I am so excited to write about Camille (1936) today! Don’t forget that TCM will play Camille again next week, on April 30th. Check my calendar for details!
As many of you know, Camille is one of several film versions of the Alexander Dumas fils book, La Dame aux Camelias. For modern musical fans, Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, Moulin Rouge, is the most recent film incarnation of Dumas’ book.
The Lady of the Camellias
Camille takes place in Paris, the year 1847. We immediately learn where Garbo’s character, Marguerite Gautier, gets her nickname, when a woman approaches the carriage of Marguerite and her friend Prudence (Laura Hope Crews, best known as Aunt Pittypat in Gone with the Wind) and offers Marguerite a bunch of camellias: “for the Lady of the Camellias,” she says. The flower is Marguerite’s signature in every way.
Marguerite is a high-class prostitute with expensive tastes and a heart of gold. Prudence and Marguerite’s goal for the evening: to meet the fabulously wealthy Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell) at the theater. Marguerite intends to make the Baron her next sugar daddy, for lack of a better word.
Marguerite and Armand Meet
At the theater, Marguerite and Prudence, who have never actually seen the Baron before, mistake the incredibly handsome but not very wealthy Armand Duval for the Baron. Armand is played by a very young and very sweet, Robert Taylor. (Remember him? Barbara Stanwyck’s second husband?)
“I didn’t know a rich man ever looked like that!”
Marguerite says, excited that her next lover is not only rich, but also actually attractive! It is love at first sight between Marguerite and Armand. But as soon as Marguerite finds out Armand is not rich, she sends him out to get her candy so she can ditch him to find the Baron. OUCH.
In the following months, Marguerite becomes the creepy Baron’s mistress, catches a mild case of tuberculosis, and doesn’t see Armand for another six months!
But that doesn’t mean Armand hasn’t come to see her. During Marguerite’s illness, he is the only person who checks in on her, coming to her home everyday to ask her loyal housekeeper how Marguerite is doing. At their second meeting, when Marguerite is healthy and out on the town again, she discovers Armand’s gallant actions. She invites him to her birthday party, where we learn that Marguerite’s friends are all creeps…if you didn’t already infer that from the fact that none of them visited her while she was sick and possibly dying.
Her friends don’t even notice when Marguerite has a cough attack while dancing. Armand tells everyone they need to leave because Marguerite is obviously having a hard time, so her friends complain that Marguerite always ruins all the fun with her illnesses, take all her food, and move the party elsewhere.
At this point Marguerite has realized that Armand is a keeper. So she gives him a key to her home, and tells him to come back later that night. But wouldn’t you know it! That is exactly the time the Baron decides to drop by for some nighttime fun. Since he is still the one footing the bill for Marguerite’s expensive lifestyle, she has to entertain the Baron instead of spending time with Armand. Poor Armand is left outside, pounding on her now dead bolted front door, wondering what the heck is going on.
Armand comes back the next day, and offers to take Marguerite to the countryside for the summer, where they can be together freely, and she can fully recuperate from her illness. Marguerite’s feelings for Armand are real, and she can’t refuse the offer. So she gets one last payout from the Baron, then parts ways with him after he slaps her in the face, fully aware that Marguerite is into someone else.
Armand and Marguerite spend an ideal summer in the country, falling madly in love. So in love that Marguerite has decided to accept his marriage proposal and change her extravagant lifestyle to fit the budget Armand can provide her. She has never been so happy, and she is healthy again. Yay!!!
But when Armand asks his father for his inheritance so he and Marguerite can begin their life together, Armand’s father (played by Lionel Barrymore) gets the wrong idea about Marguerite’s intentions with his son. He goes to give her a talking to while Armand is away on business, only to discover that Marguerite is a decent woman who truly loves his son. But the marriage still cannot be, for it will ruin Armand’s future, he tells her:
“Everything you are ashamed of in your own past would only taint his future…Armand is more sensitive and more loyal than others. As long as you are with him, he will not enter rooms that you can’t.”
Marguerite, now convinced that Armand would be sacrificing too much if she marries him, concludes that the only way to break things off is to make him hate her. She nobly laments:
“If I tell him I don’t love him, he wouldn’t believe me, if I leave him, he would follow me…I knew I was too happy!”
What better way to get Armand to hate her than to convince him she loves the wealth the Baron can provide her more than she loves Armand? It is a tough sell, but Marguerite succeeds in making Armand believe that she wishes to go back to the Baron. Armand is disgusted with her, and lets her go.
Armand and Marguerite run into each other a bit later in Paris. She is the Baron’s mistress again. Armand is clearly jealous of the Baron, and Marguerite is clearly miserable with the Baron. After he wins a whole bunch of money from the Baron at the gambling tables, Armand approaches Marguerite and famously throws his winnings at her feet as he tells her:
“Your heart is a thing that can be bought and sold. The jewels and carriages he could give you were worth more than my love, my devotion, my life!”
