Thursday, July 01, 2021

There never was a Camille like Garbo

In August 2019 I was invited to introduce Camille at the BFI. Here is what I said... 

Camille is just one of around twenty screen adaptations of Alexandre Dumas jnr’s 1894 novel Lady of the Camellias. There have also been sixteen Broadway plays, a 1961 Old Vic touring production starring Vivien Leigh, and of course an opera - La TraviataCamille, made in 1936, is surely the most famous screen version of the story, with Greta Garbo in corkscrew curls and frothy crinolines, the archetypal tragic romantic heroine.[1]


Garbo signed the contract to make Camille in 1935 and was immediately struck with doubt. In a letter to a friend she wrote that she was worried that Camille was too similar to Anna Karenina, a film she had recently starred in, and it might prove disastrous to do the same story again.[2] Camille was to be produced by Irving Thalberg for whom it was a passion project that he would unfortunately never see completed, as he died whilst it was in production. Despite Thalberg’s death and Garbo’s misgivings Camillewhich also features Robert Taylor, Henry Daniell and Lionel Barrymore, proved to be a critical and popular success, becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year and winning Garbo an academy award nomination. 


The story is set in 1847 in Paris, with Garbo playing Marguerite Gautier, a courtesan who lives a comfortable if somewhat listless life of theatre visits, parties and assignations with wealthy aristocrats. ‘I’m just a girl like all the rest’ she exclaims, but as one writer notes ‘there never was a woman quite like Marguerite, and there was never a Marguerite quite like Garbo’s’.[3] Camille attracted, not always welcome, worldwide adoration, with Adolf Hitler cited as a fan.[4] It is reported that he insisted on the film being distributed in Germany despite the director, George Cukor, being Jewish.[5]

The costumes, which were designed by MGM designer Gilbert Adrian or simply Adrian as he is usually known, are arguably the most spectacular visual feature of Camille. Long before it became a key word on Rui Paul’s Drag Race, costume expert Edward Maeder, in his book Hollywood History, described Adrian’s costumes for Camille as an ‘extravaganza’, with Garbo appearing in a sea of organza, tulle, ribbons, and shimmer.[6] Adrian himself explained that he had difficulties in finding images of Parisian courtesans of the period so he decided to express Marguerite’s theatricality by dressing her in every conventional style of the era, ‘snoods, fringed parasols, bustles, and pyramided skirts,’ but with added ‘taste and flair’ set off by ‘hats a shade more unconventional than her life.’[7] These hats were adapted to ensure Garbo's celebrated profile would be visible, regardless of the Paris fashion in the mid-19th century. One hat - a white panama, even started a fashion trend.[8]


Garbo had a robust, wide shouldered figure and a personal preference for ‘trousers, flat heels and severe hats’.[9] On-screen she is often remembered for the androgyny of roles such as Queen Christina, where she is of course mistaken for a man. The ‘fluffy’ clothes that Adrian designed for Marguerite are very much at odds with this sleek masculine style.[10]The tone is set by the film’s title card, which is framed in lace and pearls, this theme is taken up by Adrian’s cacophony of frills, bows and layers of frou frou, which encase Garbo and provide the necessary visual pointers towards Marguerite’s fragility and vulnerability. Marguerite’s clothes are also colour-coded throughout the film, indicators of her state of mind - white when she is carefree and happy, then grey and finally black when things become fatefully dark.[11]


Raymond Durgnat wrote that Garbo ‘gave the women of the 1930s a “new look”. ‘The shop and office girls stopped being skittish a la Clara Bow and instead became white-faced, tired of life and stamped with destiny’.[12] Cameraman William Daniels, who worked with Garbo on all but two of her sound films, helped to define her look by using his lighting to emphasise what has been described as her ‘stark bone structure’.[13] In Camille his long held close-ups underscore Marguerite’s fragility and when combined with costumes, hairstyling and makeup we are convinced that the rudely healthy Garbo is in fact a wispy, delicate 19th century courtesan. It worked for film critic Alexander Walker who remarked that the film ‘catches Garbo at her most intensely feminine.’[14]


One costume to look out for is the amazing off the shoulder, full-skirted, white tulle dress, decorated with stars, that Marguerite wears at a rowdy dinner party. It was recycled as film costumes often are and was worn four years later, minus the stars, by Joan Fontaine as her costume party outfit in Rebecca.


