Camille (1937): Cukor Directs Garbo in her Greatest and Definitive Performance

George Cukor’s Camille was the fourth–and the best–film version of the famous Alexander Dumas work, which had been done as a play and as an opera.

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Theatrical Poster

Director George Cukor said at the time: “Camille is a true and tried piece of work that can seem hackneyed unless the actress is really gifted and there’s happy meeting of actress and the part.”

Indeed, the film features the “divine” Garbo in one of her finest screen roles, as Marguerite Gautier, the tragic courtesan who must sacrifice her happiness in order to prove her love. Garbo’s performance received an Oscar nomination and was singled out by the New York Film Critics Circle.

If Cukor regretted being unable to shoot “Romeo and Juliet” in Italy, he felt the same way about  being unable to shoot “Camille” in Paris., where the story takes place.

Garbo was under contract for two more pictures, and MGM’s top director George 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,” he brilliantly created a psychological portrait of a victim trapped in her social milieu. The movie represented another achievement for Cukor–“Camille” was the first film he was able to get his way at Metro about the right look of a costume movie.
Selznick was apprehensive about his first venture with Garbo, due in part to her stature, and, more to the point, the commercial disappointment of her historical film, “Queen Christina.” Initially, 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. 
Selznick assured Garbo that Cukor would put his best efforts into making a fine film of Dark Victory, one that would “dissipate the obvious pitfalls” of the subject from the viewpoint of her millions of admirers. He therefore 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 make Dark Victory (the movie was later made as a Bette Davis melodrama). 
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 1935, though his first impression was not great. He found Garbo to be nice and sweet, but devoid of humor and rather pretentious. Garbo was also depressing, as if she were carrying “all the sorrows of the world” around her. “Real lesbians,” he told Hugh Walpole with unusual candor, “are a little heavy handed, they are so god-damned noble.” Cukor would make jokes about the suffering and agony Garbo projected onscreen, imitating her famous line, “I want to be alone.”  
Walpole was anxious to know how Cukor was getting on with Garbo. Was she rude to him? Richard Boleslawski (The Painted Veil)and other directors who worked with Garbo have all recommended toughness 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 Code Office decreed 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, instead of being mistress. They also suggested that Marguerite indicate she had no thought of resuming her 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.           
“You have put too much emphasis,” Breen wrote, “on the point that living as a mistress is highly profitable enterprise, wishing to see the movie tone down the flavor of Marguerite going about the business of procuring a master in cold-blooded way. Breen also thought 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 necessary to show that Armand lives with Marguerite in the country? 
Cukor knew that “Camille” was a hackneyed piece of theater, which could only be elevated by extraordinary portrayal of the central character. With Garbo, it was the 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” became her most publicized 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, who had played Camille on stage. Cukor also 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 most fake scene was how easily the father talks Marguerite out of seeing his son Armand. It was a 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, 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 and a 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 her biggest and most demanding role: Camille consisted of 156 scenes, of which she had 57. Cukor’s challenge was to provide continuous stimulation for her. “With Garbo,” he said, “You must make a climate in which she trusts you. You watch carefully what she’s doing and 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, “she’s just sitting in a theater box.” “She is relaxed and she’s open,” the producer said. That night, running some of Garbo’s previous movies, Cukor then realized what Thalberg meant: there was a new, unguarded quality about Garbo never shown before.   

The PCA’s censors had many objections before they gave their approval. The following historical document provides a good indication of the cultural context in which the film was made. “The heroine is definitely an immoral woman,” the censors wrote, May 18, 1936. “There should be no ‘courtesans’ suggested in the film, other than Marguerite. Because of this, we recommend that Olympe be played as married to the old tottering Duke, and not as his mistress. We recommend that it be definitely indicated that Marguerite has no thought of resuming her old life of a courtesan after she breaks with Varville. It would be helpful if you could inject a note of repentance and regeneration. We believe it will be well to avoid any definite suggestion that Prudence is conducting a house of assignation, or engaged in the business of supplying women for immoral purposes.”

Camille also stars Robert Taylor as her lover, Armand Duval, and Lionel Barrymore as his aristocratic father.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Actress: Greta Garbo

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Luise Rainer for “The Good Earth.”


Directed by George Cukor
Produced by Irving Thalberg, Bernard H. Hyman
Written by James Hilton. Zoë Akins, Frances Marion
Based on La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils
Music by Herbert Stothart, Edward Ward
Cinematography William H. Daniels. Karl Freund
Edited by Margaret Booth
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: December 12, 1936

Running time: 109 minutes
Budget $1,486,000
Box office $2,842,000

Greta Garbo as Marguerite Gautier
Robert Taylor as Armand Duval
Lionel Barrymore as Monsieur Duval
Elizabeth Allan as Nichette, the Bride
Jessie Ralph as Nanine, Marguerite’s Maid
Henry Daniell as Baron de Varville
Lenore Ulric as Olympe
Laura Hope Crews as Prudence Duvernoy
Rex O’Malley as Gaston
Mabel Colcord as Madame Barjon (uncredited)
Mariska Aldrich as Friend of Camille (uncredited)
Wilson Benge as Attendant (uncredited)