A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Camille (George Cukor, 1936)

Henry Daniell and Greta Garbo in Camille
Marguerite Gautier: Greta Garbo
Armand Duval: Robert Taylor
Baron de Varville: Henry Daniell
M. Duval: Lionel Barrymore
Prudence Duvernoy: Laura Hope Crews
Nanine: Jessie Ralph
Olympe: Lenore Ulric
Gaston: Rex O'Malley
Nichette: Elizabeth Allan

Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Zoe Akins, Frances Marion, James Hilton
Based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas fils
Cinematography: William H. Daniels, Karl Freund
Art direction: Cedric Gibbons, Fredric Hope, Edwin B. Willis
Music: Herbert Stothart
Costume design: Adrian

MGM was notoriously a producers' studio, a factory system in which the director was rarely allowed to stand out as the guiding influence on a movie. But somehow out of MGM's producer-driven concentration on high style in sets and costumes, and above all on the production of "more stars than there are in the heavens," George Cukor managed to emerge as one of the great directors. He did it in part by his ability to elicit definitive performances from actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford -- and later Judy Holliday and Judy Garland -- but most especially from Greta Garbo in Camille. Garbo's Marguerite Gautier is of course one of the great creations by an actress in the movies, but the remarkable thing about Camille is that Cukor is able to keep her performance from swamping the film. He remembers that there is an ensemble to work with that includes not only such formidable scene-stealers as Lionel Barrymore and Laura Hope Crews, but also a raw, untrained leading man, Robert Taylor. It's to Cukor's credit that Taylor holds up as well as he does against a luminous presence like Garbo, though it's perhaps to Garbo's credit that she makes us believe Marguerite is so profoundly infatuated with a man who has nothing but good looks to work with. Though Camille was always destined to be The Greta Garbo Show, Cukor makes her part of a very entertaining whole. He manages to modulate Lionel Barrymore's usual camera-hogging and turn him into a credible concerned paterfamilias -- in fact, Cukor directed two of the few Barrymore performances I really find myself enjoying, the other being Mr. Peggotty in David Copperfield (1935). He tames another performance that could have got out of hand in Henry Daniell's arrogant Baron de Varville, though he might have reined in Daniell's attempt to turn the French baron into an English upperclass ass: Daniell lays on the r-tapping (e.g., "veddy" for "very") a little heavily, and when he's asked if he wants to dine replies, "Ai'm not hungreh." Which brings us back to Garbo, who is glorious from her febrile first moment, clutching the camellias as if they were life itself slipping away, to her last, a death scene that has never been equaled. Garbo knew that the best performances are the most "actressy," the ones that transcend realism, that throw down a challenge to other actresses: Top this if you can. It's a knowledge demonstrated by many others, from Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep. (Jennifer Lawrence shows signs of learning it, too.) Call it camp if you will, label them divas if you want, but the movies would be poorer without it.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

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