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Film Friday: "Camille" (1936)

In honor of Greta Garbo's 110th birthday, which is today, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you one of her most iconic films, one which is considered by many critics and film historians to be the finest performance of her short but stellar career.

Original release poster
Directed by George Cukor, Camille (1936) tells the story of Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo), a beautiful 19th century Parisian courtesan leading an avaracious life of frivolity and self-indulgence. Marguerite's bawdy neighbor, Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews), suggests she find a rich man to take care of her extravagances and arranges for her to meet the wealthy, middle-aged Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell) one evening at the theater. During an intermission, Prudence points out the Baron to Marguerite, but she mistakes him for the handsome, much-younger Armand Duval (Robert Taylor), who has worshipped her from afar for over a year and a half. He makes his way to her box and she's immediately attracted to him, but soon loses interest on learning he is not wealthy.

Six months pass and Marguerite is now the real Baron's mistress and has indulged herself extravagantly with his money. After meeting again at a book shop, Marguerite invites Armand to her birthday party, where she suffers a fit of coughing while dancing. Armand carries her into her bedroom and confesses his love for her. She gives him a key to her apartment and asks him to come back later, but the Baron's sudden arrival forces her to bolt the door. Hurt, Armand writes a bitter letter to Marguerite saying that he's going away to forget her. After receiving the note, she goes to his apartment and he again professes his love, eventually convincing her to go to the country with him to recuperate her health. During the summer, they fall more deeply in love and Marguerite is happier than she has been all her life, but their joy end when they learn that the adjoining property belong to the Baron. Near the end of summer, Armand's father (Lionel Barrymore) pays Marguerite a visit and convinces her that their relationship will only bring his son disgrace and unhapiness. When Armand comes back that evening, Marguerite tells him that she's going back to the Baron and leaves the cottage. Back in Paris, Marguerite returns to her old habits, but its rigors ruin her health. Soon she is so deeply in debt and ill that there is no hope for her recovery. With her maid's help she writes to Armand, but before she can finish the letter, he comes to her. Seeing how ill she is, he promises to take her back to the country to regain her strength. She dies in his arms, knowing that she is as happy as she will ever be.

Armand Duval: Marguerite, you need love more than you need money just now. You need care even more than love. I can take such good care of you, if you let me.

By the time she was 16, Marie Duplessis had become a famed courtesan and mistress to a number of prominent and wealthy men in mid-19th century Paris. Born Alphonsine Rose Plessis in Normandy in 1824, Marie was an attractive young woman whose discretion, intelligence and wittiness made her a stimulating companion in both private and social settings. In 1844, she met 20-year-old aspiring writer Alexander Dumas, fils. and the two enjoyed a year-long romance, before her more worldly nature made him put an end to the relationship. Fearing that all her friends would desert her as she became increasingly ill, Marie accepted a marriage proposal from one of her old lovers, the Comte Édouard de Perregaux, but they quickly separated and never lived together as husband and wife. In 1847, at the tender age of 23, she died of tuberculosis, with de Perregaux and one of her former lovers by her side.

Five months after Marie's death, Dumas immortalized her as the title character in his "scandalous novelistic memoir" La Dame aux Camélias, wherein she was named Marguerite Gautier and he became Armand Duval. The name of the novel is highly suggestive, as Marie did in fact love camellias in real life and even used them as her "calling card": a red camellia meant that she was sexually unavailable, while a white one signaled the opposite. Originally published in 1848, La Dame aux Camélias achieved international fame when it was adapted into a play in 1852, a year before becoming the basis of Guiseppe Verdi's opera La Traviata. Known as Camille in the English-speaking world, the role of Dumas' tragic heroine became one of the most coveted amongst actresses both on stage and on film.

Greta Garbo in a publicity still
During the silent era, the story of Camille was filmed several times, most notably in 1926 with Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland in the lead roles. In mid-1935, MGM's "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg thought the story of Marguerite Gautier would be the perfect vehicle for the studio's highest paid star, Greta Garbo. She was enthusiastic about the project, but she informed Thalberg that she would agree to play Marguerite only if she could play Napoleon's lover Marie Walewska in Clarence Brown's Conquest (1937). Thalberg said yes.

Although Dumas' had endured since 1848 and become a classic, by 1936 the story was beginning to get outdated. To make the story relevant and appealing to modern audiences, MGM hired Frances Marion and James Hilton to writte a fresh screenplay adaptation of Camille. Marion was already familiar with the story, as she had penned the 1915 silent scenario tarring Clara Kmball Young and contributed to the 1926 version. Marion was also no stranger to working with Garbo, having written the screenplay for the star's first talking picture, Anna Christie (1930). Eventually, a third writer, Zoë Akins, was brought in to polish Marion and Hilton's script and all three ended up being credited on the film.

The biggest challenge was to find a leading man who could hold his own opposite the great Greta Garbo. There was quite a discussion about whether Armand Duval should be played by an European actor or an America, but the studio, as well as director George Cukor, eventually settled on Robert Taylor, who apparently had amost been rejected for being "too handsome." Making his film debut in Handy Andy (1934), the 25-year-old Taylor achieved international stardom opposite Irene Dunne in Magnificent Obsession (1935), made on loan out to Universal Pictures.

Armand is historically a terrible part. It was usually played by middle-aged men. As a result he seemed stupid doing the things he did. When you get someone really young playing Armand, you understand him; he becomes appealing, with a kind of real youthful passion; whereas if he were thirty-eight years old, you'd think, 'Oh, you ass, why do you do that?' So that very crudity, that intensity of young passion made Robert Taylor an extremely good Armand.
(George Cukor)

When Camille began production in the late summer of 1936, everyone felt that the film would be something very special. Although Taylor was initially "scared to death" to be playing opposite Garbo, the two got along very well and she made an effort to put him at ease during their scenes together. When Thalberg got a look at Garbo and Taylor together, he confidently said, "We can't miss with these two." He also had nothing but praise for his leading actress: "I think we have caught Garbo as she should be caught. She will be the most memorable Camille of our time."

When the film opened in New York in January 1937, Thalberg's expectations proved true, as Camille was an instant hit with audiences and critics alike. Sadly, he didn't live to see the success of the film - he died in September 1936, three months before the end of production. The New York Times commented that Garbo's performance "is in the finest tradition: eloquent, tragic, yet restrained. She is as incomparable in the role as legend tells us that Bernhardt was." Variety was equally laudatory: "George Cukor directs this famous play...with rare skill. Interior settings, costumes and exteriors are lavish and beautiful. The film shows the great care which went into its preparation and making. Robert Taylor plays with surprising assurance and ease. He never seems to be striving for a point...Garbo's impersonation of Marguerite Gautier is one of her best portraits...The two principals play the love scenes for full worth."

For her stunning performance in Camille, Garbo received her third Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, but she lost to Luise Rainer for The Good Earth (1937). According to Frances Marion, there was an audible gasp in the audience when Rainer was called out instead of Garbo. If had been there, I would have gasped too.

______________________________
SOURCES:
Bret, David (2013). Greta Garbo: A Divine Star.
Long, Robert Emmet (2001). George Cukor: Interviews.
Vieira, Mark A. (2010). Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince.
Weis, René (2015). The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis.

Comments

  1. Yeah, I would have gasped as well. I'm also flabbergasted that this movie had failed to get nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director.

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