Garbo’s overtly feminine appearance is not the only unusual thing about her role in Camille, which is often noted as her best performance. Renowned for elusiveness and mystery, both on and off screen, Garbo is instead gay and funny as MargueriteThese were qualities director George Cukor thought she had in real life but were not often seen on screen. After seeing some early rushes Irving Thalberg remarked that ‘she’s never been as good... she’s unguarded.’[15] In particular look out for the scene when she retires to her room from therowdy dinner party, which sees her is at her most inventive (and erotic). In this scene Garbo conveys the overwhelming longing that she and Armand feel for each other by simply, leaning over him and giving him small kisses all around the face. It was, Cukor explains, quite beautifully, ‘an uncensored thought.’[16]


Garbo’s change of image for Camille was capitalised on by press and publicity - ‘Never has Garbo appeared more lovely than she does in Camille… Garbo smiles and the world smiles with her!’ declared a caption in Hollywood magazine.[17] While Screenland declared ‘Here is the gorgeous Greta of yesterday blended with a new, more subtle Garbo... Garbo can no longer be branded as “cold.”[18]

After Camille Garbo would make just three more films before retiring at the age of 36 to escape the intrusive gaze of publicity. Yet she remained a subject of intense fascination, with Camille one of her key roles. In 1954, eighteen years after its release, there were long queues in New York to see a revival of the film. The novelist Jean Rhys, saw the film that same year in London and wrote to her daughter: “I went to see a revival of La Dame aux Camelias with Greta Garbo. She is so lovely, really she haunts one. She makes everyone else meaningless and rather vulgar.”[19]



[1] Caroline Young, Classic Hollywood Style (Francis Lincoln, 2012), p.10.

[2] Diana Souhami, Greta & Cecil (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), pp.129-30.

[3] Edward Maeder & David Ehrenstein, 'Filmography', in Edward Maeder (ed) Hollywood History (Los Angeles: Thames and Hudson/Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1987), p.216.

[4] Souhami, Greta & Cecil, p.141.

[5] Raymond Durgnat, Greta Garbo (London: Dutton-Vista, 1965), p.23.

[6] Maeder & Ehrenstein, Hollywood History, p.216.

[7] Sarah Berry, Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p.87.

[8] Annette Tapeart, The Power of Glamour: the Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom (London: Aurum Press, 1999),  p.215.

[9] Durgnat, Greta Garbo, p.38.

[10] Durgnat, Greta Garbo, p.70 (quote from Isabel Quigley).

[11] Cecelia Ager, ‘Camille’ in Alistair Cooke (ed), Garbo and the Nightwatchmen (London: Secker & Warburg, 1971).

[12] Durgnat, Greta Garbo, p.27.

[13] Lucy Fisher, ‘Greta Garbo, Fashioning a Star Image’ in Patrice Petro (ed) Idols of Modernity: Movie Stars of the 1920s (New Brunswick, New Jersey, London: Rutgers University Press, 2010).

[14] Alexander Walker, Sex in the Movies (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1968), p.114.

[15] Gavin Lambert, On Cukor (New York: Capricorn Books, 1973), p.112.

[16] Lambert, On Cukor, p.109.

[17] 'Happiness Ahead, 1937', Hollywood (January 1937), p.27.

[18] ‘Screenland Honor Page’, Screenland (March 1937), p.12.

[19] Souhami, Greta & Cecil, p.188 – quoting Jean Rhys, Letters 1931-66 (Deutsch, 1984).

