Queen Christina, the 1933 movie about the 17th century queen of Sweden, was a perfect vehicle for Greta Garbo. Very loosely based on historical events the movie tells the story of the queens ill-fated romance with the Spanish ambassador. The final scene of the movie, a very long, intense close-up on Ms. Garbo as Chirstina stands at the bow of the ship taking her away from Sweden, is one of the most famous shots in cinema history.
According to legend, when Ms. Garbo asked the director, Rouben Mamoulian, what she should be thinking of during the shot, he replied, “Nothing. Nothing at all.” Whatever really happened, the scene works as do all of the close-ups in the movie.
Honestly, I thought the whole thing should have been just close-ups of Greta Garbo. I couldn’t get enough of them.
C.J. and I saw Queen Christina at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley last night. They are currently in the middle of a Garbo retrospective, The Luminous Legacy of Greta Garbo, through July 13. She is still one of the undisputed masters of the close-up. They must have been very difficult to do in 1933 because there are only a few in Queen Christina. Or maybe this is a choice the director made, give the audience just enough to make them realize how badly they want more of them. Whatever. i worked for me. I want more.
At this point in time most people don’t have a way to see old movies, black and white ones, on the big screen anymore. Even large cities which used to have plenty of second-run art houses have succumbed to multiplexes filled with superheroes. If you’re watching black and white pictures on the small screen, even a big small screen, you’re not getting the full effect. Movies made in 1933 weren’t made for small screens. There were no small screens in 1933.
You really have to see a Garbo close-up when it’s 30 feet high at least once before you die.
This scene from Queen Christina features a wonderful close up about halfway through. It also gives and excellent sense of what made the movie and Garbo so much fun to watch. She’s in masculine dress. Her father raised her as a boy, as we learned in the film’s opening. She is a woman in a man’s world, moving through it forcefully on her own terms with a sense of humor about it all, as we see in the scene’s final bit of dialogue. It’s also a bittersweet moment since it predicts the film’s conclusion. She’s a complicated character, leading the actress through a very wide range of emotions in just a few minutes.
But the close up. The close up is everything.
I won’t leave you looking for the famous final scene. It begins with Garbo crying over the body of her lover who has died in a duel. She had hoped to find him waiting on board the ship what was to take the two of them back to his estate in Spain where they hoped to live out their romance. Wait for her to blink. She never will.