Film 2Oh!! stats update: Seen 90 films, written about 16 (including these two)

Talking about Cheri the other day reminded me that in the last sixth months I have seen three other films with the same setting of turn of the century Paris about high-end socialite prostitutes. I saw Gigi at the end of last year so it doesn’t quite fit into this project, (and possibly thank heavens I don’t have to take apart Thank Heavens For Little Girls). But two I did see this year were two versions of the same story, Camille – based on La Dame aux Camélias by the younger Alexandre Dumas (cut and paste courtesy of Wikipedia). One of my winter pleasures was to work through a box set of Greta Garbo talkies (of which more soon), of which Camille was the middle one I hit. On a quiet night I slipped the DVD in and through fat fisted wangling and surprise the 1921 version of Camille (with Rudolph Valentino) started playing as an extra on the DVD. Intrigued I kept watching….

15: Camille (1921) (DVD)

Silent films clearly rely on the visual, both for storytelling purposes but also to drag in their punters. If every story was set in the same neighbourhood as the viewer then there could be less of a draw. The setting of Camille is part of its innate charm, and this early flapper movie really does try to stuff the film with outrageous sets and costumes. Valentino plays the male lead Armand, but this is before Valentino’s made it huge and the film belongs (much like the Garbo Camillle) to the lead actress, here Russian actress Alla Nazimova. Nazimova plays Marguerite (the lady of the Camelias, hence the name of the film) with an unhinged gusto. The story in itself is pretty simple, Armand falls for loose courtesan Marguerite, and oddly for her she reciprocates. They nip off to the countryside, where love blooms and she decides to settle down with him. Then his family step in to say they will disinherit him if he marries this woman on loose morals. Therefore she decides to push him away to save him. And as ever in this kind of drama, someone ends up coughing up blood and dying of consumptions (all the better for deathbed confessions my dear). Its a pretty good story for a silent film, allowing for a decent range of set pieces and with a storyline which lack any complexity beyond the motivations of its leads. Valentino is good as the lovestruck youth, but it is Navimova’s performance which commands the film. She plays Margueritte as always being on the edge of some kind of madness – something which was alluring in her courtesan days and possibly why she had never settled down. When she is driven to be selfless, the madness goes somewhere else, and not quite to the usually faint weeping this kind of melodrama often leads to. Mania is at the heart of this character, to the extent that her self sacrifice is almost to save him from her addictive but difficult personality.

Camille is a pretty straightforward silent and the story does not require too many stretches from its cast. What it does offer though is a lead performance which goes way beyond what is required (as can be detected by her hairdo), and some really innovative and classy Art Deco sets. The setting here is actually 1920’s Paris as opposed to turn of the century, but the sets and costuming run with the Deco ethos with gusto.

Which makes it interesting to compare with…

16: Camille (1936) (DVD)

This is a more straight adaptation with regards to setting, we are firmly in the 19th Century and Garbo gets to wear big flouncy dresses and even some rather racy off the shoulder numbers. This is clearly presented as more of a heritage picture than Nazimova’s unhinged Marguerite, and Garbo plays her with a subsumed amount of regret under the flyweight persona (and anachronistic accent). The plot is near identical, with perhaps a bit more cruelty at the end from Garbo because her Marguerite started off much nicer. Robert Taylor gets a bit more to do at Armand, and Lionel Barrymore as Armand’s Dad seems like a much more malevolent presence, but the whole thing is still a silly melodrama with a spot of coughing up blood at the end (there is a reason why the story was also made into an opera).

I’m going to talk a lot more about Garbo soon, but this is one of the weaker of her talkies, if just because the subject matter doesn’t really suit her persona. Whilst Marguerite is a strong independent woman, which Garbo excels at, the permutations of the plot bend her into a kind of weakness (and in a way that Nazimova’s craziness slightly avoids). Or maybe its just that Garbo looks silly in a bonnet. As much as I like Garbo, I think I prefered the silent version, but perhaps there is a message in there about not seeing the same story done twice in two weeks?