directed by George Cukor
at the Brattle Theatre
Sunday, October 10
In this tale of impossible love, the scene quickly moves to a theater, where, evidently, the audience pays little attention to the stage. Instead, through their opera glasses, they scrutinize the woman now seated in Box A and the empty chair beside her. Sound familiar? Martin Scorsese has recently captured just such an event transpiring in the aristocratic society of turn-of-the-century New York in "The Age of Innocence," yet previous directors have successfully developed this amusing theme.
In 1937, director George Cukor envisioned this scene in mid-nineteenth century Paris. "Camille," starring Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, is another highlight in the reclusive star's long and fascinating career. The film, showing this Sunday at the Brattle, is part of the theater's current Garbo tribute.
Set in lavish gambling clubs and boudoirs as well as the theater, the story centers around Marguerite Gautier, a beautiful courtesan who finances her taste for pretty ballgowns and daily bouquets of camilles through the sizable wealth of her various lovers. Her life consists of soirees with her amusing entourage of friends and a string of liaisons. Occupying the heart of the movie is a love triangle between Marguerite, the wealthy Baron de Varville, compellingly played by Henry Daniell, and the less affluent Armand Duval, portrayed by the dashing Mr. Taylor.
Lest we think her frivolity indicates a sadly one-dimensional character, the plot convincingly rounds out her personality.
A sentimental at heart, Marguerite frequently spends the money she collects in extreme acts of charity. And because she is afflicted with tuberculosis she also suffers a steadily weakening physical condition. Both of these characteristics, along with her "profession," give rise to her general philosophy of life: Have fun, laugh at yourself, and don't become too attached. After all, love becomes complicated when we are not sure if we'll be here tomorrow.
Inevitably, the naive and love-struck Armand sees through her cynical and protective attitude and persuades her to come away to the country with him where he can help her recover her health. But financial constraints, Marguerite's less-than-spotless reputation and Armand's stalled future in foreign affairs further impede their happiness. Monsieur Duval, Armand's father, delicately played by Lionel Barrymore, persuades her to return to the baron shortly before she succumbs to her tragic fate.
The film is based on the novel and play La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas Fils. As this story has been popular for more than a century, legendary actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse have played this fascinating courtesan. Several incidents in Garbo's own life led her to take the role: her own sister Alva died of tuberculosis and she suffered from similar physical ailments. And Marguerite's emotional self-containment curiously parallels the offscreen distance Garbo carefully maintained from both of her eager costars, Taylor and Barrymore.
Premiering in New York's Capitol Theater on January 22, 1937, the movie immediately met with critical praise, and Garbo won the the New York Film Critics Award for Best Female Performance. For once, the critics recognized talent when they saw it. Garbo's masterful performance remains a triumph.