"What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober."
So said critic Kenneth Tynan in 1954. Not only is this one of the most incisive quotes about movie star allure, it seems to truly capture the essence that was and still is Greta Garbo. There is indeed something about this cinematic beauty, something that goes beyond her mere presence on the screen. There is something magical in watching Garbo: a mystery, an unidentifiable association, a breathtaking persona of utter captivation. Make no mistake though, and this is crucial, Garbo the actress was more than just looks. She was a fine performer and she had a powerful command of each and every frame she occupied.
Much of what made Greta Garbo such a prominent figure in cinema history is on display in her 1933 film Queen Christina. This was several years after her first American feature, Torrent, in 1926. Garbo is such a fixture in Hollywood iconography that it's sometimes easy, despite her accent, to forget that she worked to considerable acclaim in Sweden before this; her debut screen role was in a short called How Not to Dress in 1920. But it was after the one-two punch of Gösta Berlings saga (1924) and The Joyless Street (1925) that Garbo was promptly lured to Hollywood in an MGM deal that also brought with her Mauritz Stiller, the director of the former film.
Garbo benefitted from her exotic quality in these early American features, and her lack of English speaking didn't matter in silent film, so her star rose quickly. Then came Anna Christie in 1930, her first sound effort. How would she transition? So many stars of the silent screen had failed in the conversion, and some of them spoke the language just fine. The result … "Garbo Talks!" That's how Anna Christie was sold and it was a success. Her accented, husky, even somewhat masculine voice was fascinating and seductive. She ended up with a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance. What's more, she was also nominated the same year, in the same category, for Romance (1930). Welcome to Hollywood.
What followed were significant turns in classics like Grand Hotel (1932), Camille (1936 - Best Actress nomination #3) and Ninotchka (1939 - nomination #4). Her last film was Two-Faced Woman in 1941.
Coming back to Queen Christina though, this was Garbo at her most sexually ambiguous and daring (like Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, made three years previous, she too cross dresses and kisses another woman). Garbo stars in the titular role as the popular ruler of 17th century Sweden, a position she inherited from her equally admired father. All seems to be going well, but she soon begins to ruffle some feathers when she first opposes the incessant drive to conquer continuously and, second, when she refuses to show interest in her assumed would-be suitor Prince Charles Gustavus (Reginald Owen), a lauded war hero. Christina flees the throne for a while, just to get away from it all. Her hair reasonably short for a woman's, and dressed in innocuous attire, she is somehow presumed to be a man (!). In this guise, she ends up sharing a room with the Spanish emissary Antonio, played by John Gilbert in what was basically his last major role; after one more film he died of a heart attack in 1936. As they begin to disrobe for the evening, the jig is quickly up. Subsequently, of course, they fall in love. (Didn't he just think she was a man? No matter.) Christina does not, however, let Antonio know that she is the queen he is on his way to meet. That surprise comes later in the midst of a royal ceremony. When her love for Antonio is seen by some as a distraction, maybe even a disloyal fancy, things get complicated for Christina and she is essentially forced to choose between love and country.
Queen Christina is a richly romantic film, full of grand emoting and lush close-ups, carefully lit to accentuate Garbo's striking face. This is Hollywood's style in the golden age at its best. At the helm of the picture was director Rouben Mamoulian, a neglected figure in American film history. Applause (1929), his first film as director, was a pioneering work in early sound film production, where he contested the common notion that the camera couldn't move as effortlessly with the new, cumbersome sound equipment as it could in the silent days. His Becky Sharp (1935) was the first three-color Technicolor movie. In Queen Christina, he keeps the mobile camera and uses it to great effect throughout. He also crafts a notably textured backdrop for the film, its settings detailed and elaborate.
In the end, in a testament to her cinematic impact, it is Garbo that captivates more than anything else. This isn't a knock on actors and actresses of equal or greater skill, but there is simply a notable impression made by performers who seem especially suited for the screen. Does it help that the star be attractive? Sure, there's that, but that's really only part of it. The camera likes them, and they radiate a force that is pronounced but oftentimes indescribable. And this is Greta Garbo. No matter the role, the quality of filmmaking, the setting or the costars, when Garbo is seen all else fades.
I get the sense there's a good deal of Garbo in Queen Christina. She too felt hounded by those around her, by the pressures and expectations of her profession. She seemed torn between work and a personal life and struggled to perhaps rise above a superficial obligation. A reputation for isolation would be misapplied to Garbo, and yet it only added to her mystique. As she noted, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be left alone.' There is all the difference."