Judge Brett Cullum is hiding a secret from you, dear readers—he's dying. (Dying to see the hate mail he gets from the Robert Taylor fan club, that is.)
Our review of Camille (Blu-Ray), published September 18th, 2009, is also available.
Nichette: Marguerite, it's ideal to love, and to marry the one you love.
Whenever Greta Garbo was forced to look back over her long career and pick out her favorite role, she never hesitated to mention Marguerite from Camille. Garbo did some of her best work in the film, and Hollywood honored her fine performance with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress that year. Many critics and fans call Camille the best work Garbo ever committed to screen. Some will cry with outrage that Ninotchka is superior, but Camille stands up as a film where Garbo was allowed to use her own persona to put her stamp on a classic role. It was her Hamlet, and nobody can deny her power on the silver screen in this 1936 George Cukor epic.
Facts of the Case
Life in 1847 Paris is one constant party for women, like Marguerite Gautier (Garbo), who make their living charming wealthy men out of their money. For her love is a cold, calculated profession of the mind—a means to make ends meet rather than a noble endeavor of the heart. She lives on her wit; coupled with her radiant beauty, it creates wealth and a decadent lifestyle. But then the impossible happens: Marguerite meets a man who makes her believe. Armand Duval (Robert Taylor, Billy The Kid) slips into her private box at the opera one night by mistake, and the hardened vixen is mesmerized by his innocent flirting and genuine interest. She tries to resist, but the promise of a summer in the country proves too tempting. Marguerite begins to imagine a life with her suitor where she will live simply and honestly for the first time. But her past catches up with her, and Armand's father begs her to leave him to spare his career and family name. Marguerite realizes she is not worthy of true love, and drives a knife into her lover's heart by leaving him. But little does anyone suspect that Marguerite is deathly ill, and she doesn't have much time left. Will Armand find out the truth in time to save her from dying alone?
I found a beat up, worn VHS copy of Camille in the used section of a mom and pop video store in the late '80s. I was in school, and demanded to watch the epic Garbo film anytime I was ill and forced to stay home, stuck in bed. There was something about Garbo that made me wish I could be as brave as her in the face of disease, and made me want to throw champagne parties whenever I contracted strep throat (which I did once in high school, with disastrous results). Camille seemed like a wildly romantic movie to my young mind; a picture of a world where a damaged woman with a bad reputation would sacrifice her own happiness for the man she loved. It made me believe in the nobility of suffering for someone else. I longed for someone to do what Marguerite did for me—or even better, find someone for whom I could sacrifice myself in the same way. In brief, Camille probably screwed me up big time. But to this day I love the film, and it constantly resides at the top of my list of great movies, despite some glaring flaws. I've waited for decades for the film to be released in a format like DVD, and I'm so glad it's now finally out, available as either a single movie or as part of Garbo: The Signature Collection.
Camille was based on La Dame aux Camelias, a novel (and play) written by Alexandre Dumas in 1852. Dumas wrote it about a real life acquaintance—a young socialite—who died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. It has become one of the epic love stories of all time, and has seen too many incarnations to begin to count. Plays, operas, films, and television shows have all been based on the story of a crestfallen woman who sacrifices the love of a simple pure man for his own good. Actresses like Sara Bernhardt, Theda Bara, Tallulah Bankhead, and Ethyl Barrymore have all played the role. Kathleen Turner even took a stab at it. Today, the story rises again and again. Moulin Rouge injected pop songs into its plot, but the story remained intact, right down to the last tear-jerking scene. Even in 1936, when George Cukor made this film, it had already been done as a silent feature starring screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova.
Cukor would put his unique stamp on the tale by providing plenty of zippy one-liners for his leading lady to deliver. He also cast Greta Garbo, who seemed a less obvious choice given her smoky voice and masculine features. He was doing a high romance with plenty of vintage costumes, but with a very modern woman in the starring role. It worked like gangbusters. While Cukor had already helmed Dinner at Eight, which featured many of the era's biggest stars, Camille was his first collaboration with Garbo. MGM certainly backed Cukor and Garbo's efforts with a first rate budget for the production, which called for lots of Hollywood glamour to recreate the life of a courtesan.
The movie is probably in the top five of the "most romantic" movies ever made. It's lush and atmospheric, and suitably doomed. The cast, the look, and the mood all create the perfect romance. Camille is grand Hollywood studio glory at its luminous best. It doesn't hurt that the film captures Garbo at her most radiant, and also has Cukor at the top of his game as a director. It's hard to watch the piece today and realize it is quickly approaching its 70th anniversary. Camille still feels fresh.
Warner Brothers offers fans of Camille a solid transfer that is remarkable given the age of the film. There is plenty of grain and some imperfections, but on the whole you have to marvel at the preservation of this classic. I doubt it has ever looked this clear even when it was projected onto a glowing silver screen back in the late '30s. Audio is mono, but as clear as the visuals. Also included on the disc is the 1921 silent version of the film with Valentino and Nazimova. There is an audio promo called "Leo is on the Air," which was a radio program done to generate interest in the release. Unfortunately there are no documentary features to support Camille. That seems a shame, given the importance of the film to Garbo fans.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Camille is grand melodrama that rivals the theatrics of the most tawdry soap opera. When it was released, many people felt it was sappy and sentimental. Some critics taunted the film by using the famous tagline for Garbo's first talking feature ("Garbo talks!"), but spoofing it by glibly stating that in Camille, "Garbo coughs!" If you're not a fan of the huge theatrics of opera, you probably will find the movie too predictable and not to your liking. Modern audiences may find it a chore to sit through the movie, since its conventions have been used and recycled endlessly.
Many people bring up the rather simple performance of Robert Taylor as Armand as an example of one of the film's greatest flaws. Taylor does seem like just a pretty face without much going on upstairs (a '30s version of the "himbo"). He radiates innocence, but at times it feels like he's not acting so much as he's just sitting there beaming. Garbo seems to be acting circles around him. Once we see Lionel Barrymore gamely square off with her as Armand's father, we realize how unequally matched Taylor and Garbo were. It may not be a flaw, since Cukor probably recognized Taylor's simplicity and asked for it to make the story seem more palatable. Whatever the case, Taylor as Armand isn't quite on the same page as the rest of the cast, playing everything far brighter than his costars. Still, he is pretty beautiful.
Another flaw was casting Garbo in a demimonde life. She seems far too smart for us to believe she has no choices other than plying men for money. If Marguerite Gautier were around today, she'd probably be a CEO, given the way Garbo gives her a cocky swagger and decisive nature. Greta Garbo's mystique often overpowered her movies, and Camille falls victim to the fact we can't forget who we are watching. She's like John Wayne or Bela Lugosi—you can't lose site of the actress no matter what role she inhabits.
Camille is a must-buy for fans of Cukor or Garbo. Warner Brothers certainly offers a strong presentation that should please film buffs who have waited patiently for this great movie to hit DVD. I'm ecstatic that the next time I'm sick I can throw my old VHS copy across the room at anyone who dares enter the room and watch this glorious transfer instead of the muddy television and tape versions. Silent movie fanatics will be amazed to see the Valentino version on here, too. It's a great package for a film that truly deserves it.
Guilty of being one of the most wildly romantic tear-jerkers ever produced. Camille is the perfect DVD for hopeless romantics everywhere. Warner Brothers is going to get a big bouquet of expensive white flowers from me for this one.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• 1921 Silent Version
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