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Queen Christina 1932: Behind the Scenes

I might have mentioned my Greta Garbo project here once or a gazillion times. I’m going to be getting back into the draft in a couple of weeks (I want to finish the section I’m on in Before Again first, and I have a TV pilot to get ready too), but I’ve been trying to squeeze in some extra research here and there.

Yesterday, I came across two snippets that interested me beyond what they revealed about Garbo.

The first concerns Garbo and director Rouben Mamoulian’s clash over rehearsal on the set of Queen Christina. Garbo, you see, never wanted to rehearse. She trained at the prestigious Dramaten (Sweden’s RADA), but then went directly to movies so, unlike most of her contemporaries, never acted in theatre. This left her with a complex that she wasn’t a “real” actress – despite being the biggest movie star in the world at the time, she was convinced that her every great performance was a fluke and that her luck would run out at any moment.

But Mamoulian had come from theatre. He trained at the Moscow Art Theatre under Stanislavski, whose theories on acting would go on to form the basis of the Method, used by Brando and Hoffman et all. Even today (or at least a couple of decades ago when I was a drama student!) Stanislavski’s books are required reading for all wannabe young actors.

So he was big into rehearsal.

Now, I’ve discovered that when you research a period, (at least, when you research this period!) you come across dozens of variations on the same event or anecdote. It’s probably inevitable that there’s a bit of Chinese whispers as one writer hears one version and repeats it so it becomes cannon at the same time as another writer hears another version. I’m also just starting to investigate another event from the period, and quite frankly I’m relieved we’re in that post-truth era as I can already see that my chances of unravelling the truth are slim 😉

Anyway, so I’ve read various versions of the Garbo and Mamoulian and rehearsal story, but they’ve all gone broadly like this:

Mamoulian announced they’d be rehearsing, Garbo freaked out and refused, he challenged her to do one take her way, then rehearse and do another his way, and she saw the error of her ways. Some versions make it a bet, others have her privately viewing the two takes then returning, subdued, to set to beg him to destroy the first take. But the gist of all of them is that she was proven wrong.

Which — okay, don’t get me wrong, Mamoulian was unquestionably a great director (who deserves to be much better known today than he is), but the story does leave you with a bit of a nasty taste in your mouth. It suggests that Garbo – one of the greatest movie stars of all time – was in fact a fluke. That she hadn’t really known what she was doing until this young upstart (he had only been working in Hollywood a couple of years at this time) came along to show her what was what. It’s got a slightly uncomfortable – and given their respective statuses, absurd – Pygmalion overtones.

So then I came across this, which is a direct quote from Rouben Mamoulian in conversation with Garbo’s biographer Sven Broman:

“My first take is always the best,” insisted Garbo.
“… But if it doesn’t work, can we agree that we will work according to my methods, i.e. rehearsal?”
“Don’t worry,” said Garbo.
“Garbo was right,” admitted Mamoulian. “She really could act. She was an intuitive actress. It was something of a miracle, a divine gift… Garbo was simply unique.”

So according to the director himself, she was right, and on that occasion, he was wrong. I wonder when the story got twisted?

Anybody who knows the movie knows the iconic final shot. Christina (this isn’t a spoiler, it’s the story of the whole movie!) has abdicated the throne of Sweden for her love Don Antonio, only for him to get himself killed in a duel (okay that was technically a spoiler, but how many of you are actually going to watch a 90 year old movie on my say so?! Quite). So she’s on the ship, sailing alone into the unknown, and the camera just lingers on her face forever. It’s stunning.

In a way it’s sort of the Mona Lisa of the movies, because for decades, movie nerds have debated what she’s thinking: is she heartbroken and wishing she could hightail it back to the palace? Was Don Antonio only an excuse for her to do what she wanted anyway and now she’s thrilled and a bit scared? Or is it a mixture of the two but she’s determined to face it with stoic dignity?

According to Mamoulian (this is from Barry Norman’s Talking Pictures):

For weeks I couldn’t solve the ending and then it came to me. When Garbo said to me, “What do I act at the end?”, I said, “You come to the front and you act nothing, because no matter what you act you’ll split the audience. If you smile they’ll say, “What on earth is she smiling at?”. If you cry, they’ll say “what a weak woman”… you think of nothing, you become a mask and let every spectator write his own feelings in.

Watch for yourself to see how compelling Garbo could make “nothing”:

Now, the shot is amazing so whatever direction Mamoulian gave is a-okay by me, but isn’t it kind of depressing to read someone so succinctly sum up the ideal woman – on screen or off?



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