Camille (1936) is one of the most romantically-atmospheric films ever made. It is a tearjerker classic - a well-known, lavish, luxuriously-mounted, melodramatic love/tragedy of Hollywood's Golden Age. Director George Cukor's film, his first with Greta Garbo, was also the first talking version of the content. It was adapted (by Zoe Akins, Frances Marion, and James Hilton) from Alexandre Dumas Fils' (the Younger) 1852 novel/play (La Dame aux Camelias) of the doomed romance of a tubercular courtesan/demimonde of ill repute in 19th century Paris. [Verdi wrote the opera La Traviata based upon this play.] Thirty-seven year old producer Irving Thalberg died shortly before filming ended for his last project with MGM.
Garbo's portrayal of the beautiful but sickly Parisian courtesan, who fatefully falls in love with a young French nobleman (25 year-old Robert Taylor), is widely considered the definitive version of the Camille story. Garbo's first talkie film, Anna Christie, was advertised with the promotional line: "Garbo Talks!" - so naturally, jokes at the time suggested that this film should be advertised as: "Garbo Coughs!"
Cukor (who had already directed the classic Dinner at Eight (1933), and would go on to make further screen greats such as The Philadelphia Story (1940) and My Fair Lady (1964)), captured the most exquisite, poetic, restrained performance of the great screen actress. In her most popular and luminous film, Garbo was recognized for her performance with the film's sole Academy Award nomination, but she lost to Luise Rainer who won for another, heavily-promoted MGM classic, The Good Earth.
The title role character in this tearjerker was immortalized and based upon one of Dumas' actual acquaintances in Paris - a youthful courtesan named Marie Alphonsine du Plessis who died at the age of twenty-four (of tuberculosis). Throughout many years of stage and screen performances of the Camille tale, the heroine had been played by various leading ladies on the screen, including Oda Alstrup (1907), Gertrude Shipman (1912), Sarah Bernhardt (1912), Clara Kimball Young (1915), Theda Bara (1917), Alla Nazimova (in a 1921 film with Rudolph Valentino), Norma Talmadge (1927), Yvonne Printemps (1934 in a French production), and others on the stage including Eleanora Duse (a debut performance in 1893), Tallulah Bankhead, Ethel Barrymore, and Eva Le Gallienne.The Story
The credits play over a lace doily, after which the film's setting in the mid-nineteenth century is introduced:
In the gay half-world of Paris, the gentlemen of the day met the girls of the moment at certain theatres, balls and gambling clubs, where the code was discretion - - but the game was romance. This is the story of one of those pretty creatures who lived on the quicksands of popularity - - Marguerite Gautier, who brightened her wit with champagne - and sometimes her eyes with tears.
In the early evening, a horse drawn carriage on its way to the theatre is drawn up in front of a Parisian flower shop (Mme. Barjon Fleurs) that specializes in camellias. The proprietress of the establishment hurriedly gathers together a beautiful nosegay of camellias and presents them, with a quick curtsy, to the outstretched hand of a woman inside: "Mother lady of the Camellias...And they're almost twice as large as usual." The exquisitely-dressed and jeweled 19th century Parisian courtesan, Marguerite 'Camille' Gautier (Greta Garbo) accepts the bouquet. She is a notorious kept-woman - living an avaricious life of self-indulgence and frivolity (with "too many flowers, too many hats, and too many everything, but I want them.") Marguerite is scolded by her elderly, bawdy and vulgar companion Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews) for her extravagance, and cautioned to court a lover who will keep her showered in gifts:
And there's no limit to your extravagance. Now you won't be young forever. It's high time you settle something about your future. And I know the very man for you.
Prudence recommends Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell) - "one of the richest and most elegant gentlemen in Paris." Marguerite scoffs at the age of the proposed suitor: "One foot in the grave, I suppose, and a wig on his head." Not so, says Prudence: "He's young and handsome," and she plans an arranged introduction during their evening together at the theatre.
At the top of the ornate double staircase in the elegant theatre, Marguerite pauses to survey the well-dressed, top-hatted crowd down in the main lobby. Prudence bullies her way into opera box A with Marguerite and displaces Olympe (Lenore Ulric), so that they can be in an advantageous, pre-arranged spot to be met by the Baron, rather than in their own Box B. The middle-aged Baron de Varville is passed a note which he reads with his gloved hand:
There will be a seat in Box A for M. Le Baron de Varville with a certain lady who hopes he will honour her with his presence.
