Is there a greater repository of lost classics in the entire canon of world cinema than classic Hollywood? Today, major studios have learned that the real money is in putting all their eggs into one-basket blockbusters that cost hundreds of millions to make and can gross into the billions, but, back in the day, Hollywood was all about mass production. The initial inclination is to condemn this as a homogenized, manufactured approach to filmmaking, but the truth is closer to the opposite. Because Hollywood, especially the major studios, produced so many films they had the freedom to take risks that modern studios don’t. Classic Hollywood also had a cadre of the greatest technicians, artisans, and, yes, artists that filmmaking has ever known. It’s always an adventure to scan the credits of a classic Hollywood film to see what talents work on it.
Let’s take 1936’s Camille. First and foremost, it stars Greta Garbo, who was rightfully nominated for an Oscar for best actress for her performance as Marguerite Gautier, a young and attractive Parisian woman who is in danger of losing her money due to her extravagant spending and lifestyle. Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews) plays the role of the gregarious mother figure who attempts to set Marguerite up with the wealthy Baron De Varville, a deliciously deviant Henry Daniell. But Marguerite happens to catch the eye of Armand Duval (Robert Taylor) first and comes to learn that he has been harboring a love for her for a long time. Pretty soon, the insincere, cynical exterior of Marguerite begins to crack as she falls for the romantic Armand, yet she finds herself conflicted over choosing between her rich lifestyle and her true love.
Garbo considered her role as Marguerite Gautier the best performance of her career, even though she lost the Oscar to Luise Rainer for The Good Earth. It is indeed the best performance I’ve seen her give. Marguerite is a complex and demanding role, requiring a delicate navigation between the poles of self-reliance and dependence, cynical strength and romantic vulnerability, vigorous health and withered weakness, and the ambiguity and clarity of desire. In a word, Marguerite is dynamic. We’re never certain which direction she’s going to choose, and that ambiguity creates much of the dramatic tension. Garbo is a bit more convincing as the aloof and distant manipulator more so than the love-melted romantic interest, but even as the latter she creates moments of genuine pathos, especially as the film wears on.
The supporting cast can’t help but pale in comparison, especially Robert Taylor whose saccharinely sentimental Armand can’t stand up to the whirlwind powerhouse of Garbo. This makes for an awfully one-sided romance where we’re more inclined to cheer for Garbo leaving him rather than staying. Part of that is because Henry Daniell’s Baron is a much more interesting and provocative character whose wily, more worldly personality is more of a match for the Marguerite of the film’s beginning. One illustrative scene is during Marguerite’s party where she falls ill. Armand privately offers to take care of her, and this scene in her bedroom is the most romantic and sensual in the film. Here’s where Marguerite’s hard exterior begins to crack, indulging in her desire of allowing somebody to take care of her. She ultimately gives Armand the key, shoos everyone away, and plans for him to come back later.
But the Baron, who was supposed to have left the country, intrudes on Marguerite’s plan, and she’s forced to improvise, lie, and forsake Armand so she can stay in the lap of luxury with the Baron. The scene of the two at the piano revels in one of the lost arts of Hollywood: that of the battle of wits. Marguerite quickly tries to convince the Baron that there’s nobody else, while he attempts to poke holes in her story. Henry Daniell was one of those actors who infamously always played the villain, and while it’s easy to label his Baron as the villainous antagonist, he’s actually a smart man who is doing what anyone in his position would do. He realizes that Marguerite is attempting to play him, so he makes a conscious decision to only allow her to do it for so long and up to a certain point before he forces her to make a decision. If anything, Garbo’s Marguerite is the real villain, at times forsaking love for money, and in others going so far as to try and have them both while manipulating both Armand and the Baron to get her way.
The film itself was adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ novel/play “La Dame aux camélias”, an immense success that was later adapted into Verdi’s La Traviata, and has since been adapted nearly 20 times for the screen. The screenplay was written by the team of Zoe Atkins, Frances Marion and James Hilton, of which Marion would be the most notable name. Behind the lens were two cinematographic legends, Karl Freund and William H. Daniels. Daniels was known as Garbo’s personal photographer, and it’s likely that he handled all of the close-ups. He always insisted that he didn’t light or shoot Garbo any differently than he would another actress, but there is a definite power in the film’s close-ups, which deftly capture all of Garbo’s moods and tones—something that’s incredibly important in a film like this that relies on paralinguistic acting. Karl Freund was best known for his work on the German Expressionism classics and, while there’s little of that style here, there is an abundance of effortless professionalism. Ironically, he was to win his only Oscar for best cinematography the same year for The Good Earth.
At the helm is George Cukor, one of Hollywood’s most versatile and underrated directors. His early work is especially overlooked, yet it reveals him as one of Hollywood’s purest craftsmen. Like the best of the Golden Age, there’s never a wasted shot, movement, or cut, yet it never becomes bland or rote as Cukor judiciously finds spots to insert expressive close-ups and oblique angles. In other words, it’s a combination of economy and expressiveness, craftsmanship and artistry, a combination that’s almost invisible unless you know what you’re looking for. Cukor, much like Howard Hawks, always had an incredibly light touch which made him a director perfectly suited for comedies. Even here he does seem more at home in the lighter, more comedic moments rather than the melodramatic ones. I especially get the sense that he was drawn to Laura Hope Crews’ Prudence, Lenore Ulric’s vixenish Olympe, and Rex O’Malley’s thinly-veiled homosexual Gaston, who turns out to be one of the characters with the most heart in the end.
Ultimately, Camille is an all-around excellent effort by all those involved. While it’s not a masterpiece that reaches the upper echelon of what classic Hollywood was capable of at its best, it is a perfect example of the kind of lost and forgotten gems that were effortlessly produced during the era. While it does have its moments of heavy handed, awkward drama, the depth and dynamism of the characters combined with the comedy makes for some great moments. Its unpredictability is also refreshing. There are few films these days that constantly leave you in real suspense of how they’re going to end, and Camille could’ve ended any number of ways. While I was somewhat disappointed that it took the more classically tragic route, it’s certainly forgivable considering it was an adaptation to begin with. But, as the old saying goes, “it’s more about the journey than the destination”, and who better to have along for a cinematic journey than one of the greatest female screen stars of all time delivering her best performance?