Before revisiting the most extravagant party girl in 19th-century Paris, I met for the first time the drag king of Sweden. Even before Garbo appeared on the screen, I was hooked on the character and the film Queen Christina (1933) by way of the young actress who plays the queen as a child. I found myself thinking “Garbo was so amazing” when I watched a six-year-old take the throne and address her subjects with the confidence of an adult. Similar to the night my family and I came to the “Chuck” conclusion, the foolishness and uncontrollable giggles arrived together, hand in hand. On the television show Soap (the textbook of my childhood), Chuck was a minor character whose lines were delivered mostly by way of his dummy, Bob. Unlike poor Chuck, Bob had all the best lines, the best timing, and for a sassy wooden doll, the best facial expressions. I’ve been watching Soap with the fam for almost 30 years now, and only recently did we come to the odd conclusion, “You know, Chuck’s the only one who isn’t very good . . . kind of boring, actually.”
Loop-throwing was the day I first wandered into Peyton Place (1957); it was then I realized how easily I could be shocked and scandalized by sin in classic films. When it’s only the reference to merry sin that an old movie presents, our own dirty minds must pick up the slack. Fortunately I’m one of those who reacts to sinful allusion with a smile, not with a stamp of censorship. With its portrayal of not just a strong woman but one who (perhaps) enjoyed the private company of other women, evidently Queen Christina just missed the censoring powers of the Hays Code. I had the good fortune to have a college professor of folklore who left quite the lasting impression. Of his many lessons, the one I think of often is summed up with a simple phrase: if you don’t like the image, don’t blame the mirror. Christina runs into her first scene with two colossal dogs, sporting a riding outfit (with trousers . . . did you ever?!), and immediately is informed of how the people clamor for a Swedish marriage and Swedish heir for their queen. You can imagine how high marriage and children are on this queen’s to-do list . . . blasphemy, perhaps, but Queen Christina intends fully to die a bachelor. Tempted yet?
If the Queen makes you wonder what Garbo would be like as a mother, have yourself a sit-down with Anna Karenina (1935). Remaining true to sin, Tolstoy’s Anna falls into a love affair outside of marriage, leading her husband to forbid to her from seeing their son. In one of her greatest performances, Garbo hit me like a train full speed, pulling me into every one of Anna’s emotions and leaving me little say in the matter. Neither Anna nor the handsome Queen received an Oscar nomination . . . I guess the Hays folks started blaming that mirror before their “Censored” stamps were unwrapped. Thankfully Greta Garbo has outlived them all.