Tuesday, April 25, 2006


I've probably said this before, but I'm not a Greta Garbo fan. She always seems to be **Acting** and I rarely feel that she's playing a rounded character. This film, often mentioned as one of her best, didn't change my overall opinion of her, but it is a good film, and she gives a solid performance. In 1632, during the 30 Years War, Sweden's King Gustavus dies in battle and his five-year-old daughter is made queen. When she grows up (to be Garbo), she proves to be a strong and independent ruler looking to settle for peace rather than continue with war, but her Chancellor (Lewis Stone) feels that her ideas are too utopian. She refuses to marry her princely cousin (Reginald Owen) who has been chosen for her and she carries on an unsatisfying affair with the Lord Treasurer (Ian Keith). Beset by troubles, Garbo escapes by going forth amongst her people dressed like a man and on one such trip, she meets up at a roadside inn with a Spanish diplomat (John Gilbert) on his way to visit the Queen, whom he has never met. The two hit it off and wind up having to share a room overnight. Clearly, Gilbert feels an ambiguous tug of sexual desire (I was reminded of James Garner and Julie Andrews in VICTOR/VICTORIA but with a bit more heat), and when she has to undress to share his bed, the game is up and the two spend three snowbound days together in the room. This leads to a famous scene in which Garbo languidly walks about the room, touching and caressing the walls, the bed, the furniture, saying she's trying to memorize everything about their tryst. When Gilbert is brought before the queen a few days later, carrying a marriage proposal from the King of Spain, he is shocked to discover her identity, but they carry on their fling. Egged on by Keith, the people express irritation that Garbo refuses to make a politically expedient marriage and instead seems content dallying with her lover. Tired of being primarily a symbol to her people, she decides to send Gilbert away, give up the throne, and join him in exile, but the jealous Keith, after essentially kidnapping Gilbert, challenges him to a duel. Gilbert is mortally wounded and Garbo is present for his last breath. Despite his death, she sails on for Spain alone, leading to another famous moment, a long tracking shot in on Garbo's face as she stands nearly expressionless in the wind, like a human figurehead on the ship.

It took me a while to warm to Garbo; in the beginning, she plays the Queen with a slightly distracted air, like almost every other part she plays, but when Gilbert (an ex-lover of hers in real life) enters the scene, she more fully inhabits the character. Gilbert, on a downward career spiral after having been a big romantic star in the silents, is good here, if a bit lightweight at times, though I was very impressed with his initial scenes with Garbo at the inn when he's not sure what he's feeling for this interesting person. Elizabeth Young plays Garbo's favorite countess at court; they have a full-mouth kiss that some viewers have taken as code for an expression of bisexuality on the Queen's part, but in the absence of any other corroborating plot points, I'm not so sure. At any rate, the scene is a little startling. C. Aubrey Smith and David Torrence are in the supporting cast. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the movie always looks great (sets, costumes, camerawork), though I can't help but wonder how over-the-top a version by SCARLET EMPRESS director Josef von Sternberg would have been. [TCM]

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