Warner Archive celebrates one of Greta Garbo's greatest performances with the long-awaited Blu-ray release of Camille, director George Cukor's opulent adaptation of the time-honored novel and play by Alexandre Dumas. Garbo breathes life into the tragic tale of a frivolous, ailing courtesan who finds true love too late with a dashing Robert Taylor. A remastered transfer from preservation elements, solid lossless audio, and all the extras from the 2005 DVD distinguish Warner Archive's top-flight presentation of this Golden Age classic. Highly Recommended.
Before Greta Garbo kicked up her heels and showed off her lighter side in Ninotchka, she was the screen’s top tragedienne. Whether throwing herself in front of a train in Anna Karenina, getting shot by a firing squad in Mata Hari, or fearing she’ll be left alone after famously proclaiming “I just want to be alone” in Grand Hotel, Garbo was - and remains - passionate, enigmatic, and magnificent. It’s hard to believe she retired from the movies more than 80 years ago(!) at the age of 36, but her countless memorable performances keep her alive. Many would argue her most memorable - and most tragic - portrayal is that of the beautiful but doomed courtesan Marguerite Gautier, the "Lady of the Camellias," in the 1936 version of Camille.
Based on an 1848 novel and 1852 play by Alexandre Dumas - and inspired by a woman he once knew (and loved) - Camille chronicles the emotional romance between Marguerite, who sustains her lavish lifestyle in mid-19th century Paris through a series of strategic dalliances with rich men, and the very smitten Armand (Robert Taylor), an impetuous youth who is determined to make the woman of ill repute his wife. Marguerite resists Armand’s charms at first and dismisses his overtures as those of a naive schoolboy, but she soon realizes the depth of his affection and succumbs to his allure.
She's also succumbing to a disease. Back then it was called consumption. Today, it's tuberculosis. Marguerite knows her days are numbered, but the ever optimistic and idealistic Armand vows to heal her. His father (Lionel Barrymore), however, believes his son's association with a wanton woman will ruin his life and he privately beseeches Marguerite to give up the only man she has ever really loved.
One of MGM's most opulent productions of the 1930s, Camille boasts a pedigree of elite studio craftsmen and past and future Oscar winners, all of whom put everything they had into this period drama. George Cukor, who helmed scads of "women's pictures" during Hollywood's Golden Age, directs with a firm yet lyrical hand; esteemed playwright Zoë Akin, veteran screenwriter Frances Marion, and bestselling novelist James Hilton collaborated on the somewhat stuffy but oh-so-amorous script; the film was shot by master cinematographers William Daniels (who photographed Garbo in all but four of her 24 Hollywood movies) and Karl Freund; Cedric Gibbons, who would win a whopping 11 Oscars, designed the sumptuous sets; Gilbert Adrian dressed Garbo in "costumes so heavy that it was necessary to erect ice coolers on the set to prevent her from fainting," according to Garbo biographer Robert Payne; and Herbert Stothart, who three years later would win an Oscar for The Wizard of Oz, composed the score. Legendary MGM producer Irving Thalberg corralled all this talent, but never saw the finished film. A few days after visiting the set during the early days of shooting, the Boy Wonder of MGM, who was plagued by health problems his entire life, died of pneumonia at the tender age of 37.
There's no doubt Garbo was born to play the eponymous heroine and it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Her mix of strength and vulnerability, passionate nature, aloof demeanor, Sphinx-like air of mystery, and breathtaking beauty all coalesce to create a mesmerizing whole that even the grandiose MGM trimmings can't eclipse. Though the stringent Production Code prohibited this Camille from indulging in overt acts of debauchery, Garbo gets the message across in her inimitable, understated way.
It's always impossible to take your eyes off Garbo, but never more so than during the movie's final scene when her weak voice barely rises above a whisper and her frail body appears only slightly stronger than a wisp of straw. With the last bit of life draining out of her, somehow Garbo conveys a radiance of spirit that's blinding in its intensity. Only great actresses can scale such lofty heights while remaining real and Garbo was one of the greats. Her exceptional portrayal justly earned the star her third Best Actress Oscar nomination (she would nab another one three years later for Ninotchka), but she lost the award to Luise Rainer for The Good Earth. Like so many other deserving performers, Oscar would elude Garbo, but like Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Burton, and many others, she didn't need the statuette to attain cinematic immortality.
