Greta Garbo, Camille

Friday, January 27, 2006

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Otis Ferguson

"And all of this frank, sensitive reanimation of a thing that time and change and indifference had almost made into a dramatic platitude is all the more generous of Hollywood and unexpected because it is the setting for a personality that truly requires none, being beauty in itself and its own excuse for being. For this is the Camille of Greta Garbo, the screen's first lady and dramatic phenomenon of our time--and phenomenon it is, because not wealth or her legend or the adulation of millions seems to jar her pure constancy; because in spite of a private dignity that has moved to envious jokes the whole army of those whose profession it is to fawn, pry, and peddle gossip, she is still high in her place, an abiding name in this nation; because she continues in a form that still distresses the high of brow, with a power and unfailing beauty that are undeniable to all brow levels by the million.

"The picture opens with lights, gaiety, and the coarse swirl of life; but if its end is to grow naturally from these first scenes, the mood must be set now. Camille must contrive from the start to be radiant in the tricky strange light of a figure with the late sun behind it, the outlines on fire and a lengthening shadow at the center. And she must be--nothing so obvious and easy as the lily defiled, the stinkweed transformed, but a plant that grows in these low places, both part of and lovely above them. And some such presence is felt from the earliest scenes at the auction rooms and music-hall, by no more outward signs than the slight cough (it is nothing), the straight glance and word for Young Handsome, the delight in flowers, the shrug for her friends' scheming prattle or the Baron's propositions. The emotional charge becomes heavier as conflicts develop, until we have the superb duet between Camille and the Baron at the piano, the mortal eloquence of the love passages, the renunciation, forced quarrel, last words, etc. But the gauge of Miss Garbo as this or any other figure may be taken from her command of the screen in her first tranquility, before an explicit relation with the audience has been built up or the action has provided for revelation by word or gesture. It is more than the distant shimmer of beauty, or a resonant husky voice, or a personal dignity wide enough for the demands of both humility and arrogance. It is more than can be measured in any of the dimensions through which we receive it, because sound waves and planes of light are only a medium of reflection for the regions of the spirit concerned here. Greta Garbo has the power of projecting not only the acting moods of a play but the complete image of her own person; and seeing her here, one realizes that this is more than there are words for, that is is simply the most absolutely beautiful thing of a generation."

Otis Ferguson
The New Republic, March 24, 1937
The Film Criticism of ..., p. 170-71.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Pauline Kael

"Like parents crowing over baby's first steps, MGM announced "Garbo talks!" (in Anna Christie) and "Garbo laughs!" (in Ninontchka), but they missed out when they should have crowed: "Garbo acts!" That was in Camille in 1936. Garbo's Camille is too intelligent for her frivolous life, too generous for her circumstances; she is a divinity trying to succeed as a whore. It's an ironic, sublime performance.... In spite of MGM, Garbo's artistry triumphs, and the tear-jerker Camille is transformed into the "classic" the studio claimed it to be."

Pauline Kael
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (1968), p. 300

originally posted 11/4/05.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Andrew Sarris

Sarris begins his chapter on Garbo with Kenneth Tynan's famous quote:

"'What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober.'"

Later, Sarris quotes Charles Jackson, in his novel The Lost Weekend, from a description of his alcoholic lead's character's response to her performance in Camille. Tynan's famous quote could itself have been inspired from this passage, quoted below.

Sarris on Garbo:

"Greta Garbo remains the most enduringly and endearingly mesmerising after-image of the MGM star system.... The spine-tingling death scene in Camille (1937) transforms cinema into sculpture.... Without benefit of the perpetually avant-garde mannerism of stop-motion, Garbo stops the flow of images on the screen by enslaving the memory of the spectator. Her demoralizing beauty corrupts the optical habits of the wariest critic....

"... Garbo's inexhaustible visual force has swept away the petty differences between men and women, outdoors woodsmen and interior decorators, hard-boiled professionals and soft headed dilettantes. What other goddess of the screen could claim equal devotion from Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote? There is remarkably little pathos in her films, and virtually no trace of self-pity. What Garbo offers her worshippers is a vision of life without compromise, love without disenchantment, sexuality without sordidness...."

"Clarence Brown, the genially modest director of Anna Karenina, conceded in an interview given in Paris in 1961 that George Cukor had gotten more out of Garbo in Camille (1937) than he (Brown) ever could have. But, Brown added, Cukor did not really know much about making movies. The implication was that one had to choose between making good pictures or giving great performances. Whatever the merits of this dubious distinction, Camille is for Garbo's most discerning admirers her most accomplished portrayal. Indeed, her erstwhile theatrical detractors were compelled to admit that Garbo's might be the most incandescent Lady of the Camellias in any medium.

