“CAMILLE” (1936) Review

“CAMILLE” (1936) Review

I am about to confess to something many might regard as sacrilegious. I have never regarded Greta Garbo as one of my favorite actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I had nothing against her . . . personally. But I realized that I could barely recall any of her movies that were personal favorites of mine. Because of this, I was very reluctant to do a re-watch of one of Garbo’s most famous films, “CAMILLE”.

Produced by Irving Thalberg and directed by George Cukor, “CAMILLE” is based upon the 1848 novel and 1852 play “La Dame aux Camélias” (“The Lady with the Camellias”) by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The movie told the story of Marguerite Gautier, a woman of low-class birth who rose to become one of Paris’ top courtesans. Debt-ridden from helping friends and suffering from tuberculosis, Marguerite hopes to attract the attention of an aristocrat named Baron de Varville as her next “client” at the opera. However, just as she manages to attract the Baron’s attention, Marguerite meets a young member of the bourgeois gentry named Armand Duval and instant attraction flares up between them. The attraction eventually develops into love. But external influences – including Marguerite’s debts – threatens their potential for happiness.

I have not seen “CAMILLE” in a long time. A long time. There is a good chance I have not seen it since I was in my early twenties. But something . . . I have no idea what . . . led me to watch this film after so many years. In the end, the only regret that I managed to feel was that I had ignored this movie for so long.

Did I have any problems with “CAMILLE”? Perhaps a few. I noticed that the movie’s narrative began in 1847 and ended roughly a year later. I think. But considering the story’s setting, I found it surprising that the narrative never touched upon the political upheavals that swept throughout Europe between early 1848 and early 1849. In France, the upheaval was known as the French Revolution of 1848. During this event, the French king Louis Philippe I was overthrown in February 1848. Four months later, many Parisian workers had unsuccessfully risen in insurrection against the conservative Second Republic government. I realize that “CAMILLE” is not a political movie. But considering the film’s setting and the fact that one character had plans for a diplomatic career (Armand Duval) and another was a wealthy aristocrat (Baron de Varville), I found odd that the political upheaval was never touched upon.

I also had mixed feelings about the costumes created by legendary Hollywood designer, Adrian. I realize that the man had a reputation for creating some of Hollywood’s most memorable and famous costumes. But . . . I do not know. Oh, yes I do. I think Adrian should have stuck to modern day costumes. His period costumes were not bad. Some of them have actually impressed me. A good example would be this particular costume from “CAMILLE” – namely Marguerite’s dark velvet riding habit:

I also admired how Adrian managed to re-capture the fashion for men during the 1840s:

On the other hands, I had problems with gowns the ones worn by Greta Garbo in the images below:

 

I was inclined to complain about the sequins featured in the costumes, but I discovered that they had been worn as part of fashion for thousands of years – including the 19th century. But I have other problems with the above costumes. One, they looked as if they came from some cheap costume warehouse. And two, Garbo looked as if she was about to be consumed by the voluminous amount of material used to create those gowns. Or could it be that Garbo lacked the figure for the fashions of the mid 19th-century? No . . . I do not believe that is a good excuse. I am certain that Western women of the 1840s came in different shapes and sizes as they do today. It is possible that Adrian had simply failed to design Garbo’s costumes in a way that would fit her perfectly. As a high-priced courtesan, Marguerite Gautier had the funds to purchase a wardrobe filled with clothes tailored to fit her. I do not think that Adrian took the time to fit Garbo’s costumes. Or perhaps she did not give him the time.

Otherwise, I cannot think of any other complaints about “CAMILLE”. If I must be brutally honest, I think it is one of the best motion picture love stories I have ever seen, hands down. Ever. I was surprised that Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the man who had written classics such as “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”, had written “La Dame aux Camélias” when he was roughly 23 years old. And screenwriters James Hilton, Zoë Akins and Frances Marion did a superb job in adapting Dumas’ story.

“CAMILLE” could have easily developed into one of those sappy love stories that in which only external forces stood in the lovers’ way. And yes, Dumas’ tale featured those “forces” that stood in the way of Marguerite and Armand’s relationship – Baron Varville, Marguerite’s bank account, her friends and Armand’s father. But there were other forces in play. Namely, Marguerite and Armand. Between her passive aggressive personality, her penchant for evading the truth and her inability to handle her finances; Marguerite had put herself into a situation that made it nearly impossible to have a genuine romance with Armand, let alone anyone. And poor Armand. I could say that he was completely faultless in this romance. Yes, he was naive. Armand was also hot-tempered, rash and a bit too stubborn and proud for his own good. Considering the state of her health, I do not believe Marguerite’s romance with Armand was destined to last very long. However, I feel that it were not for their personal flaws, the pair could have enjoyed more time together than they actually had.

Many still regard Greta Garbo’s performance as Marguerite Gautier as her finest performance. As I had hinted earlier in this review, I have only seen less than a handful of Garbo’s movies. But I cannot deny that she gave a brilliant performance as the cynical, yet warm-hearted courtesan. Although Garbo was a healthy looking woman most of her life, I do admire how she utilized body language and facial expressions to convey Marguerite’s questionable health and languid lifestyle. I have always suspected that Robert Taylor was one of the underrated actors in Hollywood history. He had been in Hollywood for two years by the time he shot “CAMILLE”. Many critics tend to focus on Garbo’s performance when discussing the movie. As I had pointed out, she gave a superb performance. But so did Taylor, as Armand. He did an excellent job in conveying Armand’s character from a very naive young man to someone who is a bit more cynical and mature. And yet, Taylor made sure to retain Armand’s temper and stubbornness.

Another excellent performance came from Henry Daniell, who portrayed Marguerite’s “client”, Baron Varville. Daniell not only skillfully conveyed Varville’s cool and arrogant nature, but also the character’s slight infatuation with Marguerite, but also the latter’s pain in facing the reality of Marguerite’s true feelings for him. Laura Hope Crewes, famous for her role in the 1939 Best Picture winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, gave a very entertaining performance as one of Marguerite’s closest friends, a veteran courtesan named Prudence Duvernoy. It is a shame that Crewes never earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. Her Prudence is a skillful mixture of friendly warmth and a mercenary nature. “CAMILLE” also featured first-rate performances from the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Rex O’Malley, Leonore Ulric, Jessie Ralph and Elizabeth Allan.

I was astounded to learn that “CAMILLE” had earned only one Academy Award nomination – Greta Garbo for Best Actress. And she lost to Luise Rainer’s performance in “THE GREAT ZIEGFELD” . . . much to the surprise of the Hollywood community. Hell, I am not only shocked that “THE GREAT ZIEGFELD” had also won Best Picture, I am flabbergasted that “CAMILLE” did not even earn a Best Picture nomination, along with nominations for the leading actor, a screenplay nomination or a Best Direction nod for George Cukor. How did this travesty happen? A superb movie like “CAMILLE”?

The discovery of the limited amount of acclaim that “CAMILLE” had earned back in late 1936/1937, this only convinces me how irrelevant that the Academy Awards truly are. Thankfully, movie fans still have the movie to enjoy for years to come, thanks to George Cukor’s superb direction; a great screenplay by the likes of James Hilton, Zoë Akins and the legendary Frances Marion; and a superb cast led by the iconic Greta Garbo and the excellent Robert Taylor.