During a recent bout with pneumonia, I decided to rewatch Camille, starring Greta Garbo, about a 19th century courtesan living the high life despite battling consumption (known in modern times as tuberculosis). But it turns out that there are also other film versions of Camille: The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. Since I had a lot of recovery time on my hands, I decided to watch three versions made in 1921, 1936, and 1984.
The first film interpretation appears to be a 1921 silent film starring Alla Nazimova as Marguerite and Rudolph Valentino as Armand. I discovered it because it was included as a special feature in the DVD for the 1936 version.
Although she is no longer a household name, Ms. Nazimova was quite famous in her time for both her acting skills and her private lifestyle. As her film career waned, she converted her Sunset Boulevard estate into the infamous Garden of Alla bungalows to avoid bankruptcy (New owners added the “h” to the name by the 1930s).
Rudolph Valentino was just hitting his stride when the film was released. When filming began, he was still an unknown. But the release of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, while Camille was being filmed, catapulted him into the fame that still lives on almost 100 years later.
In the 1921 adaptation of Camille, the story takes place in “modern” post-World War I Paris. Marguerite and her friends were carefree party animals, spending all of their time in clubs where they drank and danced. The parties then moved to Marguerite’s apartment for more drinking and dancing and gluttonous meals.
Aside from the great set design by Natacha Rambova (where she met Valentino and later became his second wife), this adaptation of the story is a bit disappointing. The visuals are beautiful but the modern interpretation fails to capture the essence of the story.
My take: Watch it for the amazing Art Deco set design (reviewed on the Fashion, Film, and Frivolity blog) and don’t worry about the bland story.
This adaptation of the story is included in several top films of all time lists and includes a veritable “who’s who” of MGM stars. In addition to Ms. Garbo and Mr. Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, Henry Daniell, and Laura Hope Crews (Aunt Pittypat in Gone with the Wind).
There is a reason this film is considered a classic. It is lush and beautiful. The magnetism between Ms. Garbo and Mr. Taylor is palpable. Mr. Daniell’s portrayal of the baron is rendered perfectly icey–he “owns” Marguerite and expects her deliver her, ahem, charms.
My take: Ms. Garbo makes dying of tuberculosis seem like the ultimate in romantic sacrifice. Have the tissue box handy because you’ll need it.
This television adaptation of the story stars Colin Firth and Greta Scacchi. John Gielgud and Ben Kingsley offer supporting roles.
This version gives a back story of her running away from an abusive father who was a pig farmer. The baron, instead of being her lover, is a father figure who takes her in to his home after his daughter dies. He hires the best tutors to teach her how to be a lady but she rebels and is determined to be a courtesan.
My take: I decided to watch this version because, you know, Colin Firth in period costume. But the script is horrible, there is no chemistry between Mr. Firth and Ms. Scacchi (I mean, seriously? We are talking Colin Firth, here! How can Ms. Scacchi be so wooden!), and even period costuming worn by Mr. Firth couldn’t save it. Rewatch Pride and Prejudice instead for your Colin Firth fix (we won’t tell that you’ve already watched 100 times…we understand the need).
TB is Not Romantic
As I mentioned before, I had this image of consumption based on Greta Garbo’s romantic portrayal of Camille. After spending a couple of weeks violently coughing due to pneumonia (and I had the benefit of modern medicine!), I can tell you that there is absolutely nothing romantic about dying of consumption…even with Robert Taylor at your bedside.
Have you seen any of these adaptations of Camille? What did you think?