Classic Film Review -Camille (1936)

Based on the  novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexander Dumas the younger, Camille is a familiar tale which also inspired the opera La Traviata and the musical film Moulin Rouge, which has brought the story to modern audiences.


Regardless, of its interpretation on stage or film the foundation of the story remains the same. An innocent young man with little to his name falls in love with a popular, charming, Parisian courtesan. His earnest and sincere wooing of the worldly woman breaks through her defenses tempting her to risk her heart and livelihood. It is a love story with a sad ending and one of the most popular and well-loved romances in literature.

When tragedy interrupts a good romance

This particular interpretation stars the great Greta Garbo who quickly rose to acclaim as a silent film actress. I have watched many of her films and cannot claim to be a fan,  in spite of her talent, because I often find her characters cold and emotionally unapproachable. However, her version of Camille is the opposite. Garbo as the ill-fated Marguerite Gautier who wears camellias, is warm, whimsical, and emotionally vulnerable. Marguerite is a gold-digger, but one with a heart of gold who freely shares with those she loves. And when it comes down to it, she is not so attached to wealth and the accompanying lifestyle that she cannot see that its’ value falls far below that of love.

The battle of the ruffles, who wore it better?

In one of her later films, Ninotchka (which is a beloved comedy classic that I could barely finish) Garbo’s participation was marketed with the line, “Garbo laughs” indicating that this was a highly unusual occurrence in her films. However, Camille pre-dates that film by three years and Garbo’s smiles and laughter are much more natural and charming here.

Her co-star is a young Robert Taylor a popular and loyal MGM actor who plays the naive suitor Armand Duval. As in other versions of this story, they meet due to a misunderstanding over his identity with Marguerite thinking he is the man who will become her new benefactor. His honest emotions and affection contrast with her guarded gaiety which hides her cynicism.

Scoping out the next Sugar Daddy, as girlfriends do

In some ways Camille echoes the story of The Gift of the Magi, where both characters deeply love and make painful sacrifices only to find  their sacrifices become unnecessary. But it is the devotion and commitment behind those painful choices which grab our hearts and whittle the stories down to the plain, bare truth -that love is all.I do love a good love story even when it is tragic and this is one of the best. Perhaps it is the tragedy of their romance which makes it so memorable and moving. Of course Camille is greatly enhanced by the benefits of being filmed at MGM, the creme de la creme of movie studios at that time. The production aspects are stellar, the sets and costumes gorgeous. It also doesn’t hurt that this film boasts George Cukor as a director and Lionel Barrymore, Laura Hope Crews, Elizabeth Allen, Jessie Ralph and Henry Daniell in supporting parts. All are actors who will be familiar to classic film fans.

This is said to be Garbo’s personal favorite of all her roles and is commonly regarded as her best performance, a role which won her an Oscar.  Camille regularly appears on best movie lists, with very good reason. Some films are called classics because of their age, others are named so because they deserve to be watched and remembered. Camille falls into the latter category and is one I will always love to re-visit.

Watch -Available to stream on Amazon and on DVD. It occasionally airs on television on TCM.

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