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).

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