Camille (1936) Review

Camille (1936) Director: George Cukor


Camille is an elegant and beautiful MGM film starring Greta Garbo, and showcasing the heights of classic cinema in the 1930s. It is a story of a love-triangle, based on an 1842 story by Alexandre Dumas fils (the Younger), La Dame aux Camélias (“The Lady with the Camellias”). He wrote the story at age 23. It was then adopted for the French stage in 1848, debuting in 1852. Guiseppe Verdi loved it so much that he put it to music -his famed 1853 opera, La Traviata. The main character is Marguerite Gautier, based on Marie Duplessis, the real-life lover of author Dumas. The story is based on their brief love affair.

The following is a 19th century painting of the true Marie Duplessis, Dumas’s brief lover. She was also the lover of Franz Liszt, among other prominent men and benefactors in and around Paris. She was known as a witty and amiable socialite. This painting was completed by Édouard Viénot, a French portrait painter of figures in high society at the time.

Camille is quite possibly Greta Garbo’s finest performance. For it, she was nominated for an Academy Award, which was the sole nomination for Camille. The film is brilliantly well done, the plot is at once light and yet also a heavy tearjerker. It is a powerful film from the golden age of Hollywood.

The film tells the tragic story of Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo), a lower class woman of Paris who rubs shoulders with wealthy elite men. She suffers from “consumption” (Dumas’s real mistress is believed to have suffered from syphilis). She is being financed as the mistress of Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), however she still brings great debts upon herself. She falls in love after meeting Armand Duval (Robert Taylor), a handsome young man with a modest amount of wealth. She decides, in a fit of passion, to go away with him for the summer to his rural home in the country outside Paris. They spend a splendid summer in bliss together, promising to marry one another. However, one day Armand’s father (played by Lionel Barrymore) arrives and shames Marguerite and persuades her to leave Armand, to protect him from the certain scandal. She leaves him and returns to the Baron in Paris. In anger, Armand returns to Paris, and after a confrontation the Baron and Armand duel, with Armand wounding the Baron. He flees Paris for six months due to the laws, and in that time Marguerite’s health declines and her debts continue to pile. Armand arrives at her home just after the priest administers her last rites, and he enters her room and they dream of going away back to his country home, as Marguerite dies in his arms.

The story was made into a film many times, the 1936 film being the sixth English-speaking version and generally the best, thanks to Greta Garbo’s performance. In fact, Rudy Valentino had once played a role in the 1921 version. Interestingly enough, the story of Camille makes a brief cameo in Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

In Dumas’s story, the title “Camille” refers to Marguerite’s signals to her lovers: when she is menstruating she wears a red camellia, however when she is available to her lovers she wears a white camellia, her favorite flower. The story is narrated after the death of Marguerite by two male narrators, primarily Armand Duval (the voice of Dumas). Armand believes she left him for another man, and only later realizes the truth. She does not die in his arms, as the film tragically portrays. In the story, Marguerite dies alone and in suffering, filled with regrets for what might have been.

Anna Christie (1930) Review

Anna Christie (1930) Director: Clarence Brown

“Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby!”


“Garbo Talks!” the advertisements displayed. This was the first film starring silent film’s most popular icon, Greta Garbo “The Swedish Sphinx,” known for her sexually ambiguous affect and confident but mysteriously troubling allure. Popular the world over, she nevertheless wanted nothing more than to be left alone (“I vant to be alone” she would later declare in Grand Hotel). With Anna Christie, Garbo secured her first nomination for Best Actress and successfully made the transition into talkies. She continued to be well-celebrated in Hollywood for many years, starring in films like Flesh and the DevilMata HariGrand HotelQueen Christina. and Ninotchka

Anna Christie was actually an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name, and as such, it is emotionally intense character study. Here, Greta Garbo delivers an amazing performance in one of her more uniquely gruff and less exotic roles. I would love to see a stage performance of this Eugene O’Neill play one day, but on the whole this film either rises or falls based on Garbo’s onscreen presence.

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Garbo plays Anna Christie, a tired, jaded prostitute who returns home to her father seeking refuge after many years of separation during which time she has experienced the worst of men. The scene of her entry takes place in a dark and hazy bar on the docks where Garbo delivers her famous line (in a heavy Swedish accent): “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby!” Her father is an alcoholic who runs a barge on the New York harbor. She tries to hide her past, but to complicate matters we learn that she was once assaulted by a young man on a Minnesota farm, but then fled and worked in a brothel for several years.

After reuniting with her father she lives on his barge, and he rescues some sailors from the sea. However, one of them, Matt, falls in love with Anna. They spend many beautiful days together, but when he proposes marriage, she is reluctant because of her immoral past and she is forced to tell him her full backstory. In conclusion, Matt and Anna are reunited despite her life of woes and they live together in the care of Anna’s aging father.

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Apparently, Garbo’s English was so natural by the time of filming that Garbo had to work on reintroducing her heavy accent again to match her character’s personality. Garbo was known for being a recluse, possibility bisexual or lesbian, and she died in 1990 leaving the entirety of her estate bequeathed to her niece. Her personal life almost seemed to echo the weight and sadness of her characters on the silver screen. Garbo bought an apartment in Manhattan early in her career and lived there all her life, taking long walks with friends and successfully avoiding the press and fans as she traveled around the world. She reportedly suffered from depression and yet remained cloistered for much of the rest of her life.

Queen Christina (1933) Review

Queen Christina (1933) Director: Rouben Mamoulian


Starring the famous Greta Garbo, Queen Christina is a historically inaccurate retelling of the story of Queen Christina of Sweden in the 17th Century. Christina assumed the role of Queen after the death of her father, but preferred the educated life of a scholar. Amidst pressures from her people to marry a man and produce an heir, Christina resigned at age 28 and lived out the rest of her life in exile. She was an unkempt intellectual who preferred the conversations of men to those of women, and she was almost certainly a lesbian, or at least bisexual.

In many ways the part is perfect for the reclusive and sexually ambiguous Greta Garbo. Though she was one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, she only starred in a handful of films before retiring to an apartment in New York City where she lived the rest of her life as a recluse. She never married, never had children, and is rumored to have had numerous liaisons with both men and women. In the film, Queen Christina assumes the role of Queen at age 6 when her father dies during the Thirty Years War. She has a subtle romantic relationship with one of her ladies in waiting and faces mounting pressure to marry a Swedish suitor and produce an heir, her first cousin. However she rejects the whole idea and goes on a trip disguised and dressed as a man. She stays at a hotel and is forced to share a bed with a Spanish gentleman, Don Antonio, with whom she falls in love. They become snowed in and stay together for three days during which there is a powerful scene in which Christina silently walks about their room touching all of the furniture and artwork hoping not to forget a moment of it. In the end, she abdicates her throne so they may be together, however her former suitor challenges Antonio to a duel and kills him. He dies in her arms. Christina flees Sweden on a ship to live out her days in his promised coastal Spanish villa.

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Garbo had insisted on one of her lovers, John Gilbert, to play her counterpart. They were even engaged at one point. She was fascinated with the story of the historical Christina and she was age 28 during filming, the same age as the real Queen Christina. It was Garbo’s first film in a year and a half, as she took a respite from film-making on holiday in Sweden.

Queen Christina is an excellent film, however the whole allure and ethos of the film revolves around Greta Garbo and her captivating performance. Without her the film would likely be forgettable.