Camille (1937): Cukor’s and Garbo’s Masterpiece–Part Two

Part Two:

George Cukor found Garbo to be a most imaginative actress, who moved gracefully, as she showed in the scene in which she sank to her knees. Her performance was built out of many 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.  
Read Part One
Garbo’s previous tendency to flatness and lugubrious drone was absent from Camille–revitalized, she went beyond her vocal limitations. And her 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 used in Camille. “Part of me is always clocking something I can use,” he described his always being observant. It was Cukor’s idea that Garbo play her death scene in a whisper. In the last scenes, Garbo didn’t speak in her natural voice–for Cukor, 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 screen. During the shoot, 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 really Armand, her uncompromising lover. Garbo knew that if they socialized, Taylor would become just another actor.
One of the film’s most erotic scenes–when Garbo and Taylor convey 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, and gave him small kisses all over his face. For Cukor, this scene was more erotic than what audiences could see in modern nudity films. In a scene, where Garbo 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. She submits herself to the camera, and retains her privacy before it. For Cukor, Garbo’s greatest, undecipherable quality was her mystery onscreen: “Garbo had this rapport with an audience. She could let them know she was thinking things, and thinking them uncensored.” 
Cukor admired the gambling scene, where Garbo drops her fan and the Baron De Varville makes her pick it up. Garbo makes a remarkable movement, but she doesn’t kneel to pick it up–bending down would surrender her dignity. Instead, she leans sideways in a most natural way. In the scene where she gives up Armand, Garbo surprised Cukor when she slowly sank to her knees and threw up her arms.          
Garbo was a most pragmatic actress: She would leave at a certain hour but 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.”     
Garbo didn’t talk an awful lot about what she was going to do, because that would let 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. 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.”
In later years, accused of perpetuating Garbo’s mystery, Cukor’s response was one word, “Bullshit.” Offscreen, Garbo was actually a simple girl. When Cukor’s friend, Hungarian playwright Molnar (The Guardsman) visited in the US, 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 Toulouse Lautrec, was an approximation of the dance Alexander Dumas saw in 1847, 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 look.
The film’s music had an exceptionally 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. Cukor also 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, 6 o’clock at night, and they were going to shoot on the set the next morning. But to his surprise, at 9 am the next day, there was a huge statue of the Goddess of Chance on 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, 1936, MGM’s Eddie Mannix told Cukor: “This is Irving’s last picture. Is there anything you can do to improve it?” “There’s always something one can do,” said Cukor, asking for three more shooting days to make some fine points. All in all there was a great spirit in the studio about Camille.
The loss of Thalberg was so heavily mourned that the LA premiere of Camille became a veritable regatta wake, opening up the corral for celebrity demonstration. Even Garbo showed up–not a minor achievement. Thrilled by the results Camille, Norma Shearer told Cukor: “I think it is something to be really proud of, I am so grateful for all you contributed to 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 NY and showed it to a distinguished audience that included Tallulah Bankhead and Noel Coward. At the end of the screening, with some viewers still sobbing, Coward got up and announced that Garbo gave “the finest performance ever put on screen.” He declared it in such way that his words had weight. 
If MGM announced “Garbo Talks” for Anna Christie and “Garbo Laughs” for Ninotchka, they could publicize Camille as “Garbo Acts! Garbo gave an ironic performance: Her Camille was too intelligent for the character’s frivolous life, too generous for the historical circumstances, but it was consistent with a film that 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 actually saw Camille four times. Arguably her greatest screen performance, Garbo won a well-deserved Oscar nomination and the New York Film Critics Award as best actress of the year. Garbo was obviously pleased, but she never said a word to Cukor, which 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 Nugent in the New York 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 Herald Tribune: “It is likely that Miss Garbo still has her greatest role to play, but she has made the Lady of the Camellias 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, who was cited by the N.Y. Film Critics Circle and received her third and final Oscar nomination.  
Made on the budget of $1,486,000, “Camille” was a commercially successful film, grossing $1,154,000 in the U.S. and $1,688,000 abroad, again showing that Garbo was a more popular star outside of America.
Often called Garbo’s finest picture, I and many other critics feel that it is time to also recognize it as one of Cukor’s three or four greatest picture.            

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)