Cukor, George: A Life–1937–Directing Garbo, the Divine

If Cukor regretted being unable to film Romeo and Juliet in Italy, he felt the same way about not filming Camille in Paris.

Greta Garbo was under contract for two more pictures at MGM, and Cukor was given a choice: Anna Karenina or Camille.  He chose Camille, guiding Garbo to her greatest performance in the role of Dumas’ doomed heroine.  In Camille, Cukor brilliantly created a psychological portrait of victim, trapped in her specific milieu.  The movie represented another achievement for the young director–Camille was the first film he was able to get his way at Metro about how a costume picture should look.

Selznick was apprehensive about his first venture with Garbo, due in part to her stature in Hollywood, and, more to the point, the commercial disappointment of her historical film, Queen Christina.  Intially, he was inclined to film Dark Victory with Garbo, provided they could purchase the Broadway play at a reasonable figure, and get Philip Barry to write the script.  Cukor agreed that Dark Victory was a better vehicle for Garbo than Anna Karenina.

A few years back, John Hay Whitney had approached Cukor to direct Dark Victory with Tallulah Bankhead.  Cukor found the play touching, and was convinced that Bankhead would be great, as she possessed the “reckless heartbreaking quality” that the part needed.  Unfortunately, he was busy shooting David Copperfield and could not take the assignment.

Selznick assured Garbo that Cukor would put his best efforts into making a fine film out of Dark Victory, one that would “dissipate the obvious pitfalls of the subject from the viewpoint of her millions of admirers.”  For these reasons, Selznick requested Garbo to permit them to switch from Anna Karenina to Dark Victory, promising that she will have a most enthusiastic producer and director.  In the end, Selznick decided not to do Dark Victory at MGM; a few years later, Bette Davis scored one of her biggest successes in a Warners film.

Over the years, Cukor had seen Garbo at MGM, but he had not formally met her and didn’t get to know her until Camille.   He was finally “treated,” as he put it, to the divine Garbo in l935. Cukor’s first impression was not great.  He found her to be nice and sweet, but devoid of any humor and rather pretentious.  Garbo was also depressing, carrying “all the sorrows of the world around her.”  “Real lesbians,” he told his friend Hugh Walpole with unusual candor, “are a little heavy handed.  They are so god-damned noble.  I’m so glad you’re not one any longer.”  Cukor made jokes about all the suffering and agony that Garbo projected–onscreen and off.

Walpole was anxious to know how Cukor was getting on with Garbo.  Was she rude to him?  Richard Boleslawsky (The Painted Veil) and other directors who had worked with Garbo have all recommended being tough with her.  Teasing Cukor for being too gentlemanly and kind, Walpole feared Garbo would bully him.

Given the subject matter of Camille, censorship problems were expected.  The Breen Office decreed flatly that “the heroine is definitely an immoral woman,” and demanded to clean up the story.  Stipulating that there should be no ‘courtesans’ in the film other than Marguerite, they recommended that Olympe be married to the old Duke, instead of being his mistress.  They also suggested that the film indicate that Marguerite has no thought of resuming her old life of a courtesan after breaking with the Baron.  Cukor was at once bemused and outraged, when the censors suggested to inject a stronger note of repentance and regeneration in the film.

“You have put too much emphasis,” Breen wrote in June l936, “on the point that living as a mistress is a highly profitable enterprise.  We would like to see you establish the point and then forget all about it.  They wished to see the movie tone down the flavor of Marguerite going about the business of procuring a master in a cold-blooded way.  Breen also advised that it would be better if Marguerite did not go at midnight to Armand’s apartment.  Why not play this scene in the cafe?  And was it really necessary to show that Armand lives with Marguerite in the country house?

Cukor knew that Camille was a hackneyed piece of theater which could only be elevated by an extraordiary portrayal of the central character.  With Garbo, it was a happy meeting of a gifted actress and the perfect part.  A reigning star in Hollywood for twelve years, Garbo had made 20 films. But Camille  was her most widely publicized screen performance.  For the first time, the press touted, an actress has successfully challenged the immortals of the theater, Tallulah Bankhead, Ethel Barrymore, and Eva Le Galienne.  Both Garbo and Cukor knew that comparisons would be inevitable with Norma Talmadge, Nazimova, and Theda Bara, who have tried their luck with Camille on screen.

For Cukor, the movie’s fakiest scene was how easily the father talks Marguerite out of seeing Armand.  It was a most difficult scene for modern audiences to comprehend, not so much the dialogue as the situation itself.  “Armand is the world’s worst part,” Cukor said, “the only way for it to work was to cast a young man in the role.”  Armand was considered an uninteresting role, only because he was played by a middle-aged actor, and one can’t forgive an older man for being so foolishly weak.

