A deeply affecting romantic melodrama showcasing Golden Age glamour
Hollywood films of the 1930s were in many ways, the most bewitchingly glamorous of any period in cinema history. They offered escapism through beautiful actors, dazzling decors, sensational clothing, and gripping stories - all larger than life. As the saying goes, it was the “stuff dreams were made of", and “Camille” is a shining example of this intoxicating time. This tragic romance showcases the brilliance of director George Cukor, the magnetism of Greta Garbo, and the mesmerizing elegance of 1930s films - in particular, those made by MGM Studios. The world it creates is so lavish and rich, you can’t help but long to be a part of it. “Camille” is breathtaking, highly emotional, and an apex in melodrama and romance. It earned one Academy Award nomination, for its star, Greta Garbo.
“Camille” was based on the novel "La Dame aux Camélias" by Alexandre Dumas (and was also the basis for the Giuseppe Verdi opera "La traviata”). The film tells the story of “Marguerite Gautier”, a prostitute in 19th century Paris who inadvertently falls in love with “Armand”, a young man from a good, but not overly wealthy family, who is in love with her, heart and soul. Ignorant to love and trapped by her lifestyle and position, she ultimately learns to love with all its consequences. Even though this film is a period piece made in the 30s, it somehow has a modern feel due to the astonishing direction by Cukor. The actor’s emotions and behavior ring so true, we can immediately relate to much of what we see. Take the birthday party scene for instance. If you changed the clothes and setting, and it could easily be a party scene from today.
It is the consummate film director George Cukor's vision we see on the screen. Because of his attention to detail, this film is first-rate from its pace, emotion, art direction, lighting, costumes, and everything in between. And he elicits stellar performances from his cast - a trait for which Cukor was known. Often called a “woman’s director” (a nickname he hated), Garbo’s performance supports that claim, as her portrayal of “Marguerite” is one of her career's best. At the same time, Robert Taylor proves that Cukor didn’t only excel with women, as his performance is also perhaps his personal best. Cukor consistently made powerful films including many classics, and “Camille” is certainly one of them. I’ve written several times about George Cukor in past entries, including “The Philadelphia Story” and “Born Yesterday”, and briefly in “Gone With the Wind”, and “The Wizard of Oz”. You can read more about him, his life and work in those posts.
“Camille” stars the legendary and luminous Greta Garbo as “Marguerite Gautier”. “Camille” was said to be her favorite of her films. Rather than a two-dimensional woman in love, Garbo creates “Marguerite” as an intelligent, unpredictable, thinking and feeling person of her own. At the film’s start she is a tease, tremendous flirt, not all that likable, and with a closed heart. As “Marguerite” evolves, so does our love for her. Garbo has the ability to delicately seduce the viewer, and make us want to comfort her. For her bedazzling performance she received her third Best Actress Academy Award nomination (her others were for “Romance” and “Anna Christie” both in 1930, and would garner a fourth with “Ninotchka” in 1939). She never won, but in 1955 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded her an honorary award for her body of work. Garbo was one of moviedom’s biggest stars, most lasting icons, and a highly enigmatic figure shrouded in a cloud of mystery both on and off the screen. She was the highest paid actor at the most successful film studio for almost her entire career. Acclaimed for her magnetism, immense acting talent, and mesmerizing looks, she became a force in cinema. Considered the greatest screen actress of the 1920s and 30s, she brought a unique subtlety to the acting of her day while portraying almost exclusively romantic and dramatic (and often tragic) women. Using minimal gesturing, emotions radiated from her eyes. Oh, those eyes. Perhaps the most expressive eyes in cinema, they expressed her thoughts, fears, desires and vulnerability. And then there’s her face. It was known to be so perfectly proportioned that it could be photographed flawlessly from any angle. Garbo had magic. She was ranked #5 of the women on the AFI’s list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends”. While she’s outstanding in this film (as well as many other sound films), I personally feel she is entirely in her element in silent films. In them she is transcendent.