Rather than join them, the Baron sits in his front and center orchestra seat. In a scene of broad comedy, Prudence and Olympe direct their opera glasses during an intermission over the house and point out the Baron to Marguerite. In a case of mistaken identity while looking through her own opera glasses, Marguerite views a different, more handsome, young, naive bachelor Armand Duval (Robert Taylor) - she remarks delightedly and amusedly: "I didn't know that rich men ever looked like that." After Armand flirts with her by a glance directed her way, Marguerite describes its meaning: "His eyes have made love to me all evening." After quarreling together over the object of their affection, Olympe jealously chastises Marguerite for her wantonness:
Olympe: If you don't stop being so easy-going with your money, you'll land in the gutter before you're through or back on that farm where you came from milking cows and cleaning out hen houses.
Marguerite: Cows and chickens make better friends than I've ever met in Paris.
When Baron de Varville arrives at the box after Marguerite and Prudence have left, he cannot be distracted from being "engaged" with Olympe. In the theatre, Marguerite looks down toward the foot of the staircase at the adoring eyes of Armand gazing back at her. They have their first conversation after he pursues her - it is a fateful meeting:
Marguerite: Are you following me?
Armand: Yes, you, well you did smile at me a moment ago, didn't you?
Marguerite: Well, you tell me first whether you smiled at me or at my friend [Olympe].
Armand: What friend?
Marguerite: You didn't even see her?
Marguerite: That's very nice.
Armand: I was just wondering if you'd ask me to sit down if I knocked at the door of the box.
Marguerite: Why not? We really seemed fated to meet this evening, didn't we?
Armand escorts Marguerite back to Box B. Across the way in Box A, Marguerite's envious rival Olympe has snagged Baron de Varville. Armand protests and confesses his growing affection for her over the past year and a half:
Armand: Fate must have had something to do with this. I've hoped for it so long. You don't believe me.
Armand: The first time I saw you was a year and a half ago. You were in an open carriage and dressed in white. I saw you get out and go into a shop in La Place de la Bourse.
Marguerite: Yes, it might have happened. I used to go to a dressmaker in La Place de la Bourse.
Armand: You were wearing a thin dress with miles of ruffles, a large straw hat, an embroidered shawl, a single bracelet and heavy gold chain. And, of course, the camellias at your waist.
Marguerite: You have a marvelous memory, haven't you?
Armand: The next time was at the Opera La Comique. You were sitting in a box with a fur coat on, and Gaston - a chap whom I know who knows you, said Marguerite's been ill. And it hurt me. Next time...
Marguerite: Well, tell me, if all you say is true, why have you never spoken to me before?
Armand: In the first place, I didn't know you.
Marguerite: You didn't know me tonight.
Armand: No, but after you smiled at me, I knew you wouldn't mind.
Marguerite: And now, since you've met me?
Armand: Now I know that I love you - and have loved you since that first day.
When Prudence arrives, Marguerite realizes, with slight embarrassment (calling it "jolly funny") and self-awareness, that the man she has frivolously fallen in love with is not the wealthy Baron de Varville. Armand is uneasy and disappointed, speculating that she had become interested in him only for his presumed wealth.
Marguerite: Even if you're not Baron de Varville, sit down.
Armand: I can scarcely believe I'm wanted now that my unimportance has been discovered.
Marguerite: Don't be silly. Who are you, anyhow?
Armand: My name is Armand Duval. I've never had any reason to be ashamed of it.
Marguerite: (with a touching smile) Oh, Armand Duval. I'm not always sincere. One can't be in this world, you know. But I am not sorry the mistake happened.
Armand: Nor am I.
Marguerite sends Armand on an errand to buy "some sweets" as her jealous, tempestuous, slutty rival Olympe viciously criticizes the commonness of Marguerite in the opposite box to the Baron: "She's not easy to get along with, I can tell you, ask anybody...and she has the reputation of being one of the most extravagant girls in Paris as well as one of the most insincere...She's the kind who says one thing and thinks another." Put off by Olympe's envious back-biting and sniping, the Baron switches boxes and comes up to Marguerite in Box B, just as the lights dim for the next act:
I was delighted when I saw that you were alone.
