Simply put, 1936’s Camille is a masterpiece. Between the direction of the great George Cukor and the flawless acting of Greta Garbo, Camille [aff. link] is unquestionably the greatest film adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas fils novel, La Dame aux Camelias.
For modern musical fans, Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, Moulin Rouge, is the most recent film incarnation of Dumas’ book.
Let’s get right to the plot.
The Lady of the Camellias
It’s Paris, 1847. Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo), is a high-class prostitute with a heart of gold. We immediately learn Marguerite’s nickname when a woman approaches her carriage.
The woman offers Marguerite a bunch of camellias:
“for the Lady of the Camellias.”
The flower is Marguerite’s signature in every way. Like the delicate camellia blossoms, Marguerite is very beautiful, and, as we’ll soon learn, very fragile.
Marguerite’s goal for the evening is to meet the fabulously wealthy Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell) at the theater. Marguerite intends to make the Baron her next…patron: Marguerite will offer her love in exchange for the Baron’s financial support.
Marguerite and Armand Meet
But Marguerite has never actually seen the Baron before. And at the theater, she mistakes the incredibly handsome but not very wealthy Armand Duval (Robert Taylor) for the Baron.
“I didn’t know a rich man ever looked like that!”
Marguerite says to her friend Prudence (Laura Hope Crews). It’s love at first sight between Marguerite and Armand.
But Marguerite soon discovers that Armand is not the Baron, and he is not rich. So she sends Armand out to buy candy. It’s Marguerite’s way of getting rid of Armand so she can find the Baron.
Marguerite can’t afford to choose romance over practicality.
In the following months, Marguerite becomes the creepy Baron’s mistress, and has an intense tuberculosis flare-up, which leaves her bedridden.
During Marguerite’s illness, only Armand comes to check on her. Though he never sees Marguerite, for six months, Armand visits her home every day, asking Marguerite’s loyal housekeeper for updates.
It’s not until Marguerite regains her health and is back on the social scene that she discovers Armand’s gallant actions and care during her illness. It means a lot to Marguerite, so she invites Armand to her birthday party.
At the party, we learn that Marguerite’s friends are all creeps. That is, if we didn’t already infer that from the fact that none of them visited her while she was sick and possibly dying.
Marguerite’s friends don’t even notice when she has a cough attack on the dance floor. It’s bad enough that Armand insists everyone leave at once so Marguerite can rest.
At this point Marguerite realizes that Armand’s love is true. She gives him a key to her home, and tells him to come back later that night.
But wouldn’t you know it, the Baron unexpectedly arrives for Marguerite’s…services…just before Armand. And since the Baron is still footing the bill for Marguerite’s expensive lifestyle, she must spend her evening with him rather than Armand.
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Poor Armand is left outside, pounding on Marguerite’s now deadbolted front door, wondering what’s going on.
Armand comes back the next day, and offers to take Marguerite to the countryside for the summer, where they can be together freely while she recuperates.
With her increasingly strong feelings for Armand, it’s an offer Marguerite can’t refuse. She gets one last payout from the Baron, then parts ways with him after he slaps her in the face. By now, the Baron fully realizes that Marguerite is in love with someone else.
Armand and Marguerite spend an ideal summer in the country. Life with Armand is so perfect, Marguerite decides to accept his marriage proposal, and completely change her lifestyle to that of loyal wife living on the un-extravagant budget Armand can provide. Marguerite has never been so happy, and her health has returned.
But when Armand asks his father for his inheritance so he and Marguerite can begin their life together, Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore) gets the wrong idea about Marguerite’s intentions with his son. He goes to give her a talking to while Armand is away on business, only to discover that Marguerite is a decent woman who truly loves his son. But the marriage still cannot be, he says, for it will ruin Armand’s future:
“Everything you are ashamed of in your own past would only taint his future…Armand is more sensitive and more loyal than others. As long as you are with him, he will not enter rooms that you can’t.”
Marguerite is convinced that Armand would be sacrificing too much if she marries him. As Marguerite nobly laments:
“If I tell him I don’t love him, he wouldn’t believe me, if I leave him, he would follow me…I knew I was too happy!”
The only way Marguerite can think of to get Armand out of her life is to make him hate her.
She accomplishes this by convincing Armand that she values the Baron’s wealth more than Armand’s love. Armand, thoroughly persuaded and disgusted with Marguerite, lets her go back to the Baron.