Greta Garbo was born in Sweden to a working class family. With early dreams of being an actress, she studied in Stockholm at the Royal Dramatic Theatre's Acting School, and began appearing in films in 1920. Director Mauritz Stiller saw something special in her, taught her how to act for the camera, became her mentor, had her lose weight (she was plump), and changed her name from her given Gustafsson to Garbo. He cast her in a major role in his 1924 film, “The Saga of Gösta Berling”. MGM Studio Chief, Lous B. Mayer saw that film and immediately wanted her for his studio (many Hollywood silent screen stars were found from around the world - not needing to speak English). MGM’s head of production, Irving Thalberg (who I wrote about in “The Good Earth” ) gave her a Hollywood make-over, and in 1926 Garbo made her first Hollywood film, “Torrent”, in which she played a vamp. The film was a hit and Garbo got good reviews, yet she hated the role and longed to go back to Sweden but couldn’t due to her contract. Cashing in on her success, MGM cast her again as a vamp, in “The Temptress” that same year. It was also a hit and made her a star. Her third MGM film was “Flesh and the Devil”, in which she starred opposite John Gilbert. The two had electric chemistry on and reportedly off-screen, creating a gossip column frenzy. One thing I must mention about Garbo is that to a large degree, her private life remains a mystery, as no one seems to be able to get proof of the truth. She and Gilbert are one of those mysteries. They reportedly lived together in secret for a year or two, and were to be married until Garbo backed out at the last minute. Silent film star Louise Brooks, who claimed to have had a fling with Garbo, said Garbo’s relationship with Gilbert was an MGM invention to hide Garbo’s bisexuality. There are many arguments on both sides of the fence. Either way, Garbo and Gilbert had definite on-screen chemistry and would make three more films together ("Love", "A Woman of Affairs ", and "Queen Christina”).
Garbo’s performance in “Flesh and the Devil” was a revelation, and was described as the most erotic ever seen on-screen. The film was directed by Clarence Brown, with whom she would make six additional films, and it was shot by cinematographer William Daniels who Garbo insisted on having as her main cinematographer from that point on. With this film she was now one of the highest paid actresses in movies. Garbo became increasingly aware of the difference between being an artist and a studio asset, and would vie to orchestrate her career her way. She would become such a monumental star that MGM would eventually grant her unprecedented control over her career. Being intensely shy, she used her power to hide herself from the public’s eye. She was so mammoth a star she didn’t need to generate publicity, so she refused to give interviews or autographs, avoided photographers, didn’t attend most premiers, didn’t answer fan mail, and kept her private life as private possible. MGM capitalized on this in their 1932 Best Picture Oscar winner, “Grand Hotel”, in which Garbo utters the line forever associated with her, “I want to be alone”. A determined person, she didn’t take orders from anyone, let alone a studio. If MGM threatened to send her back to Sweden for not following orders, she would let them know she’s ready to pack her bags - in which case MGM would quickly relent. She would continue to have hit after hit after hit. With the coming of sound, there was trepidation about Garbo’s career, as many of the biggest silent film stars (including John Gilbert) were forever silenced by the talkies because of difficult accents or unusual voices (I wrote about that in the “Singin’ in the Rain” post). But MGM was a studio that knew how to deal with tough challenges, and they turned Garbo's first talking picture (three years after the advent of sound) into a publicity event, advertising it as “Garbo Talks!”. The 1930 film was the wisely chosen “Anna Christie” in which her earthy, sensual voice and exotic accent fit the part and her screen persona perfectly. “Anna Christie” became the highest grossing film of the year and kept Garbo on top as MGM’s biggest moneymaker. Her MGM contract expired in 1932, and she returned to Sweden. She negotiated her new contract to stipulate that she be paid per film rather than a salary, and that her first film be “Queen Christina”, co-starring the then-considered washed-up, John Gilbert. The studio reluctantly gave in, and “Queen Christina” would hit #1 at the box office.
