This week I explored the role of Greta Garbo in the history of American cinema as an actress. Same as Marlene Dietrich, she moved to Hollywood from Europe during the early stage of her career and starred in a number of Hollywood films. There she made a fame for herself and became an iconic figure for American films in the 1930s. In this blog, I will study several distinguishing characteristics in terms of gender and sexuality in her acting through Queen Christina (1933) and Camille (1936) and compare her against Marlene Dietrich. Queen Christina is a dramatized adaption of the namesake historical figure, in which Christina, the queen of Sweden, gives up her throne for her doomed love for Antonio, an envoy from Spain. Camille, a screen adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias, features the emotional struggle of Marguerite Gautier, a courtesan in Paris, between the rich Baron de Varville and her true love, the young Almond.
One noticeable aspect of Garbo’s early life was her acquaintance with Marlene Dietrich and their co-starring in The Joyless Street (1925). Even though neither of them has ever publicly acknowledged their acquaintance, the author of The Girls have successfully identified a scene in this film, where in a queue in front of a butcher shop Garbo fell into Dietrich’s arms out of weakness, which suggested at least a likelihood of their early friendship and perhaps intimacy. Even if we leave aside their connection, we can still reasonably infer that the initial stage of Garbo’s starring career in Weimar Germany in the 20s has influenced her persona with its sexual disobedience (McLellan 61-62).
Perhaps under this influence, Garbo shares a commonality with Dietrich — androgyny, though played in a distinct fashion. This trait of her could not be made clearer in Queen Christina, where she plays a powerful dominatrix role of a queen who was “brought up like a boy” (Cukor, Queen Christina). She stands at the top of the social pyramid, where every male bows to her in her presence. In the first half of the film, we see a completely masculine figure deprived of feminine quality. She gives out orders in a hoarse voice, sits in a manly majestic fashion and stamps the table with her fist to express her discontent. She poses a sharp contrast with her sister Ebba, whose interest lies in sleighing while hers are in “ambassadors, treaties, councils” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Dressing herself in male attire, she is often mistakenly taken as a boy, including first by her “homme fatale” Antonio. She even denies her own femininity in a famous line: “I have no intention to (die an old maid), chancellor. I shall die a bachelor” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Yet she contradicts her own words when she meets the Spanish ambassador Antonio, where her masculinity melts down and is replaced by tender actions and soft words. In a famous scene featuring her and Antonio, she tenderly caresses and kisses the bed sheet, the pictures on the wall and even the column of the room. Turning her head and looking into Antonio’s eyes, she softly murmurs, “I have been memorizing this room” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Meanwhile Antonio, with a pair of amorous flames in his eyes, replies, “I’ll show you the whole living world” (Cukor, Queen Christina). All sentiments burst out from Christina at this moment and filled her with tender joy, revealing the feminine side of her persona. This complete reversal in sexual expression is a signature of Garbo’s performance in this film, which Dietrich plays with in Shanghai Express as well (see my last blog for more elaboration).
Christina and Antonio in Queen Christina
Marguerite and Almond in the ending of Camille
The relationship between Christina and Antonio also draws out another similarity between Garbo and Dietrich — their independence in sexuality and challenge to patriarchal values. In Queen Christina, Garbo is pressured to engage with Prince Charles, a traditional male hero with no outstanding character but his might in the battlefield and stoic virtues. Her eminence in politics obviously does not rid her of the patriarchal oppression that other women faces, as she is burdened with the task to “give Sweden an heir” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Her ultimate response is to abdicate from her throne and pursue her love as a woman, getting rid of the patriarchal system altogether. She proclaims her heart, “There is a voice in our souls, which tells us what to do, and we obey” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Her disregard for the traditional values of sexuality and patriarchal power is more evident in Camille. In this film, she dismisses her friends’ suggestion for her to approach the rich Baron de Varville, but advances to pursue Almond instead, a young man with no power or wealth. Marlene Dietrich also shows her disregard for patriarchal power in Morocco, where she defies the wealthy La Bessiere and follows her true lover Tom Brown, as well as the Scarlet Empress, where she pursues to wield the power herself and becomes Catherine the Great.
The similarity between Garbo and Dietrich ends, however, at where their differences in regards to males start. Even though Garbo does portray a sexually independent and sometimes sexually fluid female in a number of films, she fails to cross the border of a “homme fatale”. At the end, she struggles against the patriarchal system only to fall into the embrace of another man, rather than her independence itself. The ending of both Queen Christina and Camille betrays this aspect of her acting and perhap personna. In Queen Christina’s final close-ups, Christina holds the dying Antonio in her arms, gazing painfully yet affectionately into his eyes, full of tenderness and sorrow. Antonio says, “When the wind is with us, we sail, Spain” (Cukor, Queen Christina). In preceding scenes, Christina once says she wishes to “get away, to be free” (Cukor, Queen Christina). Yet it does seem from the ending that the freedom she pursues is a rather traditional relationship with Antonio. In fact, the entire momentum that compels her to dismantle the her patriarchal constraints come from the presence of Antonio, without whom the story does not stand. Similarly, in Camille’s ending, Marguerite dies in the arms of Almond, smiling radiantly at her lover who now has returned to her side. By their bedside, Marguerite’s nanny sheds tears at this supposedly moving scene. The ending of Garbo’s characters return to a banal heterosexual narrative of traditional roman stories, where the prince and princess can eventually be with each other for the rest of their life.
In most of Dietrich’s films, however, her characters would still retain their charms even if the males were not present in the plots. Even though some of her larger productions contain a similar heterosexual thread, that thread remains a thread throughout the stories and never threaten to overshadow Dietrich herself. In Shanghai Express, for instance, the reflamed passion between Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) and Doc is a central thread running through the story, yet it does not with other threads at the same time. Besides Doc, the characters of Shanghai Lily’s companions Wong, whose obscurely lesbianistic relationship with Shanghai Lily demonstrates her bisexual side, as well as the French military and rebel leader, whose interactions with Shanghai Lily elicits a more masculine side of her personality, are all integral to Shanghai Lily’s character building and the story as a whole. We have a far more complex image of Dietrich in Shanghai Express, for whom heterosexual charm is only one of the many facets of her existence.
Despite the limited time of my study, I have come to several conclusions about Garbo and the American cinema in the 30s. Same as Dietrich, she has a sexually disobedient persona and plays a number of impressive sexually disobedient roles on the screen. Also, she played with a number of bisexual elements in some of her films, as Dietrich did. Yet the existence of a homme fatale, not only in Garbo’s films but in many Dietrich’s Hollywood productions as well, dimed their spirits of free sexual expression. Despite their impressive performances of their sexuality, their characters mostly return to the embrace of a male protagonist at the end of the film. It is my inference that their films were such a huge hit because Dietrich and Garbo carried the audience through an unimaginable adventure of non-traditional sexual expression, yet the social norm of heterosexual gender roles and mounting conservatism in Hollywood forced their characters to return to the norm at the end, so that the audience might leave satisfied after an adventure yet content about their values at the same time
Cukor, George. “Camille.” Amazon.com: Camille: Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor (I), Lionel Barrymore, Henry Daniell: Amazon Digital Services LLC, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, http://www.amazon.com/Camille-Greta-Garbo/dp/B001O4XLZC.
Mamoulian, Rouben. “Queen Christina.” YouTube, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 31 Aug. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFItnf3hIDg.
McLellan, Diana. The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. St. Martin’s Press, 2000.]
“Queen Christina.” JustWatch, http://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/queen-christina.
Ruby. “Camille.” Garbo Forever, http://www.garboforever.com/Film-31.htm.