Film Title: Camille
Studio: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Greta Garbo
- Robert Taylor
- Lionel Barrymore
- Elizabeth Allan
Garbo’s performance in Camille is the pinnacle of her screen career. And it is among the very best performances ever recorded on film. There is a timelessness to her portrayal of Marguerite Gautier that transcends the vagaries of acting techniques, the well-worn material itself, and the Garbo personality manufactured and presented to the public by the studio and the press. It is at the same time a delicately nuanced performance and a perfect blending of actor and role. It is as if M.G.M.’s storied “more stars than there are in the heavens” all aligned to gather just the right participants and evoke just the right conditions to produce this classic film which represents studio filmmaking at its very best.
By 1936 Camille had been around the block a few times. The film is based on the 1852 novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. It was based on his own life when, as a penniless student, he was involved in an ill-fated romance with the notorious courtesan Marie Duplessis. Shortly after the novel’s publication, and overwhelming success, Dumas adapted it for the stage. For several generations the role of Marguerite Gautier became the role for actresses, attracting the likes of Lillian Gish, Eleonora Duse, Tallulah Bankhead, Eva Le Gallienne, Isabelle Adjani, and especially Sarah Bernhardt. In 1911 Sarah Bernhardt brought her celebrated portrayal to the screen. Other silent screen adaptations starred Clara Kimball Young, Theda Bara, Norma Talmadge, and Alla Nazimova. M.G.M.’s legendary producer Irving Thalberg was well aware that Camille was perhaps just a bit out of date. He enlisted several writers to tackle the project. The script that became the basis for the Garbo film was mostly written by playwright Zoë Akins. Directing chores were assigned to M.G.M.’s veteran “woman’s” director George Cukor. Twenty-four year old Robert Taylor, after becoming an “overnight” romantic sensation the year before in Magnificent Obsession with Irene Dunne would play the ardent young lover Armand Duval. Thirty-one year old Greta Garbo had twice played the older, world-weary lover paired with a younger, innocent boy/man opposite Gavin Gordon in Romance (1930) and with Robert Montgomery in Inspiration (1931). But where those films were hampered by poor scripts and uninspired direction, Camille had all the ingredients for a classic film.
As the film opens, a title card sets the scene: 1847, In the gay half-world of Paris, the gentlemen of the day met the girls of the moment at certain theatres, balls and gambling clubs, where the code was discretion, but the game was romance. Yeah, not really. The game was actually sex, but with a strict Production Code imposed on the industry just two years before, you couldn’t actually hint much at that. Marguerite Gautier is a courtesan, a woman who is for all practical purposes a very high-class prostitute. She sells herself to a man who can keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed. Although the film never comes out and shows us what’s going on, there is little doubt left in the mind of any discerning viewer. Both Henry Daniell as the Baron de Varville and Robert Taylor as Armand come for late suppers to Marguerite’s apartment and are still there in the morning albeit fully dressed in the clothes they were wearing the night before. They were probably just talking all night. And when Armand whisks Marguerite off for a summer in the country, the script makes sure to tell us that Armand is staying at a near-by inn. But we never see him there, and he always seems to be around. They’re not really fooling anybody here except perhaps the morality boys over at the Production Code offices.
In the first scene of the film we see a florist deliver a bunch of camellias to a carriage whose occupants are hidden from view. A gloved hand emerges to accept the flowers. The film cuts to a view of Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo) accompanied by her friend Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews) inside the carriage. When Prudence scolds Marguerite for such an extravagance, Marguerite responds, “Of course I order too many flowers and too many hats and too many everything, but I want them!” Prudence tells Marguerite of a new man in town, the young and handsome and unattached Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell). That night at the theatre Prudence’s machinations start to go awry when there’s a mix-up about their seats. Then as Prudence points out the Baron to Marguerite, Marguerite mistakes Armand Duval (Robert Taylor) for the Baron. “I didn’t know that rich men ever looked like that.” Because of the mix-up, the Baron ends up with Marguerite’s rival Olympe (Lenore Ulric) and Marguerite is happy to spend some time with Armand, even when it is revealed that he’s not the Baron after all. Prudence can’t help warning her friend, “It’s a great mistake for any woman to have a heart bigger than her purse.” Ah, but the course of true love never runs smoothly, and when Marguerite sends Armand off for some marrons glacés, who should turn up at her box but the real Baron. Marguerite may indulge herself with a flirtation with a younger, very good looking but hardly wealthy man, but she knows what is needed to pay the bills. When Armand returns, marrons glacés in hand, the box is empty.
Several months later, Marguerite runs into Armand again. In the meantime, she has been very ill, near death. But she looks good! “I always look well when I’m close to death,” she had commented to her friend Nichette (Elizabeth Allen) earlier. Armand, of course is very glad to see her. He gives her back a handkerchief he’d found on the floor of her theatre box when he had returned with the marrons glacés. She is touched, but does she really want to get involved with this young man” “But I thought you didn’t like sad thoughts,” Armand says. “I don’t, but they come sometimes.” Armand won’t be put off. Marguerite is tempted but wary. “Why should you care for a woman like me” I’m always nervous or sick or too sad or too gay.” Then as she’s about to leave, her servant Nanine (Jesse Ralph) spills the beans: Armand is the mysterious man who checked on her every day of her illness, bringing her flowers. Will Marguerite dump the Baron and allow herself to be swept up in a true passion” Will Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore) allow his son to be with a woman with whom he’ll never be able to be seen publicly? Will Marguerite get sick again? Does the film end with one of the most famous death scenes of all time?
