Newly released to video as part of MGM's Limited Edition Collection, The Christine Jorgensen Story is no classic, to put it mildly, but it's an amusing period piece, already dated in fact by the time it was released. The subject matter must have been shocking or at least titillating in 1970: the true story of the first sex-change operation to get major press coverage. George Jorgensen, uncomfortable growing up as an "All-American boy," went to Denmark in 1956 and returned to New York as Christine. The tabloids had a field day.
But the style of the movie is not sensationalistic or even particularly exciting. It's a by-the-numbers Hollywood docudrama. As a kid, George prefers dolls to baseball; as an adult he becomes a fashion photographer but yearns for....something he can't define. Mom worries; Dad is oblivious; the models he photographs catch on immediately, of course, although one of them amusingly objects to being photographed by a man she assumes is gay (oh, really?).
With the exception of a bit of doctor's-office nudity and some clinical descriptions of the (off-screen) surgery, most of The Christine Jorgensen Story could have been an early-'70s ABC Movie of the Week. Even the scene of another man attempting to rape George (when he still is George) is more likely to draw a chuckle than a gasp. The opening credits, featuring a startlingly hilarious doll whose eyes dart rhythmically back and forth, promise a campy luridness that unfortunately reappears only during a fantasy/nightmare sequence right after the attempted rape, when George remembers that wacky doll and has an epiphany about his true self.
The stodgy storytelling is somewhat compensated for by the look and the sound of the film. Veterans of TV and B-movie drive-in schlock did the very effective soapy music (Paul Sawtell) and the slick, sixties-saturated color cinematography (Jacques Marquette), both of which recall Douglas Sirk movies at times in their slurpy intensity. Sawtell seems to have relished the chance to do something different from Here Come the Brides and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Marquette had already given us the perky look of the sitcom That Girl (as well as grade-Z classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman).
But although the director, Irving Rapper, was an old Hollywood hand who had done the Bette Davis classic Now, Voyager nearly 30 years before, he was no Sirk. The narrative is efficient but thoroughly shallow and one-dimensional. And the scriptwriters don't seem to know what to do after Christine's transformation, so they settle for a wan, half-hearted love story.
The acting is mostly routine and B-grade. In the title role, John Hansen has a touching sincerity as the forlorn George, but once he becomes Christine he is out of his depth and physically miscast. You can watch the real Christine Jorgensen on old TV interviews on YouTube, and she has the practiced glamour of a Hollywood star (even though she wasn't one), or at least a polished drag queen. Hansen more closely resembles Peter Kastner's straight-boy-in-drag turn in the fondly remembered (by a few of us anyhow) sitcom, The Ugliest Girl in Town, which itself was a dime-store Some Like It Hot. This is possibly not what was intended. But The Christine Jorgensen Story provides some mild fun and a reminder of some of the ways movies used to tone down "shocking" material.