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Human Desire

'The independence which film noir women seek is often visually presented as self-absorbed narcissism.' (Place: 47)

Vicki (Gloria Grahame)

The BFI is currently showing a season of Gloria Grahame films to coincide with the newly released Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool - a biopic of sorts based on a memoir by one of Grahame's boyfriends. On 21 November I watched a sell-out screening of Human Desire, a 1954 noir directed by Fritz Lang. Most critics agree that it isn't Lang's greatest noir, but all confer that Grahame's performance elevates the film above muddled mediocrity. Many of these commentators remark on the manipulative nature of Grahame's character, Vicki, with her seductive pout and sluttish nature. My take on Vicki is different, I see her as a woman just trying to get by after being abused as a teenager and I feel intense sympathy for a woman who David Parkinson notes is, 'less a femme fatale than a tragic feminist, trapped in the knowledge that “Most women are unhappy, they just pretend they aren’t.”' Vicki's backstory is ambiguous and she does not always seem to be reliable, however if close attention is paid to Grahame's performance and the way she looks (a child-woman who over-applies her makeup), I believe that the truth is there. These nuances of performance seem to have escaped many commenters who lazily mark Vicki with the broad brush of identikit femme fatale.

Human Desire is based on a Zola novel and is a remake of Renoir's La Bette Humaine (1938). The characters are working class and in many cases down on their luck. In Hollywood films of this era the all-American family life always wins out over the temptations of sex and excitement. This seals the fate of the film's everyman hero, Korean war vet, train driver, Jeff, (Glenn Ford), who chooses the safe devotion of his workmate's daughter, Vera, over the erotic allure of his work colleague's wife Vicki (Gloria Grahame).

Vicki shows Carl her new stockings.

We first see Vicki lounging at home before coquettishly showing her new stockings to her oafish husband Carl. She appears to be the personification of Janey Place's narcissistic noir woman. Uninterested in her charms Carl informs her that he has lost his job and begs her to go and see Owens, an important man that her mother used to work for. Vicki says that she'd 'rather not', but Carl implores her and blurts out, 'I've got nobody else to turn to'. Touched by his vulnerability she eventually gives in and arranges to visit Owens the next day. Although we are never reliably informed of the relationship between the much older Owens and Vicki (in some part I assume because of film censorship in the 1950s) we can safely say that they have been involved in some way. In the essay, '"I Can't Tell Anymore Whether You're Lying": Double Indemnity, Human Desire and the Narratology of Femmes Fatales' Steve Neale outlines the four different accounts Vicki offers of her relationship with Owens, each designed to serve the needs of the situation she is in.

'...the first to a jealous and violent Carl on returning late from her meeting with Owens; the second to Jeff when he accuses her of having conspired to involve him in an affair in order to protect herself; the third in response to Jeff's decision to leave; and the fourth to Carl at the end of the film.' (193)

Vicki meets Owens to persuade him to give Carl back his job.

We have no knowledge of the truth of the situation and most commentaries have taken the fact that Vicki must be lying on three of these occasions as an indicator of her duplicitous 'spider woman' nature. My reading is different. Vicki is ashamed of her relationship with Owens. Her third explanation, made to Jeff when he tells her he is leaving her, is I would argue the real explanation. I believe the clues to this are contained in Grahame's performance and in particular 'the sincerity of her distress' in her break up scene with Jeff (Neale: 195). Vicki in all probability slept with Owens to win Carl back his job. This is indicated by her discomfort when Carl 'paws her' after she returns late from Owen's office and her intense desire to undress and shower. Carl really is a despicable character (even before he murders Owens) as it is inconceivable that he did not know what he was sending Vicki to do with Owens in order to win his job back, and then he beats her to convince himself that he was not complicit in her selling her body for his job.