When Armand finally returns with the bonbons from the confectioners, the theatre box is empty - Marguerite has already departed with the Baron. He discovers her left-behind handkerchief, views it longingly, and pockets it.
Six months have passed by the time of this next scene. Marguerite has become the mistress/lover of her protector, the Baron de Varville. On his imminent departure to Russia, she fingers the string of his monocle and lightly explains how the doctors have warned her about traveling with him ("the trip will be too much for me") on his imminent departure ("I shall get tired, I shall get ill again"). Marguerite lightly complains about his leaving, but she is not emotional or sorry enough for his liking:
Marguerite: Now what shall I give you to remember me by?
Baron: You can't give me anything I'd like?
Marguerite: What's that?
Baron: A tear. You're not sorry enough I'm going.
Marguerite: (in a very affected, hypocritical tone) Oh, but I am sorry.
Baron: Is there anything I can do for you before I go?
Then, the feckless Parisian butterfly stands and begs her benefactor for money to purchase another pair of horses for herself at an auction, because Olympe is equally desirous of them ("She always wants everything I want, and I just don't want her to have them"). She pulls on the beaded chain around her own neck while admitting that she really wants the horses' coachman, and not the horses - she rationalizes that "he'd be miserable without the horses":
Baron: So much heart and so little sense. (She laughs) I shall take a good look at your new coachman when I come back. (She laughs again)
Marguerite: (She accepts his money) Thank you.
Baron: Now, goodbye.
Marguerite: (exaggerated) Goodbye. Goodbye. (She kisses him with a detached, unemotional expression)
At the horse auction with Gaston (Rex O'Malley) and Prudence, Marguerite purchases the magnificent pair of horses for six thousand francs - and gloats about her victory over the bidding of Olympe. Prudence advises her about her soft and big heart:
Gaston: You really have a heart, Marguerite.
Olympe: Yes, it's gonna cost her a lot before she's through. I hope mine never gets that soft.
Gaston: Don't worry, it won't.
Prudence: It's a great mistake for any woman to have a heart bigger than her purse.
Afterwards, Marguerite speaks to Nichette (Elizabeth Allan), her oldest friend in Paris (from the days when she worked as a shopgirl in a linen shop) who is truly in love and engaged to be married to Gustave (Russell Harde). Her fiancee is a promising, but penniless legal student who plans to marry her after passing his exams (and becoming a "real lawyer"). By contrast, Marguerite - with all her worldly possessions - admits that she has a diminished capacity to love:
Marguerite: You seem to think that's very fine of him.
Nichette: But of course I do. After all, I've no dowry, and he's a gentleman and educated.
Marguerite: Even so, why should the mention of marriage go to your head?
Nichette: Marguerite, it's ideal to love, and to marry the one you love.
Marguerite: (She laughs) I have no faith in ideals. You suit yourself as you wish. But remember, you can always do better than a penniless young lawyer.
Nichette: I never want to do better than Gustave.
Marguerite: Well, well, time changes our minds as well as our hearts. (playfully) Perhaps you won't go on being a little goose always. Only come and see me now and then. Remember, you're my oldest friend in Paris.
In addition to her self-immolating love affairs, Marguerite has been suffering from a tubercular condition. Jocular about her health, she confesses to Nichette: "I always look well when I'm near death."
During a chance meeting with Armand after the auction, he returns her dropped handkerchief that he has cherished with some bitter feelings:
Marguerite: And you kept it with you all this time?
Marguerite: Always with you?
Armand: Always with me, like an old friend - to remind me that I'm not the Baron de Varville.
Marguerite: Hmm. Not a very romantic reason.
Armand: No, I kept it as a warning against romance.
Marguerite: How sensible! Has it made you very cynical?
Armand: Yes, very.
Marguerite: Is that why you've never taken the trouble to call on me?
Marguerite: I'm sorry. One needs friends.
