Ring a Ding Ding
The 1937 release of Camille did not give audiences a new story. The romance originated as an Alexandre Dumas novel that became a Paris play in 1848, the Verdi opera La Traviata, a 1907 Danish short film La Dame aux Camlias, a 1915 Shubert production, a 1917 Fox film, and a 1927 First National production, among many others. What the other adaptations did not have, however, was Greta Garbo.
Although the past productions also featured some great actresses in the lead role, for audiences in the 1930s, there was no better-suited star than Garbo. She plays Marguerite Gautier –the lady of the camellias because of her love of the flower– who in this film’s case is a society lady whose lifestyle is paid for by the generosity of male suitors. With her debt on the rise, Marguerite is advised by a friend, Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews), to find a wealthy suitor. The mark is the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), but a case of mistaken identity at the theatre lands Marguerite in acquaintance with long-time admirer Armand Duval (Robert Taylor).
Although Marguerite carries on a relationship with the Baron, and he keeps her financially sound, she finds herself all at once in love with Armand when the two are alone at a party. She has also been hearing that this man over the years has always been ever attentive when she would fall under one of her illness spells, likely the result of tuberculosis. After some time and growing affection, Marguerite agrees to break off her relationship with the baron in order to spend a summer in the country with Armand, something that would perhaps mend her health. Before she can leave town, however, she must pay off $40,000 francs worth of debt, something no match for Armand’s $7,000 per year salary. The baron foots the bill just before declaring he would never see Marguerite again.
The couple have a marvelous time in the country despite the discovery that the baron’s mansion is just a hill away. While there, however, Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore) stops by to beg Marguerite to back off. He says the relationship will ruin the young man’s future success and could bring a certain amount of shame upon him. Marguerite, despite knowing that her health is unlikely to keep her around for many more years, coldly breaks her relationship with Armand and says she is returning to the nearby baron. The couple will reunite, but not under happy circumstances.
I cannot help but ponder why the story of Camille has time and time again produced movies –as recently as the 2001 Moulin Rouge. The story is that of a love triangle but not one in which the object of the dual affection is emotionally torn between two individuals. Instead, she must weigh passion against her financial needs, needs that have been ever-present in her past up until the introduction of true love. Other incarnations of Camille have painted the woman as a courtesan, and although the Garbo version does not depict her that way ala Production Code restrictions, there is no denying her source of income. So the story also involves a love so strong that it ignores the woman’s seedy past.
Perhaps the plot is appealing to viewers because the romantic choice is obvious; we will always root for love over money. Yet regardless of the decision, the woman will still meet a fate that neither love nor money could have prevented.
Garbo and Taylor embody all that the story demands of impassioned love. Although Garbo’s performances can be cold at times, she is convincing in her emotional connection with Taylor, who meanwhile is exhibiting the endearingly obsessive love that seems to exist only in films and classic literature. The couple does the story justice and create a good entre for anyone who has yet to be exposed to the classic romance.