Though it was not his idea, Cukor was satisfied with the casting of Robert Taylor as Armand.  The fact that Taylor was really young (six years younger than Garbo) and passionate, made Armand more appealing.  Taylor also had the added advantage of projecting a romantic image.  For many viewers, it was the most credible Armand they’ve ever seen.  A leading man, Taylor possessed classical beauty, displaying in the film his great profile. “One practically forgets the meaning of real beauty,” Cukor said in reference to the actor “or what true beauty should really represent.”

Under Cukor’s direction, Garbo played a big, most demanding, role.  Camille consisted of 156 scenes, of which she had 57. Cukor’s challenge was to provide continuous stimulation for Garbo.  “With Garbo,” Cukor said, “you must make a climate in which she trusts you.  You watch carefully what she’s doing, you make suggestions, but you let the impulse come out of her.”

Indeed, after seeing the rushes of the first few days, Thalberg said: “George, she’s awfully good, she’s never been so good.”  “But Irving,” Cukor said in wonder, “she’s just sitting in a theater box.”  “She is relaxed and she’s open,” the producer said.  That night, Cukor ran some of Garbo’s previous movies.  He then realized what Thalberg meant: there was a new, unguarded quality about Garbo she hadn’t shown before.

Cukor found Garbo to be a most imaginative actress.  She moved gracefully, as she showed in the scene with the farmer–when she sank to her knees and put her hands on the table.  Her performance was built out of small but inventive gestures.  Like the way Garbo responded when Taylor says, “No one has ever loved you as I love you!” “That may be true,” Garbo replies with a casual smile, “but what can I do about it?” When Garbo burst out into tears, it wasn’t an actress crying; she caught the viewers unaware.

Garbo’s previous tendency to flatness and lugubrious drone was absent from Camille.  Revitalized, she went beyond her vocal limitations.  Garbo’s deathbed scene was truly heartbreaking.  Cukor’s mother was dying just before shooting began.  While visiting her, he noticed certain facial expressions and gestures, which he later used in Camille.  “Part of me is always clocking something I can use,” he once described his always being observant.  It was Cukor’s idea that Garbo play her death scene in a whisper.  In her last scenes, Garbo didn’t speak in her natural voice–her whisper was magical.

Cukor didn’t subscribe to the view that Garbo’s main asset was her “physique,” that she was mostly a photogenic wonder.  For him, Garbo registered deep feeling and thinking on the screen.  During the film, she categorically refused to speak to Robert Taylor. Garbo was distant, but not because she didn’t like Taylor–she wanted to safeguard her love for the personality he portrayed.  In this fashion, she retained the illusion that Taylor was Armand, her uncompromising lover.  Garbo knew that if they socialized, Taylor would become just another actor.

One of the film’s most erotic scenes–Garbo and Taylor conveying passion and impatience for each other–was filmed without any instructions from Cukor.  Cukor let Garbo use her own ideas.  Garbo just leaned over, but her body didn’t touch Taylor, giving him small kisses all around the face.  That was more erotic than what audiences could see in modern nudity films.

In one scene, she had to walk through a theater lobby.  Cukor instructed her to walk slowly, so that the men would have time to examine her.  But instead, Garbo walked very fast.  She knew instinctively that a beautiful woman does not have to walk slowly to get attention.

“Garbo has a magic that can’t be defined,” Cukor said at the time. “She is a rare creature who touches the imagination and no one will replace her,” he added after her untimely retirement in l942.  She submits herself to the camera, and retains her privacy before it.  For Cukor’s, Garbo’s greatest, undecipherable quality was her mysteriousness on screen. “Garbo had this rapport with an audience,” Cukor once said. “She could let them know she was thinking things, and thinking them uncensored.”

Cukor admired the gambling scene, where Garbo drops her fan and  Baron De Varville makes her pick it up.  Garbo makes a remarkable movement, almost like Isadora Duncan.  She doesn’t kneel to pick it up–bending down would surrender her dignity.  Instead, she leans sideways in the most natural way.  In the scene where she gives up Armand, Garbo surprised Cukor when she slowly sank to her knees and threw her arms over a table.

Garbo was also a most pragmatic actress.  She would leave at a certain hour, not because she was indifferent.  After long hours on the set, she would get nervous, and she wanted to look fresh the next day.

There were certain things Garbo demanded, conditions under which she worked well.  Privacy was one of them.  She didn’t like people standing and staring at her.  “If visitors come,” Cukor said, “I always move the actors away from the view;  most actors find it disconcerting.  Cukor once asked Garbo, “Why do you mind people looking at you?” “When people are watching,” Garbo answered, “I’m just a woman making faces for the camera.  It destroys the illusion.”

Unlike most actors, Garbo never watched her rushes.  Challenged by Cukor, she simply said: “I have some idea of what I am doing, and every time I see it, it falls so short that it throws me.”