She continued to appear in film versions of European classics or historical figures, such as “Anna Karenina”. While these films were successful, they were more so overseas as US audiences didn’t take to them as readily after the Great Depression. “Camille” was an exception, as it was a hit in the US and abroad, and her biggest hit in several years. Her next film, “Conquest” in 1937, was a box-office disappointment, and with her latest contract having expired, she returned once again to Sweden. Along with several other former top stars (such as Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, and Katharine Hepburn), Garbo was labeled “box office poison”. MGM decided they needed to revamp Garbo’s image, so they cast her in the classic 1938 Ernst Lubitsch film, “Ninotchka”. This was her very first comedy, and MGM advertised it as “Garbo Laughs!”. It worked. The film was a financial and critical hit, and has since become regarded as her best film. Next came “Two Faced Woman” in 1941, a romantic comedy, again directed by Cukor. Although it made money, it was a critical disaster which humiliated Garbo. At the same time, she knew that a major portion of her career’s success was from overseas and that the overseas market was now cut off due to WWII. Garbo decided to take a break from films, possibly returning after the war. She never did. At thirty six years old, “Two Faced Woman” was the last film Greta Garbo would ever make. In 1948 she was set to star in "La Duchesse de Langeais”, and even shot some screen tests for it, but it never got off the ground. The remainder of her life was spent retreating to her apartment in New York City, spending her days walking, window shopping, browsing antiques, or meeting with select friends. Always avoiding photographers and refusing movie offers, she became considered a recluse, confirming her “I want to be alone” moniker. In the end Garbo did a good job keeping her life private as no one seems to be 100% sure with whom she had relationships. She never married or had children, and was widely considered bisexual or possibly lesbian. Some say she was never interested in sex at all. Many people that knew her say she often used masculine pronouns to describe herself and refereed to herself as a boy (even her friend Gore Vidal said “She thought of herself as a boy”). The mystery of Garbo lives on. Greta Garbo died in 1990 at the age of 84.
Robert Taylor gives one of his finest performance as "Armand Duval”, the young gentleman who falls head over heels for “Marguerite”. Taylor emits tremendously truthful emotion. Notice how much caring and love is evident when “Armand” so much as looks at “Marguerite”. And when they are alone in her bedroom during the party, their chemistry is phenomenal. Taylor brings to the scene all the excitement and boyish charm of a man in love for the first time. Because this scene is emotionally true, we believe he loves her, and it sets the groundwork for the rest of the film. Robert Taylor joined the drama club in college, where he began acting while appearing in school plays. He was soon spotted by an MGM talent scout, given a standard seven year contract, and began appearing in films in 1934. In 1935, he received his first starring role opposite Irene Dunne in “Magnificent Obsession”, which significantly boosted his career. He soon became one of Hollywood’s most popular romantic leads, and would work steadily opposite many of the top leading ladies of Hollywood, including Jean Harlow, Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and of course, Garbo. He also worked opposite Barbra Stanwyck in “His Brother’s Wife” in 1936, and the two started a relationship (some say only as showbiz mentor and pupil) and moved in together. Louis B. Mayer caught wind of this and arranged their marriage, which took place in 1939. There was much talk that it was a marriage of convenience (with rumors of both being bisexual), but true or not, it is clear that they cared for one another. With the 1940s he began to play darker roles, and eventually began doing westerns. In 1959 he starred as “Capt. Matt Holbrook” in the TV series, "The Detectives”, which ran for several seasons. He would continue to appear in films and TV, and holds the record for having the longest Hollywood single studio contract - being under contract at MGM from 1934 until 1958. Some of his notable films include "Waterloo Bridge", "Billy the Kid', "Johnny Eager”, "Bataan", "Ivanhoe", and "Quo Vadis”. Taylor was a staunch right-wing conservative who was very vocal against communism, and helped found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in 1944 - a group committed to protecting the US from communist infiltration. They supplied the House Un-American Activities Committee with many “friendly witnesses” during the McCarthy Era. He married twice, including his marriage to Stanwyck. Robert Taylor died in 1969 at the age of 57.