"Charles Jackson's alcoholic Don Birnam is particularly eloquent on the matter in The Lost Weekend:

On the mantel over the bar, tilted against the mirror, was a yellow card advertising the double-feature at the Select next door. Greta Garbo in Camille, and some other movie. It was like a summons, for God's sake. He had seen the picture three times during the week it opened on Broadway, a month or so ago. All of a sudden (but no, it was too early, it would have to wait) he had to see again that strange fabled face, hear the voice that sent shivers down his spine when it uttered even the inconsequential little sentence (the finger-tips suddenly raised to the mouth as if to cover the rueful smile): "It's my birthday." Or the rapid impatient way, half-defiant, half-regretful, it ran off the words about money: "And I've never been very particular where it came from, as you very well know." And of the scene where the Baron was leaving for Russia--how she said "Goodbye ... goodbye." ("Come with me!" The shake of the head and the smile, then; and the answer: "But Russia is so co-o-old--you wouldn't want me to get ill again, would you," not meaning this was the reason she couldn't go, not even pretending to mean it.) He knew the performance by heart, as one knows a loved pied of music: every inflexion, every stress and emphasis, every small revelation of satisfying but provocative beauty. There was a way to spend the afternoon!--the bartender slid the bottle across the counter and this time he poured the drink himself.

"....Cukor's main contribution was not in getting something out of Garbo that wasn't there, but in allowing her to lighten her tone in pleasing contrast to the solemn melodramatics swirling around her. From her first smiling entrance in a carriage, Camille is every inch the playful courtesan whose heart is yet to be broken....

"Cukor captured the essence of the collaborative process in working with Garbo in a 1964 interview with Richard Overstreet in Film Culture:

It is hard to talk about Garbo, really, for she says everything when she appears on the screen. That is GARBO ... and all you can say is just so much chit-chat. There she is on the screen. How she achieves these effects may or may not be interesting. She is what she is; and that is a very creative actress who thinks about things a great deal and has a very personal way of acting. You have to give her her head--let he do what she feels. If you remember in Camille when the father comes in to tell her to leave his son, she falls to the ground and puts her hand on the table. That's a very original thing to do. One must let her do these things and they happen marvelously.
Also, do you remember in Camille when the man made her pick up her fan--he just stood there, the Baron de Varville. When she reached down she did the most unforgettable thing. Sweeping down, like a dancer ... Isadora Duncan ... she swept it up--the whole motion was done without bending her knees. She doesn't move like a ballerina acting--but like an actress acting. It is not dance but acting. This is an important point. She moves like an actress.
Garbo's incandescent Camille did not keep her off Harry Brandt's "Box-Office-Poison" list.... [S]he lost the Oscar to Luise Rainer.... In an era of notorious studio block voting, MGM can be said to have let Garbo down once more, perhaps as a conditioned reflex to her unyielding aloofness. Subsequent critical opinion, however, has reduced Luise Rainer to a footnote in Greta Garbo's voluminous chapter...."

Andrew Sarris, "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet": The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949 (1998), p. 375-75; 387-89

David Thomson

"If you look at Greta Garbo's Camille today, you can act smug if you are so inclined. You can say, Well, of course, they could do that kind of nonsense in 1936, but you couldn't do it today. I think you'd be right--no one in Hollywood, at least, now has the daring or the wisdom to do this story with such breathtaking simplicity and brevity. They'd build it up; they'd camp it up. Whereas all Garbo does is murmur to herself, Well, of course, it's about someone who dies for love--what's more natural than that?

"There had been a lot of Camilles in picture history:  Sarah Bernhardt, Clara Kimball Young, Theda Bara, and Nazimova had done it ... But after Garbo, peple stopped doing Camille because she had nailed it, because no one was reckless enough to go near her gravity again, because no one could comprehend the simplicity with which she died finally--like a flower deserted by the light.

".... Zoe Akins delivered a script that worked on the principle that the less Marguerite had to say, the more she was going to feel. Time and again, Garbo found modest physical gestures (restrained but seething, Cukor said)--just look at the swoon that is actually her death. How does an actress make the death in Camille a surprise except through genius? The bittersweet expressions on her face are by now the idiom of classic cinema. Everyone went to school on her.

"You can say that Cukor merely attended to her performance. But consider that Max Ophuls attends to his actresses out of affection while a Joseph Mankiewicz, say, does so from strict duty. You can feel the difference...."

David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (2008), p. 141