Vicki attempts to protect herself from Carl's blows after her return from her meeting with Owens

Vicki's third explanation of her history with Owens is also eminently plausible. That is as a 16 year old in the house of her mother's employer she felt obliged to succumb to the advances of the older powerful man because as she says, 'I was too frightened to say anything.' This scene which by dint of 'Grahame's performance gives us convincing access to Vicki's real feelings' (Neal: 195), also allows us to see Jeff as more than a victim of her spider woman actions. 'Your conscience didn't stop you from making love to me, did it?' Vicki tells him. Once again Neale sums things up nicely;

'As she implies, he is a little too self-righteous, a little too eager to disavow his earlier behaviour. He is a little too quick to make a pass at her on the train, and just as he will soon be too quick to contemplate using the ticket to go to the dance and thus take advantage of Ellen's youthful and inexperienced feelings for him.' (195)

Vicki and Jeff's erotic encounter in the goods yard.

Vicki may not have made the smartest decisions but she is, in my opinion, an abused woman. Her over-applied makeup, that is lipstick over her lip-line, eyebrows obviously painted on and less than perfect eyeliner, indicate that she, as mentioned earlier, is appropriating the trappings of a woman or as it were masquerading as a femme fatale. She tries to escape from a relationship initiated by a powerful older man, Owens, by marrying another older man, Carl, because he 'had a nice face'. Despite her commitment to him (she is desperate for a happy stable home) his feckless nature destroys the security she craves and his growing violence means that the relationship is unsafe. The salvation offered by her lover, Jeff, is it seems firmly based on lust (in one striking scene where he and Vicki get together after dark in the goods yard he violently pulls her hair as he roughly kisses her) and he ultimately throws her aside when she tells him the truth about her past opting instead for a simpler relationship with an 'unspoiled' woman (Vera). These men are all dishonourable specimens and Vicki is their victim.

Vicki applies lipstick before her encounter with Jeff

Gloria Grahame's portrayal of Vicki is masterly, she makes a character that on the surface is unsympathetic, human and understandable. Her application of a new coat of lipstick in order to distract the, as yet unknown, Jeff from seeing her husband in Owens' train compartment, is on the surface a callous act of self obsession. Or to read it another way, it is a practical act of survival - a way of coping with the terrible events she has just witnessed and of carrying out the task her husband has set her in order to avoid angering him. In the final scene of the film, after she has decided to leave her husband and take control of her life, the murderous Carl, unable to accept that she can live without him, kills her. Thus the 'scarlet woman' is eliminated and the status quo of 1950s America with its veneer of domestic bliss is maintained.

Vicki may appear to be a woman of her own time in her acceptance of her treatment by men. But is she so very different from the numerous women who have been reporting accounts of abuse by powerful men in recent months? I would suggest not.

Vicki's final deadly encounter with Carl.


Neale, Steve, '"I Can't Tell Anymore Whether You're Lying": Double IndemnityHuman Desire and the Narratology of Femmes Fatales'  in Helen Hanson & Catherine O'Rawe (eds),  The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts (Palgrave, Macmillan, 2010)
Parkinson, David, 'Gloria Grahame: 10 essential films', , 13.11.2017
Place, Janey, 'Women in Film Noir' in E Ann Kaplan (ed), Women in Film Noir (London: BFI, 1980)

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Classical Frieze

A curated tour around the contemporary antiquities at Frieze London 2017

As I wandered around this year’s Frieze Art Fair I played my usual ‘looking for trends’ game - things that feature in the work of a number of artists across different galleries and continents. This year I settled on classicism, a vague but universally understood notion that alludes to or references ancient Greek or Roman antiquities. Some of these references were very direct such as a series of crisp, stark, classical black and white photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe at Alison Jacques titled Italian Devil, Ganymede and Bust and Skull

Robert Mapplethorpe, Ganymede and Bust and Skull, 1987-8 

Others were a little less explicit such as Kaye Donachie’s expressionistic painting Secret at Maureen Paley, which features a scallop shell, a symbol of the goddess Venus and a typical motif in Greek and Roman art. Or Patricia Treib’s striking series of paintings at Kate MacGarry, classical compositions in painterly pastels.

Kaye Donachie, Secret, 2017, oil on canvas, 41x31cm

Our ideas of what classicism is however do not necessarily originate from ancient Greece and Rome – rather it is an idealised idea of antiquity based upon damaged, repaired, modified and much copied artefacts. This damaged fragment aesthetic is apparent in Enrico David’s pile of untitled heads and what look like bone fragments at Michael Werner. 