Lionel Barrymore gives an impressive performance as “Monsieur Duval”, the father of “Armand”. It’s a small but meaty role, which Barrymore skillfully plays. “Monsieur Duval’s” big scene with “Marguerite” is fantastic. A very difficult tightrope to walk, Barrymore succeeds at having his character aggressively plead for her to give up his son, without coming across nasty. From the brief time he appears on-screen you can see this character is a tough yet caring soul. He is an utterly concerned father, without becoming a villain - no small acting feat. It’s yet more evidence as to why he was noted as being one of the top film actors of his time. I previously wrote about Barrymore in the “It’s a Wonderful Life” post, where you can read more about his life and career.
Jessie Ralph who plays “Nanine”, “Marguerite’s” maid, is a face you’ll see many times in classic films. In fact, she appeared as “Cuckoo" in “The Good Earth”, film #19 on this blog. She is excellent as “Nanine”, bringing humor, kindness, and great compassion for “Marguerite”. A character actress who appeared in a handful of silent films, Jessie Ralph had a career on Broadway before her steady film career began in 1933. She would appear in just over 50 films in her lifetime, including many classics such as "David Copperfield", "Captain Blood", "The Bank Dick", "Drums Along the Mohawk", "Double Wedding", and "San Francisco". She was equally wonderful in drama and comedy. She was married once. Jessie Ralph died in 1944 at the age of 73.
The elegant art direction was designed by Cedric Gibbons, one of Hollywood’s top designers. His work in this film is extraordinary. He brings that 1930’s glamour to 19th century Paris. His art direction completely immerses the viewer into the world of “Camille”. I wrote more about him in “The Good Earth” post, and mentioned him in several other films on this blog including “The Philadelphia Story”, “The Wizard of Oz”, and “Forbidden Planet”.
The costumes in “Camille” were designed by master of style, Adrian. It’s not easy to describe the unearthly beauty of his designs in this film. They are truly something to behold. A couple of times I literally gasped when “Marguerite” appeared in her shimmering, bejeweled gowns. If you love costumes you will be awestruck by this film. Between Adrian’s costumes and Gibbons’ art direction, this film is style. I wrote more about Adrian in “The Philadelphia Story” and “The Wizard of Oz” posts. He was one of the giants in his field.
The last person associated with “Camille” I'd like to mention is the film’s editor, Margaret Booth. This film’s pace and choice of shots, particularly close-ups is spot-on. That’s the sign of a crackerjack editor, and Booth is one of film’s greatest. During the first two decades of when films were becoming an industry, women were a large part of the workforce. Not just actresses, they were directors, writers, producers, editors, and more. Margaret Booth began as a negative cutter for silent film director D.W. Griffith in 1915. When MGM became a studio, she joined their staff, eventually becoming the Supervising Editor in 1939 (a position she held until 1968, followed by working for producer Ray Stark, at Rastar Productions). Evidently, Booth was the first person to be called a “film editor”. Anyone who’s ever worked in movies knows that editing can make or break a film. Booth had the power to write new scenes if needed, order reshots, notify the director when she noticed an issue, and more. She was also a pioneer in what’s known as “invisible cutting” - editing in a way so that the audience doesn’t notice there are multiple shots. In effect, Booth was one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood, overseeing the editing of all of MGM’s films. She only has 45 official editing credits, but in her position at MGM she had the final say on every film produced by that studio. She was nominated for one Academy Award, for the classic 1935 film, “Mutiny of the Bounty”, for Best Film Editing (which she didn’t win), and was given a writing credit on that film as well. In 1978, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded her an Honorary Award for her contribution to the art of film editing. A few of the films for which she did get credit include "Bombshell", "Dancing Lady", "The Barretts of Wimpole Street", "Romeo and Juliet", and "The Way We Were". She never married. Margaret Booth died in 2002 at the age of 104. A very important behind-the-scenes figure, who shouldn’t be forgotten. Hats off to you Margaret!
This week's film is pure 1930s heaven, which can easily make one swoon.. A visual banquet that will entertain and move you (you might want to get out a few tissues), “Camille” is an honest treasure. Enjoy "Camille"!
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