Friday, January 8, 2010
I've always been anxious to watch Queen Christina. It really makes no sense that I was delighted to find it on VHS about three years ago, and yet somehow left it there on my shelf unseen, a permanent "still to be seen" lister, until this morning. Maybe it was the stigma early costume pieces have with me (I've been burned so many times on MGM costume spectacles that just turned out wooden as a plank and bo-o-o-oring, despite lavish sets and stars like there are in the night sky). When I almost bought a copy of it on DVD this weekend, I decided it was time to watch the VHS.
John Gilbert was a love at first sight for me. One of the most popular of late silent actors, Gilbert's profile in Jeanine Basinger's seminal Silent Stars, not to mention smoldering pictures of the actor therein, piqued my interest. Handsome as the devil, big flashing eyes, smart little moustache, and white hot love scenes with real-life paramour Greta Garbo, WHAT IS NOT TO LIKE. Flesh and the Devil had a particular love scene, the still of which is reprinted again and again in cinema texts, which I'll post here:
You think this looks saucy in still motion? See the movie. Nineteen twenty-six! In a tight closeup, I can't think of anything closer to what real romantic kissing looks like. Maybe the scene with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. But this one is just electric.
That said, you'd need to know that, in spite of the fact that Garbo seemed to primarily interested in women/Svengali Mauritz Stiller/privacy/herself, she and Gilbert had what was, to Gilbert at least, a very real love affair, culminating in Gilbert left standing at the altar. Her talking movie career, beginning with Anna Christie (1930), went off like a shot. "Garbo Talks" (with a heavy Swedish accent) turned out to be a great thing, as the icy good looks matched up well with the husky, accented voice. His movie career, however, floundered with the advent of sound pictures, the reason behind this having several possible causations, the most popular reporting of which was his thin voice.
Which brings us to what I most looked forward to in Queen Christina-- John Gilbert's speaking voice. Many silent stars did not, it turns out, sound like they were supposed to (by which I mean, to us moviegoers) when talking pictures became the thing in the late twenties and early thirties. Clara Bow, case in point, spoke in a thick Brooklynese(*), which seemed a direct contradiction to her spritely, Kewpie doll looks. Chaplin's voice was sonorous enough, but God he talked too much in subsequent sound pictures. The tramp character had never needed sound to create pathos (**).
And Gilbert was supposed to have a tiny little tenor voice.
Some sources I've read thought studio head Louis Mayer tinkered with the timbre on the soundtrack of Gilbert's first sound picture, His Glorious Night, in response to a grudge Mayer harbored against Gilbert (I can't remember...I think something about a drunk Gilbert at a party saying all women were whores, then Mayer saying what about his mother, then Gilbert saying his own mother was whore, and Mayer flipping his lid because it was about the most sacrilegious thing he'd ever heard, etc, etc. Studio execs can be weird). I found a clip of the film here which seems to only support another theory I've heard that the quality of John Gilbert's voice itself was not the problem, but merely the lines he was required to say. "I lo-o-o-ve you, re-e-eally." If the inflection in those lines is over the top, please watch any sound movie that came out between 1929 and 1932, say. I'm not naming names, but ye Gods, who among them all was reading a line with any kind of naturalistic style?
So I sat down to watch Queen Christina with all these things in mind, and I need to say now that I was completely bowled over. The story was strong, Garbo, in spite of a weird pageboy I'm sure had something to do with historical accuracy, looked as good as ever, and then John Gilbert. He was just as beautiful, just as magnetic, as in any of his silent pictures I've seen. To mention Clara Bow again, both she and Gilbert have these large, dark eyes that flash like exclamation points. I've never seen another actor's eyes quite touch that flash-- as if there was a special relationship between the film camera and the breathing person in front of it. I was pointing out to my boyfriend that in spite of the fact that Antonio (John Gilbert's character) bears a striking resemblance to Magnus (John Gilbert's character's rival), both tall, good looking, dark hair and eyes, it was easy to tell Gilbert because he was the one who looked like a star.
The movie was a great "royalty chooses between love and country" story-- I usually don't go for those (it's frustrating to keep shouting "CHOOSE LOVE! CHOOSE LOVE! DAMMIT, I HATE THESE MOVIES, WHY IS SHE CHOOSING HER COUNTRY OVER LOVE?!" for the duration of a two hour film), but this one had me glued to it. Garbo was perfect-- sometimes I find, in spite of her great personal beauty, a little histrionic, but it was well under control for the most part. I was happy to see them together again. Slightly disappointing ending, it felt rushed, but the last scene of Garbo's face as she sails out of the Swedish harbor is justly memorable.
From what I understand, this was a role that Garbo more or less gave to Gilbert. His star had been on the wane for three or four years (an entire lifetime in studio system Hollywood) as hers continued to climb-- she demanded that he be chosen for the role over several bigger names. His daughter's biography, one of the better books about early Hollywood and from an upclose look, as the author had her own mother as a source, relates a continual slide into alcoholism and obscurity, interspersed with a brief marriage to Virginia Bruce and an affair with Marlene Dietrich, until his death of a heart attack in 1936, only three years after Queen Christina was released.
And yet! Watch his solid acting in this film and enjoy one of the truly great silent stars in an unimpeachably good talking performance. I might just have to go in for the DVD.
John Gilbert at imdb
John Gilbert at Golden Silents
Technicolor (!!!) speaking (!!!) clip with Norma Shearer (!!!!!!) (I need to figure out what this is all about)
A little (weirdly narrated) documentary about Gilbert and Garbo with lots of clips
* accent barely contained in this clip from her last film in 1933.
** see the last scene of City Lights. Bring many, many handkerchiefs.