Director: George Cukor
Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 115 minutes, some sources state 108 minutes. Released 1936. Filmed in the MGM studios.
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg, some sources list David Lewis; screenplay: Zoe Akins, Frances Marion, and James Hilton, from the novel and play La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas (fils); photography: William Daniels and Karl Freund; editor: Margaret Booth; music: Herbert Stothart; costume designer: Adrian.
Cast: Greta Garbo ( Marguerite Gautier/Camille ); Robert Taylor ( Armand Duval ); Lionel Barrymore ( Monsieur Duval ); Henry Daniell ( Baron de Varville ); Lenore Ulric ( Olympe ); Jessie Ralph ( Nanine ); Laura Hope Crews ( Prudence Duvernoy ); Elizabeth Allan ( Nichette ); Russell Hardie ( Gustave ).
Awards: New York Film Critics' Award, Best Actress (Garbo), 1937.
Bainbridge, John, Garbo , New York, 1955.
Conway, Michael, and others, The Films of Greta Garbo , New York, 1963.
Langlois, Henri, and others, Hommage à George Cukor , Paris, 1963.
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Carey, Gary, Cukor and Company: The Films of George Cukor and His Collaborators , New York, 1971.
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McGilligan, Patrick, George Cukor, a Double Life: A Biography of the Gentleman Director , New York, 1991.
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* * *
Garbo's Camille not only contains her best screen performance, but hers remains the definitive Camille. No actress in her right mind would dare do a re-make, because she would be inviting comparisons with the Garbo performance, which would not be to her advantage. In fact, some years ago, when Tallulah Bankhead was asked, along with other stars of the stage, to name what she considered the greatest of all theatrical performances, she led off instantly with "Garbo in Camille ," and no one argued her choice.
The role of Camille has always been thought of as the supreme test for the dramatic actress, just as Hamlet has become "a consummation devoutly wished" for the actor. As a character, she not only runs the gamut of emotion, she explores every facet of all emotion. Cukor saw Camille again after a long period of time, and remarked of Garbo's performance: "I was staggered [by] her lightness of touch the wantonness, the perversity of the way she played Camille, she played it as if she was the author of her own misery." Even Irving Thalberg, seeing her performance, remarked that she had never been so good. It was the scene where she sits in a box in the theatre, and Cukor demurred, "Irving, how can you tell? She's just sitting there," to which Thalberg remarked, "I know, but she's unguarded. " The key to her entire performance of Marguerite Gautier, the Parisian cocotte known among her coterie as "Camille," can be summed up in that one word—"unguarded," held safe against all time. It was in the finest tradition of thoughtful restraint in acting for the camera.
In the theatre, the story of Marguerite Gautier has been acted by all the greats, including Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt. On the screen, its various versions starred such actresses as Clara Kimball Young, Theda Bara, Nazimova, and Norma Talmadge. American actresses resisted it as a talking role. Garbo alone, with Cukor's faith in her, wanted to do the part, knowing that it could be her greatest, and it was. Henry James wrote of the story that it had been written by Alexandre Dumas fils when he was only 25, and added: "The play has been blown about the world at a fearful rate, but has never lost its happy juvenility, a charm that nothing can vulgarize. It is all champagne and tears, fresh perversity, fresh credulity, fresh passion, fresh pain. It carries with it an April air!"
In 1855, an American actress, Matilda Heron, was in Paris, and saw La Dame aux camélias played there. She made her own acting version, called it Camille, or The Fate of a Coquette , and played it all over the English-speaking world. She married, and gave birth to a daughter known as Bijou Heron, who married Henry Miller. Their son, Gilbert Miller, was one of the best producers Broadway and London ever knew. The stories surrounding Camille onstage and in films are endless, and involve nearly every important player's name. Either as Camille or as The Lady of the Camellias , it has been played by all the best actresses from Tallulah Bankhead to Ethel Barrymore, from Eva Le Gallienne to Lillian Gish, so that what they created onstage was revealed in the performance Garbo brought to the screen.
With her the part became not just about a heroine who lives well but unwisely; she became a beautiful worldly creature fated to find real love with a young man, whom she deserts because she knows that in staying with him, she is ruining his life. The lovers are reunited at her deathbed, and the audience always dissolves in tears. Seeing Garbo's death scene, an admirer remarked, "What a pity that Garbo had to die! We shan't see her again." After that last fadeout, it was not easy to believe that at least two of Garbo's best roles were still ahead, with her performances as Marie Waleska, Napoleon's love, in Conquest , and in the title role of Lubitsch's Ninotchka. Camille , however, remained her triumph for all time. It was her finest hour.