Greta Garbo is one of my favorite film figures and one of my very favorite actresses. I once had this desire that if I could sit down to a meal with anyone living or dead, I thought I wanted to dine with Garbo. I think I actually still do. I imagine that our conversation would probably strain a bit between us, as I don't tend to be the most talkative person, and we would probably have more than a few awkward pauses. But I would still give anything to be able to see her and talk to her in person. Garbo became one of the greatest screen actresses and one of the essential romantic leading ladies of all time. It's not hard to believe, considering she built her career upon films with such romantic sounding names like: The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil, Love, The Kiss, Romance. It's almost comical how often she was the leading romantic lady. A few of her greatest works, like Flesh and the Devil, paired her with John Gilbert, someone whom she had great chemistry with. However, Camille is a film that is not only better, but contains a surprising amount of electric chemistry between a slightly older Garbo and a young Robert Taylor. Camille also contains what is probably Garbo’s greatest acting.
Based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas (La Dame aux Camelias), George Cukor’s film stars Garbo as Marguerite Gautier, who is known as Dame Camille amongst her Parisian friends, as she attends parties and soirees. Camille is funded by Baron de Varville (Henry Danielle) who is a rather sexless and odd man, but is somehow obsessed with owning some stake in Camille’s life of excess and parties. Camille, much to her own startling chagrin, finds herself rather smitten by a handsome young fella named Armand (Taylor). He courts her and attempts to spend as much time with her as possible, as she and he slowly draw closer together, while Camille tries to keep their relationship hidden from the Baron. Camille has nearly decided to give herself fully to Armand, when his father (Lionel Barrymore) painfully suggests to Camille that she give up Armand in order to keep his name from being associated with her life of frivolity. In the meantime, she has also been suffering from tuberculosis, which progressively weakens her. She tries to spurn her lover Armand, but all to no avail…..he returns, with her on her deathbed, whereby she musters up one final exultation of joy and pleasure of being held in his arms right before her death in the tear-jerking finale.
Garbo notoriously was difficult to work with because she was terribly insecure and uncomfortable with performing in front of too many people. This film, though, allows for what is often essentially scenes just between her and Taylor, which garner an arresting and electric amount of chemistry. I always find Garbo most moving when she is in quiet moments by herself or with one other actor. As I was scanning the film for screen shots, it struck me just how often it’s just she and Taylor positioned onscreen facing each other in two shot. Cukor rarely cuts in this film when they’re facing each other, which continually gives us the feeling of intimacy and immediacy between them, whereby we can feel the romantic intensity. Garbo did wonders when the camera was in close-up on her. She was perhaps the greatest actress of all time regarding her work while the camera was in close. Pick any moment in the film when the screen is on her face and you will notice a subtle array of movement of her mouth, eyes and eyebrows, which gives you the impression that she is expressing a great deal of emotion even though she isn’t necessarily conveying it verbally. I think my favorite moment is when she’s lying on her bed, sick and frail, and her maid Nanine tells her that Armand has come to see her. Garbo presents this suddenly energized and tear-filled joy just through her eyes, while she simultaneously maintains the frail and sickly exterior of her body. It’s an impressive duality of emotion and physicality that Garbo pulls off in that moment.
One of the other interesting elements at play in this film is the fact that Garbo was about 6 years older than Robert Taylor in this film. Gone was the perfect face, unblemished and unwrinkled 10 years prior in Flesh and the Devil, where her face almost had a full and youthful projection. In Camille, she’s a bit thinner, more world weary, and there are lines here and there on her face. Yet, somehow, pairing her opposite the younger Taylor gives life to their relationship and the romance on display, with his vigor giving charge to her experience. It’s hard to say how Garbo would have fared had she stayed in film. Within 5 years of making this film, she would give up acting forever, and amazingly disappear out of the public eye. So....... getting back to that meal with Garbo, somehow I’m imagining that it’s not lunch or dinner, but breakfast we’re eating. She and I are meeting at a small café somewhere and we both sit down. She has sunglasses on and a warm hat and coat. She orders coffee and a scone. I sit there fumbling and trying to lighten the mood and then I mention my favorite parts of her movies. She says nothing behind the dark glasses and I'm pretty certain she's not hearing me. The waiter brings her the coffee and the scone and pretty soon after he leaves us, she takes off her sunglasses exposing her eyes, and seemingly her soul. She then leans over the table with a sort of uneasy expression on her face. I’m dumbfounded, trembling, somewhat fearful and awe struck and can’t believe I’m looking Garbo in the eyes. Then she opens her mouth and she says, “Please go...... I want to be alone.” I quietly walk out of the cafe.