Friday, March 10, 2006

Camille (1936)

Dir. George Cukor
Writ. Zoe Akins, Frances Merion, James Hilton, from Alexandre Dumas-fils' play & novel
w/ Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, Elizabeth Allan, Henry Daniell, Rex O'Mally
D.P. William Daniels, A.S.C. and Karl Freund, A.S.C.

Garbo's effortless screen presence, Cukor's somewhat quirky direction, and vibrant cinematography bring this "archaic creaker" to life. [1] In 1847 Paris, young courtesan Marguerite Gauthier spends much of her time at the theatres attracting lovers, and much of the contents of their pocketbooks acquiring new dresses to attract fresh prey. Days and nights sail by while Marguerite frivolously anticipates new parties and dalliances, her only seeming annoyance being fellow courtesan and rival, Olympe. Insistent upon making every new prospect a competitive object, Olympe reminds the disaffected Marguerite that she is from the country and not gay, witty Paris.

"Cows and chickens," Garbo quips, "make better friends than any I have ever met in Paris." [2]

The trouble basically begins when the heroine mistakes distant admirer Armand for a Baron with whom she had had a brief acquaintanceship. Despite the fact that the faithful suitor had cast his eye upon her much earlier, he departs and the real Baron, an unsavory type, shows up. The smile on Marguerite's face soon vanishes to be replaced with hidden bouts with illness and a lot of anguish that neither of her gentleman callers ever witness. She spends the better part of the film torturing and being tortured by the two men, but her heart belongs to Armand. If only that pesky cough would go away...ah, well. In order to regain her strength and enjoy a certain amount of happiness with Armand, the couple absconds to the countryside. But when he returns to Paris to settle his estate for their future security and well-being, his dastardly father seeks out Marguerite as a woman of ill repute who can bode no good for his heir. Alone and with no one to turn to, our poor and wretched heroine spends a day in bitter tears, hardening her heart so that she can have the strength to leave Armand to a better life and a better love.[3]

Whether or not this adaptation reeks of a morality study seems moot; that it is more so than Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge certainly feels correct enough. She's doomed throughout the movie to a fate befitting someone of her station, or so it seems. But while the audience understands what she does for a living, Garbo's Marguerite lets us forget it somehow, emphasizing instead the more interesting intricacies of humor, kindness, and undying love in a cruel, cruel world. There aren't many movies made these days in which lead actresses can take such lattitude. Famed for her droopy-shouldered nonchalance, and incredibly beautiful with that scarless face and skin, she breathes life into this role beyond the returnable capabilities of most of the cast. The male leads just don't seem to be able to do her talents justice, really. The script inconsistency also remains a notable flaw, which would explain some of the longer bits in which, instead of interacting with his camera-mate, Robert Taylor (Armand) delivers monologue after monologue that leaves Garbo little choice but to reposition her body as she can and stay within frame. He did his best, given the circumstances.

A muted strength in the form of Gaston (Rex O'Mally) exists, too. Their faithful friend, he can be counted upon to help as he can, and so he does. This sort of role must have become less popular with the passing years, but in a burdensome drama such as Camille, every little bit of genuine help is greatly, if (more often than not) secretly, appreciated.

[1] The 1998 Video Movie Guide thus suggests that this maybe ain't so great a film.

[2] Bottle-feeding calves and galloping horseback through remote fields for me. Or reading anything by the great American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau.

[3] Behold the power of nitwits to make a lover feel inadequate and feeble...what a crock.

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