Enrico David, Untitled

This fragment look is mirrored in Susan Cianciolo’s installation at Modern Art, which features a collection of limbs, albeit from mannequins, lying alongside a series of dressed dummies. 

Susan Cianciolo, Platforms 1-4, 1990-2017 

At Mexico City’s Galerie OMR, Troika has sliced up a sculptural figure and reassembled it in a different order in a work called Compression Loss – perhaps a reference to the restoration and modification of classical sculptures. 

Troika, Compression Loss, 2017 

William Kentridge’s Triumphs & Laments Procession Silhouette 25 at Lia Rumma, is a series of black and white drawings of heads (that look like Roman emperors), alongside religious figures, birds, a typewriter and a sewing machine. These drawings relate to Kentridge’s monumental reverse graffiti works along the banks of the Tibor in Rome in 2016, created by power-washing soot and moss around stencils to reveal the white limestone underneath.

William Kentridge, Triumphs & Laments Procession Silhouette 25, 2016

The terms classic or classical actually only came into use in the 17th century and since then they have stood for an higher, academic, level of good taste. Michael Williams in his book Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism notes that, ‘each generation has shaped our inherited notion of the classical and used the concept to meet historically specific needs.’[1]
Markus Lupertz’s three painterly, mixed media paintings at Michael Werner all feature figures with classical origins including the suitable fey looking Narcissus I. Another work Life and Death, shows a grey/white naked figure with his back to us alongside a dripping black skeleton, the male painter momenti mori of the moment. 

Markus Lupertz, Narcissus 1 and Death and Life, 2016

At Galerie Eigen + Art, Tim Eithel’s architectural clean lines in his 2017 painting Tiles, frame a sculptural figure of a woman wearing draped robes, she is seemingly incidental to the composition, small and shadowy and standing upon the precisely rendered tiles of the title. 

Tim Eitel, Tiles, 2017 

Herman Bass’s framed painting Bloomsbury Revisited (Cactus Flower) at Peter Kilchmann is a still life composition – a small Roman-looking bronze head is dwarfed by the surrounding natural forms of a shell and corals.

Herman Bass, Bloomsbury Revisited (Cactus Flower), 2017 

The pure white sculptural figures of classical antiquity are now known to be a more recent modification. The original gaudily painted Greek and Roman figures were scrubbed of their colour to produce pure white marble, which was more suited to 17th century thoughts about classicism. This original high colouring was returned and examined in a number of works at Frieze including Anne Ryan’s painted card cut outs at Greengrassi which are part of an ongoing series conceived while she was at The British School at Rome. At first glance they appear to be groups of classical sculptures. Closer examination reveals them to also include acrobats and swimmers, some striped, some harlequin patterned – a fashion parade of athletic bodies. 

Anne Ryan

Betty Woodman’s highly coloured work at Salon 94 Wallpaper #15 features flattened glazed earthenware pots against a sketchy room backdrop, creating a cartoonish trompe l’oeil effect – as if from the set of Disney’s Hercules. 

Betty Woodman, Wallpaper #15, 2016

On the same stand Anton Alvarez’s glazed stoneware piece Alphabet Aerobics has a similarly cartoon-like aesthetic – the small flat shoes and flourishes are akin to fragments excavated from an archaeological dig. 

Anton Alvarez, Alphabet Aerobics, 2017

The sexual content of some antiquities (such as those in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, which are kept in a separate room with an advisory warning) is reflected in the curated Sex Work section of Frieze 2017, which explores work by radical feminist artists from the 1980s and 1990s often considered too transgressive for feminist museum anthology shows. Mary Beth Edelson has a piece at David Lewis with the now familiar cartoonish aesthetic – cut-out canvas figures from antiquity and art history crossed with the features and bodies of women past and present. These ‘ascend the gallery’s walls like spores carried on a breeze.’[2] Alongside the collage a naked Edelson mimics pre-classical, ancient sculpture in a series of over-painted photographs. One has fox-like figures escaping from her nipples, armpits and vagina another transforms her into Wonder Woman. The Sex Work section was described as ‘selling well’ in a Frieze post-fair press release with the Tate Gallery acquiring a section of Edelson’s collage. 

