Marguerite is a courtesan in Paris. She falls deeply in love with a young man of promise, Armand Duval. When Armand's father begs her not to ruin his hope of a career and position by marrying Armand, she acquiesces and leaves her lover. However, when poverty and terminal illness overwhelm her, Marguerite discovers that Armand has not lost his love for her. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
The great literary romances of the late nineteenth century, despite perhaps being presumed today to be models of propriety and principle, were more often than not frank tales of adulteresses and prostitutes. When many of these great works were adapted for the screen in the 1930s, the most natural choice for a leading lady was often Greta Garbo, than whom there was none finer at portraying such fallen women as noble and tragic heroines.
Garbo was one of the cinema's great natural performers, and in her day was probably the most genuine person to have graced the screen. She brought something to these roles not only because she was dangerously beautiful, but also because she was irresistibly human. Even when her character lied to her lover she could make us sympathise with her motives, as well as understand why the lead man was so enamoured of her to be taken in. In Camille, she brilliantly captures the conflict between Marguerite's strength of character and her physical frailty. Her occasional coughs and lapses into weariness are so neatly understated, but in a way that makes us accept that she is fighting against them rather than that they are insignificant.
Whether Garbo's professionalism rubbed off on others, or whether it was the intensely personal direction of George Cukor, Camille also features some superb performances from what could have been a disappointing supporting cast. Lead man Robert Taylor (who once described acting as the easiest job in the world) was generally little more than a handsome but wooden matinée idol, and yet here the youngster pulls off his part like a pro. True, for the first hour of the picture he is simply a handsome, grinning mug, but when his character is required to display some emotional depth he steps up to the task. Henry Daniell and Lionel Barrymore were both shameless hams, but here they are at their most restrained, without losing any of their trademark qualities. When you compare Daniell in Camille to his other performances, it's like seeing the real person that a caricature is based on.
While the sincerity of the cast certainly helps to give Camille its emotional intensity, it is the direction of Cukor which gives it its pace and watchability. Cukor's cinema is all about movement, and he has a hundred tricks up his sleeve, each using motion to draw our attention or set tone. Take Garbo's big scene with Barrymore. The two of them are essentially just wheeling around a small room, but Cukor keeps his camera up fairly close, emphasising their almost constant changes in position. This gives an unsettling, desperate quality to the scene, even giving the impression that Barrymore is chasing Garbo. At other times such rapid change would be distracting, especially if the scene contains a lot of important information, but Cukor still uses subtle shifts in perception to keep the narrative feeling fresh and meaningful. For example in the lengthy episode at the opera where we meet the principle characters for the first time, Cukor uses the fuzzy glow of the stage as a backdrop for the first meeting between Garbo and Taylor, and the blandness of the box for the equivalent encounter with Daniell.
Both the acting and the direction here are purely cinematic, the former glamorous yet honest, the latter unobtrusively guiding the audience with the moving image. And yet it takes away none of the integrity of Alexander Dumas fils' novel. And so this final nod is to the hidden hand behind the screen - producer Irving Thalberg. Thalberg's aim was never simply to make a fast buck; he wanted to leave high quality product behind him. It seems that pictures like Camille are what he always aspired to - ones that harnessed all the faculties of the medium, yet were as prestigious and culturally significant as any classic play or novel. This was among his last productions, and he died before it was released, but it is undoubtedly a worthy asset to his legacy.
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