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Greta Garbo's effort in director George Cukor's adaptation of the Dumas fils tragedy Camille is pretty well recognized as her signature performance, presenting as it does the definitive foredoomed heroine whose cynical veneer is eroded by the discovery of true love. The inscrutable star received an Oscar® nomination for her superbly calibrated work, and Warner Home Video has now brought the film to its long-awaited release on DVD, available singly as well as packaged with nine other memorable Garbo turns in Garbo: The Signature Collection.

The film opens in the Paris of 1847, where Marguerite Gautier (Garbo), a onetime shopgirl who has used her charm and beauty to live well above her means by providing companionship to wealthy rakes, is now desirous of an arrangement that will cover her for life. Her dressmaker confidant Prudence (Laura Hope Crews) finagles a "chance" encounter with the estimable Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell). However, she winds up making a mistaken flirtation with Armand Duval (Robert Taylor), a handsome young law student who has long harbored an infatuation with her from a distance. Once she does connect with the Baron, though, Armand's flattering attentions are quickly forgotten.

The young Duval is persistent, however, and his determination, as well as his concern (alone amongst her social circle) about her recurring bouts with consumption, ultimately move the flighty courtesan. Marguerite breaks off her relationship with the Baron and accepts Armand's invitation to a healthful summer at his family's country estate. Their idyll together is cruelly ended when Armand's father (Lionel Barrymore) confronts her alone, adamant that his son will have no future in society as long as he is linked to a demimonde. After tearfully conceding the elder Duval's point, Marguerite delivers Armand the crushing news that she's returning to de Varville.

When the parties meet again at a the opening of a gambling club, the embittered Armand takes de Varville for a fortune, and delivers a humiliating public repudiation to Marguerite, throwing his winnings in her face. He then takes the baron up on his demand for a duel, and flees the country after wounding him. Returning months later, he learns that Marguerite is alone and succumbing to her illness, and resolves to beg her forgiveness before it's too late.

Rendered with all the considerable opulence that MGM could muster, Camille was a worthy vehicle for its star's considerable ability. As the kept and calculating party girl who finally discovers genuine romance and genuine heartbreak, Garbo moves through every phase with delicate nuance. While critics over the years have felt compelled to take potshots at Taylor for his efforts here, the role of Armand only required that he be convincingly both good-looking and good-hearted, and he succeeded on each count. Of the supporting performances, special note has to be given to the terrific screen villain Daniell, who in the role of the callous and officious Baron received an ideal showcase for his patented brand of reptilian cruelty.

The mastering job on the DVD of Camille is crisp, and presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the Dolby 1.0 Mono audio is extremely clean. Warner chose to provide Camille with a most significant add-on, that being MGM's 1921 silent take on the story, with the title role going to the legendary Broadway diva Alla Nazimova. The Russian émigré's repute as a stage performer granted her an unprecedented amount of clout during her comparatively brief run as a Hollywood lead through the teens and '20s, and she made the calls as to script and production. That's very much in evidence in this final effort from her stint at MGM, right down to the insistence that the role of Armand go to a relative unknown named Rudolph Valentino.

Valentino's star-making performance in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse (1920) had yet to open at the time Camille was lensed, and his natural efforts here helped cement his growing reputation. Camille is his only project in which all three of the women most tied to his meteoric career participated. Like Nazimova, screenwriter June Mathis was an avid early patron, and it was on this set that he met his notorious second wife, art director Natacha Rambova. Rambova's audacious art deco set design for Nazimova's modern-dress spin on the Dumas tale remains one of the primary points of interest in the film today.

Less so can be said for the on-screen efforts of Nazimova herself, which come across as rather florid and overwrought. The actress was in her early forties when Camille was made, and to the contemporary eye, the abrupt shifts to soft-focus for her close-ups borders on the comical. Much has been noted of her choice to have Armand written out of the death scene, and speculation abounds that fear of being upstaged by Valentino was the motivating factor. The film is effectively complemented by the newly-commissioned musical score from Peter Vantine. Rounding out the extras are the theatrical trailer and an audio track featuring one MGM's "Leo is On the Air" radio promotions of the era.

For more information about Camille, visit Warner Video. To order Camille, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg