her father, Gustavus Adolphus, is killed in the middle of the 30 Years War. She proclaims that she will lead her forces to victory, bringing Sweden to its rightful place as the foremost country in Europe. Jump cut, and suddenly the 30 Years War has been going on for about 30 years, and Christina is an adult. The court clamors for her to marry her cousin, Karl Gustav (Reginald Owen), a hero of the war. However, Christina has dedicated herself to ruling her people as well as she can, and has thus avoided any romances and romantic entanglements.
She also wants peace, and a little time to herself. After a day of being in council and being berated by everyone in her court, she longs for some time to herself. She heads off for a ride in the country and happens to come across a carriage that has become mired in some heavy loose snow. As it turns out, the carriage holds the Spanish ambassador to her court. He has about 17 names, but goes by Antonio (and is played by one-time Garbo fiancé, John Gilbert). She helps them out of the snow, and by virtue of her clothing, she is assumed to be a man.
Christina and her servant, Aage (C. Aubrey Smith), end up at a country inn. So too does the Spanish ambassador. Because of the weather, the innkeeper has run out of rooms, and the “young lord” who is actually Christina and Antonio must not only share a room, but a bed. And it isn’t too long after this happens that Antonio discovers that the “young lord” is in fact a young woman (and played by Garbo, no less). And so romance blooms, him unaware that she is the queen.
The problem happens when the people of Sweden react badly the fact that their queen is being romanced by a foreigner, since they wish for only a purely Swedish heir to sit on the throne. They wish nothing to do with the Spaniard, and want him removed. Christina must decide between what is best for her country and what is best for her, and the decision is not an easy one.
This is quite an impressive film in a number of respects, not the least of which is Garbo’s performance. In many moments, the film almost appears like a stage play, complete with overacting and shouted dialogue. In the quieter moments, though, it is quite subdued. Director Rouben Mamoulian features a number of extreme close-ups of Garbo’s face throughout the film, almost as if to prove he’s actually working with Garbo. They come across very well; Garbo’s star rose because she was so extremely photogenic.
What I find especially interesting here is the gender bending throughout the film. Except in a couple of scenes where Garbo is in elaborate dresses because of affairs of state, she dresses in men’s clothing. The scenes in which she is taken for a man are perhaps not entirely believable (after all, she’s one of the greatest screen beauties in history), but anyone not looking too carefully at her face would be fooled by the pants. And then there’s her relationship with Countess Ebba Sparre (Elizabeth Young). It’s slightly implied that the two might be a little more than friends; again, an interesting idea for a film from 1933.
This film also features some truly horrible rear projection work, among the worst I’ve seen. I know the technology was rudimentary in the early 30s, but it’s hard to ignore when people riding in carriages appear unnaturally large against the scenery behind them. I’m not suggesting that I wouldn’t have been able to tell—even good rear projection work is obvious—but this was really wretched. However, it’s a tiny piece of the film, and easily overlooked.
That’s good, because it should be overlooked. Queen Christina is a true romance from start to finish, with performances that, while over the top, are still worth watching today.
Sticking with the same director, we jump back a year to Love Me Tonight, a musical that features the dubious talents of Jeanette MacDonald. Okay, that’s not really fair.
Just as Queen Christina is a true romance, Love Me Tonight is a true romantic comedy, and a screwball comedy at that. We start with, and I mean this sincerely, one of the great opening sequences of its time. The city of Paris wakes up, and everything happens in a rhythm that slowly and steadily grows, each new person or thing entering the scene adding to the overall music. It slowly builds and builds until we meet Maurice (Maurice Chevalier), who good naturedly complains that the city is too loud for him. Maurice is a tailor, and a good one. He also likes to sing
It’s his bad luck to create a great deal of clothing for Viscount Gilbert de Vareze (Charles Ruggles). Gilbert has a habit of not paying any of his debts, and now Maurice wants his money, and he wants to be able to pay off those who also made clothes for the Viscount—the shirtmaker, the hatmaker, and the rest. So he heads off to the chateau.
On the way, the car breaks down, and he encounters Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), who is naturally singing when he sees her. He’s immediately smitten with her, and sings to her as well, and when he makes a play for her, she spurns him. Undaunted, Maurice heads to the chateau. If you guessed that Jeanette lives at the chateau, it’s because you’ve seen either a musical or a romantic comedy before.
We learn a number of important things at this time, too. First, Jeanette is just 22, but has been a widow for three years. Her husband was in his 70s, and she was married to him because there seems to be a paucity of eligible nobility in the area. Her doctor recommends that she be married soon, and to someone her own age. Second, Count de Savignac (Charles Butterworth) is making a play for Jeanette despite being something of a wimp and not really of high enough nobility to properly court her. Third, the Duke D’Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith) is more than tired of all of the craziness around him, particularly Gilbert’s massive debts. Finally, de Savignac has a niece named Valentine (Myrna Loy) who is man crazy.
To save himself, Gilbert introduces Maurice as Baron Courtelin, Of course, there is no title of Baron Courtelin, which is soon discovered, and anyway, Maurice can’t help but be obsessed with clothing, which outs him as a tailor. And he continues to court Jeanette, who resists, doesn’t resist, and then resists again.
This is a fun movie, and it is absolutely a movie. The characters here are the sort of extreme characters that only exist in Hollywood, and more specifically only exist in screwball comedies from this era. Everyone is just a shade too wacky to be a real person, but it’s okay. This is what we should expect from a film of this genre and this era.
You might not be familiar with Maurice Chevalier, but you’re probably familiar with Pepe le Pew, who was modeled on him. Chevalier is the guy you think of when you think of the extreme French stereotype—the “Hauw hauw hauw” laugh and goofy accent and all. While he’s a stereotype, or became one, he’s still pretty charming. And he can sing.
Jeanette MacDonald, of course, made her name as a singer with Nelson Eddy. Her style was particularly operatic, which grates on me. I like her quite a bit when she’s not singing, though. She has good comic timing, and she’s fun when she’s not warbling somewhere north of high C. She can also pull off a non-operatic style, and in those songs, she’s quite a bit more bearable.
Where this movie really sings (pun intended) is in the filming of a number of the musical numbers. The opening piece is a real show-stopper, and starts things off tremendously. “Isn’t it Romantic” is sung in parts, moving from person to person across a great deal of Paris in a truly inventive sequence. “Lover,” a romantic song, is played her for comedy, since Princess Jeanette sings it to her horse. This is fun stuff.
There are other fun bits, too. Jeanette has a trio of aunts who move and talk in unison. During a fainting spell, the three aunts run down the stairs of the chateau clucking like mother hens, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I laughed at this genuinely, backed up, watched it again, and laughed just as hard the second time.
All in all, musicals are not my thing, but this one goes down pretty easily thanks to a fun script and story, a very good cast, and some inventive work in staging by Mamoulian. It was better and much less painful than I could have hoped, and that says a lot.
Why to watch Queen Christina: The romance is quite sweet and tragic, the way good romance should be.
Why not to watch: It’s a romance, not a romantic comedy. The difference is significant.
Why to watch Love My Tonight: Some truly inventive filming in the musical numbers.
Why not to watch: It’s a musical, and it conforms to musical “sensibilities.”