Rising star Robert Taylor, who reportedly was in awe of Garbo, holds his own but lacks the fire required to heat up the screen. (Rudolph Valentino, who co-starred with Nazimova in the 1921 silent adaptation that's included in the disc extras, files a far more dimensional portrayal without uttering a single word.) Taylor is also so heavily made up he inspired several contemporary critics to quip he was prettier than his leading lady. A dour Lionel Barrymore stiffly portrays his pompous father, but the always daffy and delightful Laura Hope Crews (who would famously play Scarlett O'Hara's flighty Aunt Pittypat in Gone with the Wind) supplies plenty of sparkle and welcome comic relief as Marguerite's friend and facilitator. Henry Daniell also makes a striking impression as the dastardly Baron de Varville, who keeps Marguerite but can't capture her heart.
Camille often resembles grand opera, and though Garbo tries her best to make the story intimate, the film feels a bit remote. It still tugs the heartstrings, but 87 years after its premiere Cukor's film no longer delivers the visceral gut punch that forces us to reach for the Kleenex box. The eye-filling production and - most of all - Garbo's dynamic performance are something to see, but Camille, like its titular heroine, ends up consumed by its conspicuous consumption.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Camille arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A new 4K scan struck from the earliest generation preservation elements yields a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's almost as lovely as Garbo herself...and a huge step up from the 2005 DVD. That DVD was littered with scratches and marks that formed a veneer over the image. This high-def rendering is clean as a whistle, but remains remarkably film-like. Grain is quite evident, but the texture preserves the feel of celluloid and complements the period setting. Excellent clarity and contrast, deep blacks, bright yet stable whites, and varied grays combine to produce a vibrant picture that exudes plenty of depth. The sharp close-ups of Garbo and Taylor ooze Hollywood glamor and impeccably transmit their breathtaking beauty, while the fine details in the sumptuous sets, lavish gowns, and sparkling jewels (which reportedly were real!) vie for attention. Some softness creeps in here and there, but the instances are brief and never detract from the overall splendor of this top-flight presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound. A wide dynamic scale embraces the highs and lows of Herbert Stothart's sweeping romantic score without any distortion and though some of Garbo's lines are difficult to decipher due to her Swedish accent and low-key deliveries, most of the dialogue is easy to comprehend. A few sonic accents, especially a noteworthy facial slap, punctuate the track and any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle have been meticulously erased. For a film from the 1930s, the track is surprisingly robust and improves upon the lossy Dolby Digital audio on the 2005 DVD.
All the extras from the 2005 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Silent Version of Camille (SD, 70 minutes) - This beautifully filmed, lavish, and emotionally devastating version of Camille modernizes the tragic tale and thrusts us into the decadence, frivolity, and lack of morals that defined 1920s Paris. Released in 1921 by Metro Pictures, three years before the merger that would create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, this version stars the marvelous Nazimova, who plays the title role with both tragic grace and glorious abandon, and Rudolph Valentino, who files a sensitive, nuanced portrayal as Armand. Distinguished by a modern music score and a surprisingly lovely print, this Camille packs a wallop and it's a treat to have it included here.
"Leo Is on the Air" Radio Promo (14 minutes) - This episode of the long-running promotional series provides a rundown of some of MGM's most acclaimed 1936 releases, but focuses extensively on Camille. Four audio scenes from the film are included. "No namby-pamby sentiment influences Camille," proclaims the announcer. "No weakness mars its greatness."
Theatrical Reissue Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The film's re-release preview touts Garbo as "the most fabulous personality of our time" and calls Camille one of the "finest romantic achievements in motion picture history."
Camille may creak a bit around the edges, but it remains a sweeping, oh-so-tragic romance that contains one of Greta Garbo's finest portrayals. Distinguished by sumptuous production values, expert direction by George Cukor, and a stellar cast, Camille epitomizes classy Golden Age moviemaking, and Warner Archive honors it with a beautiful remastered transfer and solid lossless audio. The inclusion of the 1921 silent version of Camille is the icing on the cake of this very sweet release. Highly Recommended.