Camille was Garbo’s twenty-first American film. She would make three more before retiring from the screen in 1942 at age thirty-seven. She appeared opposite many of the most famous leading men of her era: John Gilbert (in four films), Ricardo Cortez, Nils Asther, Lars Hanson, Conrad Nagel, Lew Ayres, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, Ramon Novarro, John Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Frederic March, Charles Boyer, and Melvyn Douglas (in three films). But except for her teaming with John Gilbert and then Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka, her pairing with Robert Taylor in Camille is perhaps her most successful. There’s a real chemistry between them on film. In Mark Vieira’s Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy (2005, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) he quotes Garbo when replying to Robert Taylor’s query as to how she was able to keep such a calm demeanor, “Nothing matters very much, but everything matters just a little.” This perfectly describes Garbo’s performance in the early scenes of Camille. Garbo’s Marguerite is weary, both physically and spiritually. She’s seen everything, lived life to the fullest, had the best clothes, food, drink, jewels and she’s just a bit bored but aware that the game itself is somewhat interesting if one doesn’t take it too seriously. When she realizes that Armand loves her with a kind of love she’s never experienced before, she’s afraid, tempted, and uncertain; but, when she surrenders to her feelings, she unleashes an emotional force she didn’t know she possessed. Garbo captures all of this in her finely detailed performance. To watch Garbo in Camille is to recognize an actress at the height of her powers, in total control of her art, delivering one of the most astounding performances in screen history.
Robert Taylor is fine as Armand. But truly, all he needs to do is convince us that he’s madly, passionately in love with Great Garbo. And he does that very well indeed. There was even a novelty song that appeared at the time called “I’ll Love Like Robert Taylor, Be My Greta Garbo”. Laura Hope Crews, a far cry from her Aunt Pittypat in Gone With the Wind, delivers a boisterous, vulgar, but loyal Prudence. Lenore Ulric’s Olympe, a courtesan who aspires to be in the same league as Marguerite but who clearly isn’t, is delightfully full of herself. Henry Daniell as the Baron de Varville is appropriately smarmy. Jesse Ralph as Nanine is fine comedic relief when needed and staunchly loyal when that is called for. Elizabeth Allen appears, albeit briefly, as Marguerite’s friend from their days together in the linen shop. She is lovely. Rex O’Malley is Armand’s best friend Gaston. Gaston is an interesting character: he’s undeniably gay, but not overtly so. One wonders had the film been made before the Production Code went into effect whether this character would have been handled a little differently. Lionel Barrymore shows up as Armand’s father and delivers a . . . well . . . Lionel Barrymore performance, solid and dependable.
During the production of Camille, producer Irving Thalberg died unexpectedly at age thirty-seven. Director George Cukor’s mother died during production as did Garbo’s favorite cinematographer, William Daniels’ father. Garbo was ill during much of the production. Despite this, Camille is one of the finest films M.G.M. released in the thirties. Cukor collaborated well with Garbo. They had not worked together before (they would team again on Garbo’s disastrous final picture Two-Faced Woman) and his eye for detail and ambiance was well suited to the material. William Daniels and Karl Freund did wonderful work with the camera and lighting. Adrian’s costumes are sumptuous. I am not the one to judge their historical accuracy, but they look stunning. And was there ever an actress who moved better than Garbo in these period dresses? Camille represents the kind of picture that M.G.M. did better than any other studio: lavish, romantic, and filled with the best talent to be had both before and behind the camera.
Included on this DVD is the complete 1921 production of Camille staring Alla Nazimova as Marguerite and a young up and coming romantic leading man named Rudolph Valentino as Armand. The narrative is quite similar to the 1936 version. The production values are good, Valentino demonstrates the appeal that would soon propel him to the top ranks of movie stardom, but Nazimova delivers a pretty bizarre portrayal of Marguerite. Nazimova was one of the top names in the silent era, but only a handful of her films survive. The kindest thing that could be said from our vantage today is that she was a personality rather than an actress. A 1921 review in Motion Picture Classic had this to say about the production: “The present Nazimova version is more or less freakish thruout, altho frankly it is the best thing the Russian star has given to the screen in a long time, taken all in all.” However the film’s lavish Art Deco sets, designed by Natacha Rambova, who would later become Valentino’s second wife, and was rumored to be Nazimova’s lover, make the film worth watching. They are truly mind-boggling! The transfer is good and includes a contemporary musical score by Peter Vantine. The theatrical re-release trailer of the 1936 Camille is also included as is a Leo is on the Air radio promotion.
Unfortunately, the print source for the transfer of the 1936 Camille is not all that one would hope for. The image is grainy; and while there are no splice jumps, the print is worn with numerous scratches throughout. The sound is fine. Of course, I have no idea what the surviving source material looks like. However DVD releases of other M.G.M. films of the time don’t look nearly as bad. I know that grain is inherent in film stock of the day, and is part of what makes film look like film and not something digital. Still, the image presented here is very grainy, but how grainy it looks on your television will depend on your set.
Even with the worn print presented on this transfer, I would still recommend this DVD. The print is watchable and certainly taken from a 35mm source rather than a 16mm television print. And this is a terrific film, capturing one of the finest performances ever recorded for the screen. The inclusion of the 1921 film is a worthy bonus. It’s unfortunate that this seminal work of one of the most celebrated stars the movies ever produced has not been better presented. Maybe some sort of restoration will happen in the future. One can hope. Still, I am grateful that this film has been released at all to DVD; many Garbo films have not as yet. If you’re a fan it’s a no-brainer. If you’ve wondered about the Garbo mystique, this is a good place to start.
Click HERE to purchase this DVD!