Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Garbo Cements Her Legend as a Luminous Camille

There's a wonderful moment early on in 1968's Funny Girl during the "I'm the Greatest Star" number wherein Barbra Streisand (as the young Fanny Brice), attempting to prove her incredible dramatic finesse, lowers her voice, throws her head back in mock rapture and sensually proclaims:

Now can't you see to look at me/
That I'm a natural Camille

As Camille I just feel/
I've so much to offer

Many feel the role of Marguerite Gautier, Alexandre Dumas' "Lady of the Camellias," serves as the greatest challenge for an actress this side of Streetcar's Blanche DuBois. MGM's opulent, carefully crafted 1936 version of the tragic romance between the world-weary courtesan with a heart of gold and her loyal, impressionable younger lover affords Greta Garbo the opportunity to gain her greatest celluloid triumph, as the cinema’s most elusive star magically conveys every facet of Marguerite's plight in vivid, glorious fashion. Backed by a first class director (George Cukor), a fine cast of solid professionals, and the studio's trademark 14-karat production values, Garbo leaves an indelible mark on film history in her most fully-realized screen characterization.

Garbo's so in sync with the role there's never a moment wherein she appears to make a wrong acting choice- her commitment to the part is total in a manner not seen in most of her work, as she combines all of her overwhelming beauty, mystic, intelligence, and acting ability to create an instinctive, fluid characterization second to none. There's a spontaneity and naturalness in everything Garbo does, whether she’s adopting a light laugh in the earlier scenes to impart Marguerite’s joie de vivre attitude towards life and towards her destiny or, as in the later scenes, Garbo’s combining a trance-like state with slow vocal rhythms and a calm, detached voice to convey the now-fragile character’s rapidly deteriorating physical state. Possibly most impressive of all of Garbo’s many Camille achievements is the phenomenal economy found in her acting during the renowned final scene, wherein she skillfully provides a blueprint for actors seeking to discover the best way to perish in a movie without fuss or delay (few have managed to permanently retire so convincingly, or quickly, on screen). Full of sensitivity, life, and color, Garbo's rich performance as Marguerite has justifiably been mentioned as one of the finest ever captured on film (and as one of the biggest injustices in Oscar history, as Garbo lost out on her best chance to take the Golden Boy home when Luise Rainer nabbed the Best Actress prize for her competent work as Olan in The Good Earth).

As Armand, Camille's true love, Robert Taylor is as beautiful as Garbo is and, although his acting is pretty green, he's properly ardent and romantic in displaying his total devotion to Marguerite. As comic rivals, Lenore Ulric and, especially, Laura Hope Crews liven things up with their rambunctious, good-natured boozing and catfighting (it's a mark of George Cukor's careful, seamless directorial style that he somehow makes these ladies’ flamboyant emoting fit right in with the film's more somber aspects, without throwing the tone of the movie off at all). Although Crews, as Prudence, at times appears to be warming up for her signature role as Gone With the Wind's scattered-brained Aunt Pittypat, the seemingly dim nature of her playing pays off big in her best scene, wherein Crews suddenly forgoes any signs of her former lovable comportment when Prudence forcefully and shrewdly informs Marguerite she can't leave for the country with Armand until all of her accounts, including those to herself, are settled. However, it is Henry Daniell, portraying Baron de Varville, Marguerite's affluent, controlling suitor, who proves to be the only player to come close to stealing any of Garbo's thunder; in his artful depiction, Daniell easily captures the cold, domineering nature of the Baron, yet he prevents the character from being an out-and-out villain by also finding moments to illustrate the deep attachment the Baron feels toward Marguerite. In his two key scenes with Garbo, the famous "piano" sequence, and the later scene wherein the Baron agrees to help Marguerite overcome her financial difficulties, Daniell imbues the Baron with a spiteful malevolence, while at the same time also managing to make it clear to audiences the emotionally enslaved Baron, unable to break free from his mistress' seductive spell, is a man deserving pity along with any feelings of hostility a viewer is compelled to throw the Baron's way.

Watching this classic anew with 50-60 others last night at a film series sponsored by the county library proved that, in terms of quality, the film has aged very well. The host of the event preceded the film with a lengthy discussion wherein he opined that although Garbo was a Hollywood icon with remarkable screen presence, she was more a movie star than an actor, and she never really made a good film. Unfortunately for him, our host picked a showing of the wrong Garbo vehicle to make such a proclamation, as the transfixed audience raptly watched the movie, anchored by Garbo's magnificent, subtle, and spellbinding work, unfold (and hold up) in fine style seventy years after its initial engagement (however, the film did manage to leave at least one viewer unsatisfied as, in the funniest moment of the night, one sassy octogenarian, while pushing her walker hurriedly towards the exit immediately following the movie, seized her moment to steal the spotlight by dryly stating, "It was better when I was twelve"). As for the remainder of the crowd who stayed to discuss the movie, the shared opinion was that Camille and Garbo still suit each other to a "T." Even our heretofore-unimpressed host admitted the film was better than he remembered, and Garbo's work couldn't be bested by any of the current crop of female stars. Her masterful, intuitive work as Marguerite provides this Camille with true distinction, allowing the often sentimental tale to remain timeless and moving.


At 8:23 PM, Blogger audrey said...

Your review of Garbo's CAMILLE was wonderful! Bravo!
I do not understand why there are such people today who discredit the Divine Greta Garbo in any way, either in acting ability (she was always superb) or in her unparalleled beauty.
Thankyou for such a nice analysis of a great, always enjoyable classic.


At 10:58 PM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Thank you, Audrey. It was a lot of fun watching the movie with others, and witnessing the spell Garbo still casts over viewers.

At 4:12 AM, Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i love that you began this with a Funny Girl reference.

At 10:37 PM, Blogger Vertigo's Psycho said...

Listened to my Funny Girl soundtrack CD again to make sure I wasn't imagining things, and it's clear- Streisand's definitely in a 'Garboesque' state of mind as she channels the legend during some of the mentioned lyrics.

Next week the library's showing The Women, but I'm not sure if I'll cover it, as you've already addressed that classic recently (however, Mildred Pierce is up after that, and I'll probably have a lot more to say after that screening).


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