Marguerite is touched by his sincerity and astonished to learn from her housekeeper Nanine (Jessie Ralph) that while she was ill, he faithfully came every day to ask how she was and to leave flowers, without being introduced. As she covers her mouth with a dainty handkerchief, she realizes his true love:
Marguerite: (She grasps his hands) You might have asked to see me.
Armand: Well, I knew there were so many others.
Marguerite: There were no others, none, during all those weeks the doctors thought I might die.
Armand: Not even Baron de Varville?
Marguerite: Baron de Varville chose to be in England at the time. No, you were the only one that took the trouble to ring my bell.
Armand: But now...
Marguerite: Oh, now I'm well again, and all goes merrily.
Undaunted by her own weakness and poor health, she invites Armand to her birthday "supper" party to be held the next evening after the theatre:
I'm afraid of nothing except being bored.
His present to her will be the book he is holding - a sad story about a young hedonistic woman who suffered a tragic ending:
Armand: A beautiful girl who lived for love and pleasure.
Marguerite: It's a beautiful color. It should be a very good story.
Armand: Yes it is, but it's rather sad. She dies in the end.
Marguerite: Well then, I'll keep it but I won't read it. I don't like sad thoughts. However, we all die, so perhaps this will be sold again someday at an auction after my death.
Armand: I thought you didn't like sad thoughts.
Marguerite: (defusing her melancholy) I don't, but they come sometimes.
At the party held in the mansion, the Bohemian guests feign formality while whispering dirty jokes and laughing boisterously around the dinner table, as they are served partridges. Cigar-smoking strumpet Prudence behaves with her characteristic rowdiness and vulgarity. The aristocratic-bred Armand appears "shocked" by everyone's deportment, although Marguerite (wearing a beautiful strapless white gown) feels left out of frivolity and entreats them:
Well, no fair, tell us all...I want to laugh too, tell me the story.
During the dancing following dinner (Olympe does a fast 'can-can' style number with her dress held high), Marguerite overtaxes herself and suffers a fit of coughing. She retires to her candle-lit boudoir - a scene filmed with delicate lighting and shadows. Armand follows tentatively and appears from behind her in her mirror reflection (decorated with lace), irresistibly drawn to her and worried about her health. In fact, Marguerite is starving and yearning for passionate love in her life:
Marguerite: Oh, it's you. What's happened? You look ill too.
Armand: No, it's seeing you like this, suffering.
Marguerite: It's nothing. It lasts only a minute.
Armand: You're killing yourself.
Marguerite: If I am, you're the only one who objects. Now, why don't you go back and dance with one of those pretty girls. (She laughs) Come, I'll go with you. (He embraces and kisses her hand.) What a child you are.
Armand: Your hand's so hot.
Marguerite: Is that why you put tears on it and cool it?
Armand: I know I don't mean anything to you. I don't count. But someone ought to look after you. And I could if you'd let me.
Marguerite: Too much wine has made you sentimental.
Armand: It wasn't wine that made me come here every day for months to find out how you were.
Marguerite: No, it couldn't have been wine. So you'd really like to take care of me?
Marguerite: All day, every day?
Armand: All day, every day. Why not? (She laughs)
Marguerite: Why should you care for a woman like me? I'm always nervous or sick, or sad or too gay.
Armand: I do care for you.
Marguerite: You know what you should do. You should get married. Ah. Come, come. You're young and sensitive. The sort of company you're in tonight doesn't suit you at all.
Armand: Nor you.
Marguerite: No. These are the only friends I have and I'm no better than they are. However, I've given you some very good advice. (She extends her arm to guide him.) Now let's go back. (She notices his hesitation and laughs.) Oh, what on earth am I going to do with you?
Armand: (He repeats his protestations of love while grabbing her tightly.) No one has ever loved you as I love you.
Marguerite: That may be true, but what can I do about it? (She halts his urging to kiss her.) You should go away and not see me anymore. (He turns away to leave.) But don't go in anger. Well, why don't you laugh at yourself a little as I laugh at myself, and come and talk to me once in a while in a friendly way?
Armand: That's too much and not enough. (He holds her hand.) Don't you believe in love, Marguerite?
Marguerite: I don't think I know what it is.
Armand: Oh, thank you.
Marguerite: For what?
Armand: For never having been in love. (She laughs at him.)...