Armand then injures the Baron in a duel, and must leave Paris. Marguerite now knows that it is Armand or no one for her, and refuses to see other men. And unfortunately, Marguerite’s tuberculosis returns while Armand is gone, this time fatally so. The only thing keeping her alive is the dream of seeing Armand again.
When he comes back to Paris six months later, Armand has realized that Marguerite only pushed him away because she thought it was for his own good. He learns she is ill from Gaston, a friend of Marguerite’s who proves himself to be a true friend this time around.
Armand immediately rushes to Marguerite’s side. This is what Marguerite has been living for, and, her wish to see Armand one last time realized, Marguerite dies quietly in his arms. And that is where this romantic, beautifully tragic, film ends.
A Perfect Film
Camille is one of those films that, in my opinion, literally has everything going for it. The great George Cukor directed, William Daniels—”Garbo’s cameraman”—was the cinematographer, the screenplay managed to make it through the Breen office without being watered-down (thanks to European audience’s love of the Dumas book, the film would follow the book’s storyline, prostitutes and all, or simply not be made!), and all the lead and supporting roles were perfectly cast. With all this going for it, how could Camille be anything but a classic today?
Cukor was originally less than thrilled with the casting of Robert Taylor as Armand, favoring a more experienced, middle-aged actor for the role. Cukor didn’t have anyone in particular in mind, he just thought a middle-aged actor with experience would better serve the role.
No disrespect to George Cukor—I think he was one of the best directors in the business—but I whole-heartedly disagree with him here! Robert Taylor is an AMAZING, even perfect, Armand. Taylor’s Armand is a big reason why the film works. And it is his youth and inexperience, in life and in films at this point in his career, that make Taylor so credible in the role.
Youth, inexperience, innocence, a clear sense of right and wrong, his faith in his love for Marguerite, these are all essential to making us, the audience, believe in and root for Armand throughout the film. A middle-aged actor would not have delivered these qualities as clear and true as Taylor does, simply because these qualities are more believable when exhibited by a younger man who has not yet experienced heartache, or become jaded by life’s disappointments. Taylor nails the role, and it is quite possibly the best work of his career, in my humble opinion.
Garbo's flawless Marguerite
If you read my last post on Ms Garbo, you are aware that she had some peculiar working conditions, such as requiring a closed set so that no one could watch her work, and refusing to rehearse with her co-stars. She always rehearsed at home in complete privacy, and then knocked everyone’s socks off when the time came to film. So is it really any surprise that Garbo went a step further on Camille, and refused to even meet Robert Taylor before filming began?
To Garbo’s methods and way of thinking, the moment Marguerite and Armand spot each other for the first time in the theater would be even more poignant if it was also the first time Garbo and Taylor met. Furthermore, Garbo worried that if she and Taylor became friends prior to filming, or if they spent too much time together on set during filming, the magic of the Marguerite/Armand romance on screen would be shattered: Garbo would know what Taylor was like in real life, and then that would be all she could see when they were filming. Taylor was a nice kid, but Garbo needed to believe that he was perfect, angelic even, to fully project Marguerite’s feelings about Armand on screen.
Garbo’s acting is absolute perfection when Marguerite dies in Armand’s arms. But apparently it was not all acting: Greta suffered from terrible menstrual pains throughout her life, and things were particularly painful in the months while filming Camille. Garbo was actually hospitalized several times during production, and successfully channeled this pain into Marguerite’s death scene. When this scene was filmed, just standing upright was difficult for Garbo, such was her real-life pain at the time.
Greta also asked that the scene of Marguerite’s death be filmed twice. The script originally called for Marguerite to talk quite a bit in the death scene. But Garbo felt, rightly so, that a dying person would not talk so much. So Cukor filmed the scene as the script originally called for with lots of talking from Marguerite, and then filmed it once again Garbo’s way, with Marguerite saying next to nothing. The less-talking version turned out far superior and touching, and that is the version that was used in the final film. Thank goodness!
Greta Garbo, the quintessential Lady of the Camellias
Garbo deservedly received her second of three Academy Award nominations for Camille. She ended up losing to Luis Rainer in The Good Earth. As if Garbo cared…when she finally did win an Honorary Oscar in 1955, it took her two years to collect it from the person who accepted it on her behalf. (Greta Garbo didn’t really do award ceremonies.) She probably used it as a doorstop before putting it into storage…
It wasn’t just the Academy who thought Garbo was particularly amazing in Camille: the film was reportedly one of Adolph Hitler’s favorites, and he owned a personal copy. Garbo’s response when she discovered this:
“How I would have loved to put on one of Marguerite Gauthier’s dresses and walked into the Reichstag and shot that animal!”
And on that note, I will wrap up my post on Camille! I hope you will watch and enjoy it on TCM next week! I certainly can’t think of a better way to bid farewell to our April Star of the Month, the lovely, talented, and mysterious Greta Garbo, than a viewing of Camille. Catch it on April 30th and tell me what you think!