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Camille (1937) is one of the screen's most timeless romantic tearjerkers of Hollywood's Golden Age. Swedish screen legend Greta Garbo stars as Marguerite, a courtesan of ill repute in 19th century Paris, who falls in love with the young French nobleman Armand (Robert Taylor). Happiness is elusive for the couple, however, due to the meddling of friends and family and Marguerite's rapidly failing health. As Camille, Garbo gives what many consider to be her greatest performance, and handsome romantic lead Taylor, once billed "the man with the perfect profile," sent female hearts aflutter upon the film's release.
MGM, led by production supervisor Irving Thalberg, wanted a fresh, sensual version of Camille, which had already been filmed several times during the silent era with such stars as Theda Bara and Rudolph Valentino. The famed George Cukor, whose credits include numerous screen classics like Dinner at Eight (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940) and My Fair Lady (1964), was set to direct. It marked the first time he worked with Garbo (he would later direct her again in the 1941 comedy Two-Faced Woman). Though the two eventually became friends, Cukor initially didn't take to Garbo; he found her dour and depressing to be around. He was impressed with Garbo's acting abilities, however, and loved her performance in Camille. Her insecurities led to her usual practice of barring everyone who wasn't absolutely essential to the scene at hand from the set while she was performing, but Cukor understood that this was all part of her unique craft. According to him, she was always fresh and creative and worked extremely hard to get each scene exactly right. "She managed to create a whole language," he said, "a kind of argot for the story."
Cukor was also quick to give credit to screenwriter Zoe Akins. Akins and two others, Frances Marion and James Hilton, received screen credit for the script, but Cukor claimed that the final draft was all the work of Akins. The adaptation was based on the Alexandre Dumas novel La Dame aux Camelias which was later turned into a play and eventually the famous Verdi opera La Traviata. Dumas apparently based his original story on an actual woman - an acquaintance of his in Paris named Marie Alphonsine du Plessis who died at age 24 of tuberculosis.
Robert Taylor was considered an asset to Camille not just because of his good looks and earnest portrayal of Marguerite's suitor Armand, but also because of his youthful age of 25. According to George Cukor, Armand was a "notoriously bad part for an actor, and it's often played by men in their forties and doesn't make sense. But because Taylor was young, it came alive." Taylor had initially received much attention in Hollywood for his looks, but his talent evolved as he continuously worked hard to do justice to his roles. Of Taylor, Greta Garbo always spoke fondly. She was touched when he sent her mother a dozen beautiful orchids when he was in Stockholm for the premiere of Camille there. She also recalled his willingness to stay out of the sun during the shoot, even though he was a sun worshipper, in order to match Garbo's paler complexion.
For Marguerite's inevitable death scene at the end of the movie, there were two different versions shot. In one, Garbo delivered a long dramatic speech before she succumbs to her illness. In the other, she was mostly silent, allowing the emotion to come primarily from her face and body. George Cukor said that both versions were good, but in the end he and Garbo felt that it was too unrealistic to have a dying woman talk so much. They settled on the second one, which still has the power to move audiences to tears. For Garbo, playing her most famous role was an indelible experience. "My involvement in Marguerite was so complete," she said, "that I was unable to maintain emotional contact with people whom I met during work on this film." Her commitment to the role paid off when she won a Best Actress Academy Award® nomination for her work - the only nomination for Camille. She lost, however, to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth.
The tragic love story of Camille was an immediate hit with audiences and critics alike, who showered it with such adjectives as "brilliant," "eloquent" and "incomparable." Producer Irving Thalberg didn't live to see the success of his last project for MGM - he died September 14, 1936, three months before the end of production at the age of 37. After the film's success, MGM raised Garbo's already substantial salary, and the King of Sweden bestowed their Litteris et Artibus award on the actress. The beauty and romance of Camille have endured through the years, making it one of the silver screen's great classics.
Producer: Bernard H. Hyman, David Lewis
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Zoe Akins, Alexandre Dumas, James Hilton, Frances Marion
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Fredric Hope, Edwin B. Willis
Cinematography: William H. Daniels, Karl Freund
Costume Design: Adrian
Film Editing: Margaret Booth
Original Music: Herbert Stothart, Edward Ward
Principal Cast: Greta Garbo (Marguerite Gautier), Robert Taylor (Armand Duval), Lionel Barrymore (Monsieur Duval), Elizabeth Allan (Nichette), Jessie Ralph (Nanine), Henry Daniell (Baron de Varville), Laura Hope Crews (Prudence Duvernoy).
BW-108m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Andrea Foshee