When I watch a Greta Garbo movie I am distinctly aware of two great tragedies; the one unfolding on the screen by design; the other more prolific and devastating, made by this elusive creature who would never again appear before the cameras after 1940 – retired at the age of thirty-six. For me, this latter realization of this resolute goddess denying us her presence, who herself was denied the luxury of appearing in anything beyond a little known and even more rarely seen screen test made for producer, Walter Wanger in 1949 – ten years after her self-imposed exile; this, is the Garbo of near mythical proportions and epic loss: the unicorn, the sphinx: an enigma bottled in a time capsule of her own youth, yet relegated to another lifetime entirely, to be forever misinterpreted and so completely misunderstood. For the record, Garbo never said she wanted to be alone…at least, not in real life. That famed quotation, like everything else we know or believe to be true about Garbo was, in fact, an invention of Hollywood; a line first uttered in rehearsed despair in Grand Hotel (1932) and since substituted as the leitmotif in Garbo’s own life. But the reality is Garbo only wished to be ‘left alone’ – a fine line of distinction, perhaps, but applying equally to the press (who relentlessly dogged her every footstep for years) and to her fans (who continued to quietly follow her around Manhattan while she shopped for antiques). Instead, Garbo chose to remain perennially loyal and available to those she trusted most – a very select group, indeed – but to whom she was quite simply a person of flesh and blood, perishable and sincerely alive: something she arguably never was on the screen.
For although there are few among her contemporaries (and virtually none in today’s batch of aspiring starlets) who can so readily ignite the screen with a mere flicker of sadness caught in her eye, Garbo on camera remains an adored mannequin, more prized than flesh, yet somehow less genuine and accessible. Personally, I adore this creature of light and shadow, realizing that in my adoration of the myth I am precisely the sort Garbo would have shied away from in life, to whom she would have drawn the curtains or shut the door in my face before I could be so bold as to utter “I love you.” So perhaps, like that elixir of elusive femininity she plays in Camille (1936) it is best – at least for me – that she exists as an untrue memory in my heart where her intangible perfection can remain locked away; the guarded unhappy secret of this daydreamer obsessing over an apparition. Garbo is in the full flourish of her hypnotic faculties in George Cukor’s Camille; arguably, the film for which she remains revered, cherished and most fondly remembered as the great actress she so obviously was. In playing the doomed courtesan, desired by the impossibly handsome, Armand (Robert Taylor), a much younger love struck optimist, Garbo positively glows. That she found queer strength in this character’s ailing is perhaps no great surprise. For Garbo knew something of heartache; better still, of the destructive nature of Hollywood sycophants who had once praised, then condemned her one-time lover, matinee idol, John Gilbert, into an early grave.
Marguerite Gautier is first introduced to us as the lady of the camellias, a rapturous courtesan with a naughty twinkle in her eye, selling herself for the luxuries that only money can buy; pretty flowers and exquisite clothes to lure even more prospective suitors to buy her things while she spends her time and energies elsewhere instead of on them. Yet behind the smile there lurks a timidity untainted by these decadent hours wasted in the mercantile trade of flesh; a commodity picked apart and readily exploited by Marguerite’s fair-weather friend; the saucy dressmaker, Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Cruise) who forewarns Marguerite she will not be young and desirable forever. Far from looking out for Marguerite’s well-being, Prudence is a straggler, all too eager to exploit her friends’ extravagances for money; living high on the parties she attends, populated by a motley band of disreputable users, devoted to nothing better or even as lasting as the gaiety of the moment.
Into this den of iniquity comes Armand Duval (Robert Taylor); a reveler as yet not made fully corrupt by these wily good times of his school chum, Gaston (Red O’Malley) and who freely falls almost instantly - passionately - in love with Marguerite. She thwarts his advances with playful abandonment, ignoring the truth in his sentiment as generic lust, and even more obtusely setting aside his genuine concern for the ailment that has already begun to erode her lungs. Armand cannot bear to watch as Marguerite struggles to breathe, whirling about the dance floor with wild abandonment, all but ignored in her obvious distress by these wicked indulgers, too self-involved in their own benign pleasures. Later, in Marguerite’s atelier, Armand throws himself at her head. He is so vital and so sincere that she momentarily surrenders the accoutrements of a jaded voluptuary, promising to be completely his if he will encourage her friends to leave. Marguerite informs her loyal servant, Nanine (Jessie Ralph) of this admirer’s return – a romantic pas deux cruelly denied when her most wealthy client, the barbarous Baron De Varville (Henry Daniell) unexpectedly returns early from a trip abroad. The Baron is a deceiver, ruthless in his thirst to possess Marguerite, not out of love, but to inflict and satisfy his own sadomasochistic fantasies. Thus, when Armand returns to Marguerite’s apartment, the way is barred. He leaves unfulfilled, though hardly bitter or saddened. Regrettably, there is time enough for these more destructive emotions to brutalize, torment and harden his heart. At a horse sale the next afternoon, Armand is reunited with Marguerite. She half-heartedly apologizes for their delayed reunion and he accepting whatever superficial favors of kindness she is willing to parcel off to him. Armand introduces Marguerite to his friends, Gaston and Nichette (Elizabeth Allen); Gaston’s bride to be. Their innocence is infectious, leaving Marguerite to reexamine her own life’s pursuits, only to discover how precious little time remains to make amends for all the wickedness she has chosen to live by.
When the Baron announces another trip abroad, Marguerite decides to spend her holidays with Armand at his ancestral home. There, she witnesses the vows of Gaston and Nichette and dreams in vain of the day when she will marry Armand. He is all too willing to make Marguerite his beloved wife. But Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore), knowing what scandal such a union will bring and sure to impugn Armand’s future prospects as a solicitor, begs mercifully for Marguerite to go away without ever explaining her reasons to his son. Realizing that in making such a request, Monsieur Duval has only his son’s future prosperity in mind, something Marguerite perhaps has not fully considered in light of her own, she reluctantly concurs, that to marry Armand would only drag him down to her level. She must therefore sacrifice her own happiness for the sake and longevity of his – alas, out of true love. When Armand returns, he finds Marguerite gone back to Paris, his discovery made all the more bitter after finding her on the arm of the Baron inside one of Paris’ more fashionable gambling houses. Certain her return to the Baron has been motivated by greed alone, Armand wins a considerable amount of money at the tables, confronting Marguerite before the whole of the establishment and angrily casting his winnings in her face. She can buy her own grave as far as he is concerned. Little does he realize the prophetic nature of these remarks. For only a few days later, word arrives that Marguerite has been publicly spurned by the Baron – her reputation, even as a courtesan, in tatters. Moreover, she is now quite obviously dying and confined to her bed chamber. Learning of the severity of her condition and also of the self-sacrifice made on his behalf, Armand rushes to Marguerite’s bedside. He professes his love again; love that had never truly cooled, but rather was blunted, then masked, by wounded jealousy. Armand begs Marguerite’s forgiveness and pledges his life to hers, only to have her quietly die in his arms; the dream of their lives together ended by this last cruel twist of fate.
Camille is superb melodrama. There is something of a bitter resentment in this lady of the camellias, Marguerite Gautier, dashing herself to pieces as a wave upon the shore; resigned to spare the man who must never know how deeply her still waters run. She, however, is incapable of existing without his love – a central theme in many a Garbo classic (Grand Hotel, Anna Christie, Anna Karenina, Queen Christina). For fans morbidly yearning to bear witness to such spectacular altruism, Camille is our drug of choice and Garbo the quintessential figure of martyrdom. It is a tale directed with the inimitable light touch only George Cukor intuitively understood, and in which the grandiosity of deepening depression bows our heroine’s spirit, fairly shattering the more fickle devotions of her counterpart male beauty. And it all comes with an added kicker: the specter of death lurking about to claim this merciful angel back into the ether from whence she first deigned to emerge; fully formed and stepping into the satin light of William H. Daniels and Karl Freund’s sublime cinematography – the ultimate romanticized figure of feminine suffrage. Just how much of Marguerite Gautier is in Garbo – or vice versa – is left to the ages and historians to ponder and discuss. Apart from being the consummate pro, Garbo is also the visual manifestation of this lyrical epistolary; the conjurer of her own illusive magic. Was she ever as real or just a figment of the imagination, taunting and tantalizing with her dumb show – laughing at us all as in Ninotchka (1939) or infrequently, through more bitter tears, as she does from the peripheries at Armand in Camille; one moment, deliciously pleased and reveling in her artfulness; the next, granite-faced and lethally stern, perversely to deny him genuine intimacy, yet perhaps compassionate and/or fearful to singe this mere mortal in the afterglow of her megawatt stardom.
Garbo is a luminous star in the cinema firmament; an untouchable apart and remote, so perhaps it should not have come as any surprise – profound or otherwise – that she chose a life apart from the rest after her all too brief tenure in Hollywood. In doing so she did we daydreamers a great favor, denying us Garbo – the illusion, perfectly preserved in the mind’s eye – while Garbo the woman continued to live and age among us. How could any reality removed from the one concocted by MGM hope to compete? And yet, just now, I would have preferred that Garbo much more to this splendid sybarite, blossoming like a ghost flower in Camille – much preferred to have basked in the friendship of such a relaxed raconteur, who deliberately spoiled any photographic attempts to immortalize her in later years with a finger brought up against her chin or hat casually raised in front of her face. It must have been a very brave creature indeed, to have made the journey from her native Stockholm to Hollywood – more defiantly real to have faced those devouring flashbulbs from the paparazzi after Hollywood was through with her, or she with it – or both. Garbo today invokes a universal unfettered by the hourglass of time. The granules of sand slipping away for the rest of us somehow do not apply to her. She lives because of film – because of this film in particular – and because of all those hours concentrating on her carefully crafted persona in front of the camera – arguably, Garbo’s one enduring love affair. But she is never more alive than in Camille, revealing just enough about this bittersweet tart while never quite satisfying our insatiable need to truly understand the woman playing her. Or does she? Is Marguerite Gautier the Garbo of Camille or the Garbo from this mythology, of legend or of a more primal reality; one desperate to be recognized? Perhaps we shall never know. Then again…as mere mortals, perhaps we were never meant to.
Warner Home Video has done a competent job preserving Camille on DVD, though I would sincerely champion the Warner Archive to fast track this one to be remastered for Blu-ray. The B&W image is relatively clean and stable for the most part. Age-related artifacts are present but do not distract. Contrast is solid. This is about as good as Camille has ever looked on home video, although, I will assume not nearly as good as it might look in 1080p. The DVD is not a perfect presentation, and indeed, with all the digital wizardry currently at their disposal it is high time Warner went back to do a new scan of the surviving elements so that we can witness, at long last, the spectacle of Garbo in hi-def. The original mono audio has been cleaned up and is well represented. Extras include a very badly worn print of the 1921 silent version starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino, a radio broadcast of Camille and the trailer for the 1936 version. Bottom line: highly recommended... for now.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)