Saturday, October 4, 2008

It's not a Dream...

Marguerite: It's you. It's not a dream.
Armand: No, it's not a dream. I'm here with you in my arms, at last.
Marguerite: At last.
Armand: You're weak.
Marguerite: No, no. Strong. It's my heart. It's not used to being happy.

I think the highlight of this week's orgy of movie-watching was revisiting, for the first time in many, many years, Camille (that most curious of all titles, in that there is, of course, no character in it called Camille. Why do you suppose the real title, Lady of the Camellias, has never caught on in English?).

The biggest surprise, I found, was what an extraordinarily good film it is. It's become something a cliché that, yes, Garbo is Garbo is Garbo, and immortal, but her films... Ninotcha aside ... are something else. This, though, is something different, and far, far more than just a vehicle (although it is that, too, and a very handsomely appointed one).

It has the best of everything that MGM could throw at a project in 1936, from a top-notch director in George Cukor to the A-est of the day's leading men, Robert Taylor, to sets and costumes that have rarely, if ever, been matched for their combination of extravagance and exquisite taste.

The script, credited to Zoe Akins, Frances Marion, and James Hilton in addition to Dumas fils, packs an astonishing amount of incident, banter, and period flavor on top of the surefire plot, making the film seem at once a languorous romance and a surprisingly lively peek into the underside of life in nineteenth century Paris.

And the character players! Laura Hope Crews banishes all thoughts of Aunt Pittypat as a debauched, greedy old harridan; Leonore Ulric simpers and scowls as Garbo's rival demimondaine; Lionel Barrymore is at his lionelbarrymost as Monseiur Duval. Add in Henry Daniell, Elizabeth Allan, and, in there somewhere, 40s favorite Joan Leslie in her debut, and it makes for a savory package.

And then there's Garbo. Who is, simply, incredible.

In the first scene or so, before she has met Robert Taylor (the man who will undo her), she is heavy, lifeless - worldly, but weary. Then they meet - and it's like watching the clouds part for the sun. Her performance builds to a fever pitch as the story plays out, until her final collapse. She fades and - surely this can't be considered a spoiler? - dies as affectingly as anyone on screen ever has, without affectation or pretense.

I'll have to check out a couple of her acknowledged stinkers - Two Faced Woman being of course the most notorious - and see what she brings to something that doesn't have all of Camille's glories to set her off.


  1. Oh, come on, now. The only person who didn't like Two Faced Woman was Garbo herself — she never made another movie. But how she dances!

  2. "Perhaps it is better if I live in your heart, where the world can't see me."