Later, Armand and Marguerite run into each other in Paris. She’s the Baron’s mistress again. Armand is clearly jealous of the Baron, and Marguerite is clearly miserable with the Baron. After Armand wins a large sum of money from the Baron at the gambling tables, he approaches Marguerite, and throws his winnings at her feet. Armand tells Marguerite that:
“Your heart is a thing that can be bought and sold. The jewels and carriages he could give you were worth more than my love, my devotion, my life!”
Armand then injures the Baron in a duel, and must leave Paris. Marguerite now knows that it is Armand or no one for her. She refuses to see other men.
Unfortunately, Marguerite’s tuberculosis returns while Armand is gone, this time fatally so. The only thing keeping her alive is her dream of seeing Armand again.
When he comes back to Paris six months later, Armand has realized that Marguerite only pushed him away because she thought it was for his own good. And then he learns of her illness.
Armand immediately rushes to Marguerite’s side. This is what Marguerite has been living for. Her wish to see Armand one last time realized, Marguerite dies quietly in his arms.
And that’s the end of the film.
The Elements of Camille
With George Cukor directing, and William Daniels–known as “Garbo’s camerman”–as cinematographer, it’s no wonder that Greta Garbo not only looked beautiful in Camille, but also turned in a flawless performance. Further adding to Garbo’s performance was a nuanced screenplay that made it through the Breen Office without being watered-down: thanks to European audiences’ love of the Dumas book, Camille followed the book’s storyline, prostitutes and all.
Robert Taylor's Armand
Initially, George Cukor was less than thrilled with the casting of Robert Taylor as Armand. Though he didn’t have a particular actor in mind, Cukor favored a more experienced, middle-aged actor in the role. He feared a young actor like Taylor wouldn’t have the depth Armand required.
A middle-aged actor may have had the experience Cukor desired for the role, but it’s Robert Taylor’s very inexperience, his youth, and innocence that make him such an ideal Armand. Taylor infuses his Armand with a clear sense of right and wrong, and an unshakable faith in his love for Marguerite. These are the elements that make Robert Taylor so believable in the role. Taylor is a near-perfect Armand in what is certainly some of the best work of his career.
Garbo's Flawless Marguerite
If you remember from my Greta Garbo introduction article, Garbo had some peculiar working conditions: she required a closed set that allowed no one to watch her work, and she refused to rehearse with her co-stars. Garbo only rehearsed in complete privacy at home. And on Camille, she took her unconventional methods a step further by refusing to even meet Robert Taylor before filming began.
As Garbo saw it, the moment Marguerite and Armand spot each other for the first time in the theater would be even more poignant if it was also the first time Garbo and Taylor met. Garbo also worried that if she and Taylor became friends prior to filming, or if they spent too much time together on set during filming, the magic of the Marguerite/Armand romance would be shattered. She needed to believe that Taylor was perfect, angelic even, to fully project Marguerite’s feelings for Armand on screen.
Though extreme, Garbo’s method was undeniably logical. And most importantly, it was effective, as anyone who’s seen Camille can attest.
Camille: The Death Scene
Garbo’s acting is absolute perfection when Marguerite dies in Armand’s arms.
But apparently it wasn’t all acting.
Greta Garbo suffered terrible menstrual pains throughout her life. And during filming of Camille, her pains were particularly acute.
Garbo was hospitalized several times during the production, and she successfully channeled this pain into Marguerite’s death scene. Garbo’s pain was so intense by the time this scene was filmed, just standing upright was exceptionally difficult.
Garbo and director George Cukor disagreed over how the death scene should play out. So, despite her pain, Greta asked that the scene be shot twice, once Cukor’s way–with Marguerite talking quite a bit, and once Garbo’s way–with Marguerite near silent.
Garbo’s belief that a dying person would not talk so much proved correct: the less-talking version of the scene turned out far superior and touching, and was used in the final film.
The Academy and Hitler Admire Garbo in Camille
Greta Garbo deservedly received her second of three Academy Award nominations for Camille. She ultimately lost to Luis Rainer in The Good Earth. But Greta couldn’t have cared less. When she finally did win an Honorary Oscar in 1955, it took Greta two years to collect the award from the person who accepted it on her behalf. Heaven knows what Garbo did with the award after that…
It wasn’t just the Academy who thought Garbo was particularly amazing in Camille: the film was reportedly one of Adolph Hitler’s favorites, and he owned a personal copy.
Garbo’s response when she discovered this fact is priceless:
“How I would have loved to put on one of Marguerite Gauthier’s dresses and walked into the Reichstag and shot that animal!”