TBT: Camille (1936)

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Recently, we featured Greta Garbo for Woman Crush Wednesday, which resulted in a bunch of requests to highlight Camille (1936). Not being one to ignore our readers, I fired up the ‘ol Amazon Prime account and spent my hard-earned $3 to stream it — actually, I spent $3 twice to watch it, and I couldn’t finish it either time. After the second attempt I just gave up.

I’ll just give the basic synopsis for brevity’s sake, before I get on to the costumes: Garbo plays the courtesan Marguerite who has the bad luck to fall in love with a nice young man (Robert Taylor), all the while slowly and tragically dying of TB. Since I read the Wikipedia entry on it, I can say with some authority that that’s basically it. It’s long on melodrama and short on plot. What little plot there is doesn’t do Garbo’s acting chops any credit, and she spends the entirety of the movie with her head lolling in a heavy-lidded laudanum-infused semi-stupor that was just a tad too realistic (was she on drugs? drunk? half-asleep? all of the above?).

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That can’t be good for the neck.

There were three redeeming credits to this film: Laura Hope Crews as the complete and utter antithesis to her much more famous character, Aunt Pittypat from Gone With the Wind; Lenore Ulric as the sassy frenemy Olympe, who gets some of the best outfits; and the costumes themselves, which like pretty much every costume flick made by MGM during this period, were designed by Adrian and are fabulous.

Let’s start things off with this quote by Edith C. Lee, from the International Directory of Films & Filmmakers: Writers & Production Artists:

In Camille Adrian costumes told the tale. Garbo as martyr wore a golden chain around her neck, while her shoulders were bared and vulnerable. Stars across the gown associated her with the heavens. This image suggested a Christian saint more than a demimonde courtesan.

She’s a madonna! No, she’s a whore! Wait, she’s both!

snl

If you don’t get this reference, get off my Internet lawn.

In Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood, Sarah Berry goes further:

Adrian has written that in designing the costumes for Camille, he had difficulty finding images of the demimondaines of the period, since they were rarely painted. He decided to express Camille’s ‘theatrical legendry’ by dressing her in every conventional style of the era, ‘snoods, fringed parasols, bustles, and pyramided skirts,’ but with added ‘taste and flair’ set off by ‘hats a shade more unconventional than her life.’

I’d say “dressing her in every conventional style of the era” is an accurate assessment — the costumes are lavish, but they threaten to drown Garbo in a frothy sea of organza, tulle, ribbons, and paillettes.

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Woman overboard! Someone throw her a ruffled life preserver!

It is intentional overkill, of course. It had to have been no mean feat to shoehorn the formidable Garbo, whose physical presence was one of her trademarks, into the role of a frail 19th-century courtesan.

And I think that’s where my problem with the movie comes into play — Garbo is no wilting flower. She looks too strong, too healthy, too alive to play the wispy Marguerite who is one delicate cough away from a beautiful death scene. As a result, Adrian had no choice but to design costumes that were able to counteract the strength of the actress’ presence and provide the necessary visual cues of fragility and vulnerability.

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Adrian’s sketch for two costumes from Camille.

That’s not to say that Garbo doesn’t look gorgeous in Adrian’s designs, because hello, it’s Garbo.

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This particular gown shows up again on Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940).

Adrian does go into some truly weird flights of fancy with his designs, specifically this black number that features giant tulle sleeves that I’ve never seen in any 1840s source, plus a strange tulle bird’s nest on her head:

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The star-burst sequin motif gets recycled in a lot of Adrian designs, including Glinda the Good Witch’s iconic pink gown.

In one of the few gowns that can arguably be considered appropriate for the 1840s, Adrian takes the naked shoulders to the extreme — to the point where it doesn’t so much look like the bodice is about to fall off, but that it’s three sizes too small.

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I want to yank it up over her armpits so bad, you have no idea.

In the promotional stills, there’s a similar gown that sits more appropriately at the shoulder points.