Garbo didn’t talk an awful lot about what she was going to do, because that would let some of the magic out when she actually performed.  Instead, she held it in.  Cukor would rehearse her in the mechanics of the role, but often, when the cameras were turning, she would add something totally new.  Cukor also learned that Garbo was very good in the first five or six takes, but then she would lose her freshness.

In later years, accused of perpetuating Garbo’s mystery, Cukor’s response was summed up in one word, “Bullshit.”  Offscreen, Garbo was actually a simple girl.  When Cukor’s friend, Hungarian playwright Molnar (The Guardsman) visited in New York, he asked Cukor to arrange for a meeting with Garbo.  Garbo went to see him at the Plaza Hotel and they talked about doing one of his plays.  Their meeting was so awkward, that the disappointed Molnar complained to Cukor that Garbo was really a dull woman.

Cukor immersed himself in the period of Camille, researching the sets and costumes.  The “Can Can” dance, meant to evoke Degas and Toulouse Lautrec, was an approximation of the dance that Alexander Dumas saw in l847, and was later forbidden by the Paris police.

Cukor had many discussions with Bill Daniels, Garbo’s favorite cinematographer, about the lighting.  They used a shallow depth of field and a lot of backlighting.  Cukor gave the film a sense of the period by employing lush, romantic lighting.  Karl Freund completed the cinematography when Daniels got sick, but the film maintained a coherent visual look.

The film’s music had an exceptional emotional impact on the story.  Cukor instructed Henry Daniell, cast as the nasty Baron De Varville, to play the piano louder and louder, when Armand is ringing the doorbell and Garbo stands agonized beside him.  He chose to end the scene that way.  And when Taylor is carrying Garbo in the barn, the background music is from the popular song “Whoopee.”

Cukor introduced a new scene in Camille where Henry Daniell and Garbo were to laugh.  They were both worried, because neither laughed easily on screen.

Cukor thought the scene at the casino was lacking something, even though it had been planned and approved by him.  It was getting late, six o’clock at night, and they were going to shoot on the set the next morning.  But at 9 am the next day, to his surprise, there was a huge statue of the Goddess of Chance at the center of the set.  It was precisely what was needed.  Resources like that made life much easier for directors during the studio system.

Thalberg died in September, in the midst of the work on Camille.  On the last day of shooting, October 27, l936, Eddie Mannix called Cukor.  “This is Irving’s last picture,” he said, “Is there anything you can do which will improve it?”  “There’s always something one can do,” said Cukor.  He then asked for three more shooting days, to make some fine points.  All in all, there was a great spirit in the studio about this film.

The loss of Thalberg was so heavily mourned that the Los Angeles premiere of Camille became a veritable regatta wake, opening up the corral for celebrity demonstration. Even Garbo showed up–not a minor achievement.  Norma Shearer was thrilled by the results Camille.  “I think it is something to be really proud of,” she told Cukor, “I am so grateful for all you contributed to dear Irving’s life.”

The word of mouth of Camille was so good that it alarmed Cukor, fearing its potential effect upon the reviewers.  “Now you’ll go to see it,” he told a friend, “and just sit there and grit your teeth and wonder why any one should have said so much about it.”  Cukor took the film to New York and showed it to a distinguished audience that included Tallulah Bankhead and Noel Coward.  At the end of the screening, while some viewers were still sobbing, Coward got up and announced that Garbo’s was “the finest performance ever put on the screen.”  He declared it in such way, that his words had a great deal of weight.

If MGM announced “Garbo Talks” for Anna Christie and “Garbo Laughs” for Ninotchka, they could now publicize Camille as “Garbo Acts!  Garbo gave an ironic performance: Her Camille was too intelligent for the frivolous life of her character, too generous for her historical circumstances.  But it was consistent with the whole film, which presented a romantic view of the courtesan’s life.  Garbo was so good that Cukor violated his habit of not seeing his movies more than once; he saw Camille several times.  Arguably her greatest screen performance, Garbo won a well deserved Oscar nomination and was singled out by the New York Film Critics as best actress of the year.  Garbo was obviously very pleased, but she never said a word to Cukor. This upset him very much.

Most of the stunning reviews talked at length about Garbo’s splendid work.  “Through the perfect artistry of her portrayal,” wrote Frank S. Nugent in the NY Times, “a hackneyed theme is made new again, poignantly sad, hauntingly lovely.  Garbo has interpreted M. Gautier with the subtlety that has earned her the title, ‘first lady of the screen.’ Howard Barnes concurred in the NY Herald Tribune: “It is likely, that Miss Garbo still has her greatest role to play, but she has made the Lady of the Camellias, for this reviewer, hers for all time.”

When Camille came out, however, it didn’t cut a great swath. Cukor was not given any particular kudos for either the film or Garbo’s work.  Often called Garbo’s finest picture, some critics feel that it is time Camille should be recognized as Cukor’s greatest picture.