Camille, 1936, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 109 minutes.
Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo) is a French courtesan living a sumptuous life in mid-19th century Paris. Her extravagant lifestyle is maintained by the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), whose biting words and cold attitude are turned by her charms. But while she is kept by the Baron, her heart has been captured by the earnest, idealistic–and relatively poor–Armand Duval (Robert Taylor).
Marguerite is ill, but doesn’t believe her health is a serious problem. What does concern her is how to manage her heart, and she chooses Armand, until it is obvious that choice will destroy him. Then, despite the pain it will cause both of them, she leaves him.
Camille is considered by many to be Garbo’s finest role, and it is understandable why. She is engaging and endearing, and portrays Marguerite as a woman not entirely lost to the life she has chosen. The film was nominated for one Academy Award, Best Actress for Garbo. She lost to Luise Rainer (who had also won that award the previous year) for her performance in The Good Earth. Also nominated that year were Irene Dunne (her second nomination in a row) for The Awful Truth and Barbara Stanwyck for Stella Dallas.
Garbo was known for her aloofness, but she could be kind to her co-stars. While shooting one scene with Rex O’Malley, who played Armand’s close friend Gaston, she fell while dancing, pulling him down with her. She laughed at the incident and said, “It’s my little feet.”
Her demeanor with Taylor, however, remained distant, something he found hurtful. To remain in character, she said she needed to believe in the romance of the Armand Duval, and if she got to know Taylor, she would learn he was “just another nice young man.”
Irving Thalberg was producer of the film, and as work began he was enthusiastic about Garbo’s performance and Cukor’s directing. Sadly, Thalberg, an immensely popular man in the film industry, died at the age of 37 only a short time after filming commenced. His death cast a pall over the production, a shadow which over the years has come to be seen as a part of the film’s beauty.
Camille is a classic romance, one that was envisioned and brought to life in Hollywood in a splendid and ornate manner. The characters and setting feel real, despite their fictionalized manner, making the loss and heartache all too vivid. A film all classic movie fans must watch.