“I shall love Armand always. And I believe he shall love me always too.”
After recovering from his head cold, [Irving] Thalberg joined [George]Cukor in his studio screening room to see what he had missed, a scene of Garbo at the theater with [Laura Hope] Crews and [Lenore] Ulric.
“George, she’s actually good,” said Thalberg. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so good.”
“But Irving,” said Cukor, “she’s just sitting in an opera box.”
“She’s relaxed,” said Thalberg. “She’s open. She seems unguarded for once.”
Garbo’s new attitude prompted Thalberg to rework the script with [Zoe] Akins. “She is a fascinating artist, but she is limited,” Thalberg told Akins and [David] Lewis. “She must never create situations. She must be thrust into them. The drama comes in how she rides them out.”
- excerpt from Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince by Mark A. Vieira
What Irving Thalberg said in the excerpt about Greta Garbo when she was filming Camille is completely true. For once in her films she looks unguarded, she looks like she finally let her walls down and just gave herself completely to the character and Robert Taylor as her lover. Greta Garbo said that Camille was her favorite film she made and it is widely considered her best film.
Marguerite Gautier (Garbo) is a young woman living it up in Paris in the year 1847. Months ago she came from the countryside and now she has a place in high society. She and her friend Prudence attend an opera where Prudence sets her up to meet the Baron de Varville who is handsome and rich. A mix up occurs when their opera box is given to a “friend” of Marguerite’s named Olympe. Marguerite is not as into catching the Baron’s eye as Olympe and Prudence. During the intermission she locks eyes with a young man she mistakes as the Baron. When the young man comes up he introduces himself as Armand Duval (Robert Taylor). The mistake is forgiven as both he and Marguerite are taken by each other. She asks him to grab him some candy but when he comes back she has left with the Baron.
The next time Marguerite and Armand see each other is six months later. In that time Marguerite had been seriously ill. He tells her that for all those months he was the only visitor she had. Her birthday comes around and she throws a big party even though she is still recovering. At the party Marguerite over exerts herself and goes into a coughing fit. Armand notice and goes to her. They confess their love for each other and plan to meet later on in the night when everyone else has gone. Before Armand arrives the Baron comes back and spoils their plans for the night.
Armand tells his father (Lionel Barrymore) that he wants to travel. His father can tell that he wants to get away because he is in love. Before he leaves he writes a letter to Marguerite that she says was not too kind. She visits him just as he is packing. Marguerite tells him she truly loves him and is willing to leave the Baron for him. Armand wants to take her to the country for the summer where they can be alone and she can get better. That night Marguerite asks the Baron for some money to pay her debts. He is not blind to the fact that she has found someone else to run around with. He gives her the money she needs and slaps her after she thanks him.
Armand and Marguerite have a wonderful time in the country. Armand wants to go to Paris to have his money he has inherited from his grandfather released to him so he can marry Marguerite. His father hears about this and goes down to the country to speak with Marguerite. He tells her that he does not want his son to be limited because of her. Armand needs to have a good social standing and she would just be holding him back since he could not be seen with her. He also believes that she is just after his money when she truly is not she really does love him. But it is her great love that she has for Armand that she is willing to listen to his father and let him go. When Armand comes home Marguerite says things to make him hate her so they can break off their affair.
Again they meet at a party some time after their break up. They still love each other and Armand is furious that Marguerite is back with the Baron. He pleads and begs for her to come back to him but when she says she will not he gets very angry at her. No matter how angry Armand gets at her Marguerite does not tell him she broke things off because of his father. The Baron becomes furious with Armand for speaking to Marguerite the way he did and challenges him to a due. Armand wounds the Baron and has to leave France for a while.
When Armand comes back he learns that Marguerite is seriously ill and has not been out for weeks. Creditors wait in the living room making sure no one walks off with anything since she owes so much money and Prudence come barging in looking for some money that is owed to her. Luckily her sweet and generous friend Gaston has left some Francs in her purse and is genuinely taking care of her. All Marguerite cares for and wants is Armand. She knows her ending is near and has Gaston call for a priest. Armand comes just in time. Marguerite dies in his arms.
As Irving Thalberg said Greta Garbo was unguarded for once. Garbo was always mysterious because she put so many walls up and that showed in her films even when her characters were not supposed to be. In this film you can see that her walls were finally broken down and just let herself be swept into the character and swept off her feet by Robert Taylor. That fallen wall makes Garbo shine and that is the reason this is her best film.
Robert Taylor was wonderful as Garbo’s leading man. He was so handsome and he was a great balance to Garbo. I have seen my share of Taylor’s films but this one was definitely his best acted as well. I never knew he had such a great dramatic range. His scene where Armand begs Marguerite to come back to him was incredible.
Lionel Barrymore only had two scenes and you are not meant to really like him since he made Marguerite leave Armand. Laura Hope Crews as Prudence was really good. I cannot believe that she was Aunt Pittypat in Gone With the Wind she was just all over the place. Prudence was a not nasty but not nice she made it out like she was Marguerite’s closest friend but when it came to money she wanted it and turned mean. Lenore Ulric was really good as Olympe she was jealous of Marguerite but not in an annoying way.
Although it is never specified what Marguerite, Olympe, and Prudence due I have a feeling they were escorts or companions. The name Olympe or Olympia was usually used by prostitutes in France. When Manet first exhibited his painting Olympia in 1863 it caused a scandal because it was a nude woman that was not in a classical setting and there is much symbolism of prostitution in the painting.
George Cukor made a fantastic film. He got the most out of not just his main actors but even the supporting actors. There is not one bad frame in the whole picture every shot is perfection. The film is the perfect blend of cinema and art. Irving Thalberg’s main goal as a producer was to have film be considered an artistic medium just like the theater. Camille is probably his only film to have come close to his goal. At a time when the studios were turning out picture after picture and just making a picture for the sake of turning them out Thalberg put so much care and thought into his films; he was creating art. William Daniels was THE cinematographer at MGM. He was the only cinematographer who Norma Shearer wanted to work with and always got for her films. His lighting alone makes lends the film its artistry.
In the middle of production Irving Thalberg passed away at the age of thirty-seven. Camille was one of the films he poured his complete heart into creating. When he died other producers tried to step in and “fix” the film to how they wanted it to be done but once they made their “corrections” they realized that Thalberg’s ways were the only correct ones and kept what he had wanted.
Camille is the most perfect picture to come out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I mean this in all honesty because I do not have any Ifs, Ands, or Buts or complaints about it. I could not find anything wrong with this film. Camille is artistic but just enough as it does not turn people away. The acting is some of the best I have ever seen in a classic film. No matter what era of movies you enjoy Camille is a film that all film buffs, admirers and aspiring filmmakers should see.