The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970)

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Synopsis: Even as a small child, George Jorgensen, Jr. (John Hansen) can tell he’s different from the other boys. His parents sense it, too, and their introverted son serves as a constant source of worry. After a stint in the Army, George finds new confidence in himself as he excels in his career as a fashion photographer. But something still feels wrong. Gradually, George comes to realize that he is in fact a she – a woman trapped in a man’s body. Without his parents’ knowledge, George travels to Denmark to undergo sex reassignment surgery. He stays with his kindly Aunt Thora (Joan Thompkins) who supports George in his efforts to become Christine. When handsome reporter Tom Crawford (Quinn K. Redeker) comes knocking wanting to write Christine’s story, Christine finds more than a confidante. But could it be love?

Here on Garbo Laughs, I’m dedicating the entire month of June to the topic of Queer Cinema (LGBTQs, and depictions thereof, in classic film). This includes reviewing one relevant film from each decade from the 1910s to the 1990s. This is all leading up to my Queer Film Blogathon on June 27th. Won’t you join me in celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month by contributing a post or two (or three)?

We should first get it out of the way that this Irving Rapper telling of the Christine Jorgensen “story” has little if anything to do with the real events of Christine Jorgensen‘s life. In actuality, Jorgensen was the first well-known person to have sex reassignment surgery, but not the first person period as the movie implies. She was indeed in the Army and later became a successful photographer as George Jorgensen, Jr. When she traveled abroad in search of doctors to perform her genital reconstruction surgery, she had already begun rehabilitative hormonal therapy on her own and was on her way to Sweden when she stopped off in Denmark to visit relatives and ended up under the care of the hilariously-named Dr. Christian Hamburger. He was the one to perform her initial surgeries – although she would not receive a full vaginoplasty until the surgery became available in the United States several years later – and it was after Dr. Hamburger that Christine named herself, not after some long-dead cousin as in the film. She was engaged twice in her life, but the reporter and love interest Tom Crawford was apparently an invention for the movie. The details – such as George’s near-assault at the hands of his homosexual boss and humiliating experience with a female sex worker while in the Army – are also cinematic fabrications, as far as we know. Just a reminder to take every “true-to-life” biopic with a grain of salt.

Someone get this girl a haircutectomy, stat!

The Christine Jorgensen Story is one weird movie – not because of its subject matter (you should know me better than that by now) but because of its structure and storytelling. It comes across as a glossy, sterile film with a tear-jerking sentimentality that hearkens back to the “women’s weepies” of the 1950s, only with a 1970s post-Code bite. It’s like a Douglas Sirk film with tits. You can tell the filmmakers really wavered between trying to make an educational film and an exploitation piece, and the overall message is a bit mixed, to say the least. In the end, though, the film paints Christine as a sympathetic but not pitiable character, and I believe most contemporary mainstream viewers probably came away with a slightly better understanding of transgender issues. Today, though, it feels laughably dated, though not as offensive as one might expect.

There were a few key scenes and moments, though, which I found to be especially off-putting and detrimental to the film. I didn’t feel it was necessary to paint George’s boss as a predatory homosexual, as if attempting to differentiate between the two camps by painting transgender people as objects of pity while gays are the real sickos. It just seemed like such a negative depiction for such a progressive film. Next to that, my other big qualm was the way they digitally manipulated John Hansen’s voice after his character transitioned from George to Christine – making him sound less like a woman and more like a robotic chipmunk. The effect was just bizarre and distracting; why not just have Hansen speak at a slightly higher register? Even if it wasn’t fully convincing, it certainly wouldn’t have been nearly as off-putting as the creepy ChristineBot voice.

In its day, this was an important and bold film which dealt fairly frankly with some very taboo issues. But it hasn’t stood the test of time. Good for the camp value and as a cinematic curiosity, as well as a significant picture in the history of queer film, but other than that, it’s just a boring old clunker with not a lot to offer.


The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970) – 2/5 stars

3 Comments

  1. Sirk is a good reference point for this movie. Unaccountably, the movie it most reminds me of is Nick Ray’s Bigger than Life, actually. This was made in 1970? It seems a LOT more dated than it should. It’s like it’s completely untouched by the New Wave. Very uptight from a cinematic standpoint.

    Speaking as a transsexual (for herself and ONLY herself), I have to note that this movie bears almost no resemblance to my own life at all. What it DOES resemble is certain varieties of transgender slash fiction, and it’s weird to see it in a movie. Crazy.

    • I know, it doesn’t feel like 1970, but there are some small touches (such as shots of Christine’s developing breasts, as well as the prostitute’s breasts) which remind you that it’s 1970. These moments are pretty jarring as the rest of the film feels SO sterile. It’s funny, quite a few of the Netflix member reviews of the film note that it’s good “if you like old films.” ;)

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