Mary Beth Edelson, 1973–2017, mixed media on canvas

At Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel Paula Rego’s 2015 painting Paradise is also erotically charged and depicts a suggestively positioned couple alongside a figurine depicting a similar looking couple having sex – there are shades of Pompeii brothel murals in both the subject matter and the colouring of the work.

Paula Rego, Paradise, 2015 

In the Focus section of the fair, reserved for younger galleries and artists, the classical references are still apparent. At Truth and Consequences, Daniel Dewar and Gregory Gicquel’s diptych of stone marquetry has a distinct clean cut classical aesthetic with shells and swirls rendered in pink marble. 

Daniel Dewar & Gregory Gicquel, 2017 

Ciprian Muresan’s The Sculpture Storage at Galeria Plan B features a large number of mainly black and white images - stark and classical by their very nature - that appear to be as, the title implies, a record of sculptures in an archive. In 2016 Muresan, a Romanian artist, had a show at Museo Pietro Canonica in Villa Borghese, Rome whereby he placed bronze moulds he had made of Romanian sculptures amongst Pietro Canonica’s work. A review states that ‘references to the present merge with historical evocations particularly those of his country of origin… in order to look into myths, utopias and contradictions of the modern and post-modern world.’[3] A film by Muresan at this same exhibition showed painter Adrian Ghenie making a quick portrait of ex-Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, ‘grasping his superficial physiognomic/morphologic features emphasising his role as ‘icon’ belonging to collective contemporary imagination where everything is assimilated, metabolised, reinterpreted with the typical speed of the latest communicative and technological systems.’[4] 

Ciprian Muresan, The Sculpture Storage, 2016

Lutz Bacher’s ink on paper drawings at Greene Naftali at first glance could be after classic sculpture – however the text underneath the drawings reveals them to be Clark Gable as a Child and The Baby Grace Kelly – more figures from the collective imagination. This brings me back to Michael Williams’s book Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism in which he proposes that early film stars were marketed in a way that compared them to figures from classicism – this gave them class and allowed a space for them to be admired and even worshipped as super humans.

Lutz Bacher, Untitled, 1980s, ink on paper

John Stezaker’s work, Tears (Painting, after Joan MirĂ³) 1 at The Approach although not explicitly alluding to classicism disrupts an image of a star dressing room – Stezaker has cut large holes in the images - creating a disrupted image that links the classical motif of the fragment with the star image.

John Stezaker, Tears (Painting, after Joan MirĂ³) 1, 2006, Collage, 19x21cm 

It seems the influence of classicism is forever with us and if it hadn’t existed we would have invented it. I recently visited The Getty Villa in Los Angeles; a recreation of a Roman Villa nestled in the hills above the Pacific Ocean. Everything in the villa seemed too new and shiny, restored I imagine to the standards of the museum’s benefactor and the Californian visitors. It didn’t work for me but I guess it indicated that Getty and the Getty Foundation have bought into the impeccable taste of Classicism – and made it look the way they think it should look. Classicism says Michael Williams is ‘the Janus-faced art of the new that also looks back to the past. But it is precisely the slippery nature of classicism that gives it cultural agency; historically specific, recognisable, culturally valued. Even elitist and yet somehow also ahistorical, international and vernacular.’[5]

The Getty Villa, Los Angeles

[1]Michael Williams, Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism: The Rise of Hollywood's Gods (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pg 7
[2] Debra Linnard, ‘Mary Beth Edelson at Lewis, New York’, Frieze, 17.03.17 accessed 11.10.17

[4] ibid
[5] Michael Williams, Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism: The Rise of Hollywood's Gods (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pg 11