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It also looks incredibly limp compared to all the explosive tulle going on in 99% of the other gowns.

Garbo gets a few more restrained outfits for daytime wear, such as this velvet number:

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And this traveling costume: greta-garbo-camille-marguerite02

But the real crazy shit is reserved for Marguerite’s companions, her dressmaker Prudence (Laura Hope Crews) and fellow society girl/competition, Olympe (Lenore Ulric). I tried finding stills online that showed their outfits, but came up pretty much empty handed, so you’ll have to make due with my screenshots:

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The following year, Crews would be cast as the biddiest of biddies, Aunt Pittypat, in Gone With the Wind. In Camille, however, she’s bawdy and inappropriate, and just fucking awesome.

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I want to believe this dress was lavender with silver lame. And that it belongs to Trystan.

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I want a full-length shot of Olympe’s black & white ensemble so badly it hurts.

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Want. That. Necklace.

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Olympe’s organza gown dripping with pailletes is probably my favorite of the whole film.

The gents’ outfits are nice. I mean, they’re not as flashy or OTT as the ladies’ but they are well designed and executed:

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I love the fit of Armande’s silhouette. It’s very 1840s.

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Again with the nipped-in waist on de Varville’s jacket. It’s perfect.

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#LifeGoals

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All the cravats and fitted suits… YES.

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I love this double-breasted, shawl-collar waistcoat. Might have to make one for myself…

 

What are your thoughts about Camille? Share them in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

19 Responses

  1. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    I seem to have a memory of Olympe having a REALLY bizarre ballgown embellished with birds in flight and actual birds’ nests with eggs, but as that didn’t rate a mention, I’m wondering if I am remembering another film altogether?

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I had a hard time finding photos of Olympe’s outfits, and sadly, the screencaps were all crappy because the quality of the film was… less than great.

      Reply
  2. MoHub

    Well, now you’re going to have to cover Zefirelli’s LA Traviata. Same story, different names for the characters, and Verdi’s magnificent music.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Camille was also remade in the 70s, and I’m curious to see how well it handled the story. I’m kind of hoping for a 70s train wreck worthy of Snark Week, but sometimes those 70s films actually stand up to the test of time. ;)

      Reply
  3. Kendra

    So I’ve never seen this, but to me it will always be the movie they go to the theater to see in Annie! –Kendra, former Annie nerd

    Reply
  4. Kathleen Norvell

    You could dress Garbo in a gunny sack and she would be gorgeous. I prefer her in Queen Christina, especially in drag, but these gowns are amazing. And the men aren’t exactly ugly either. Nice to know that Adrian had a clue about historical clothing, since I wasn’t really sure about that.

    Reply
  5. ladylavinia1932

    I’ve always been a fan of the 1936 movie, “Camille”. However . . . the vision of Greta Garbo in costumes between the 1830s and 1860s never seemed to work for me. She doesn’t seemed to have the build for that particular. I don’t know. On the other hand, I was very impressed by the men’s costumes, especially those for Robert Taylor.

    Reply
  6. robintmp

    For some odd reason, the only costume in which Garbo strikes me as looking sufficiently frail and vulnerable is the velvet ensemble–does anyone else think that as well? And yes, I already knew about the white/red camellias, which I think was rather clever, particularly since menstruation was at different times referred to as “the flowers”.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Also, Marie Duplessis, on whom Marguerite was based, made it clear to her suitors that she despised roses; hence the camellias. Duplessis was also famous for saying lying made her teeth white.

      Reply
  7. Susan Pola

    I remember watching a video of the incomparable Maria Callas singing Marguerite in La Traviatta, she conveyed in her voice and appearance Marguerite’s delicacy. Her version of Addio del passato is breathtakingly moving. It brought tears to my eyes.
    Garbo was beautifully dressed, photographed and lit, but not as frail. Maybe the makeup artist is to blame. But why I liked it, it was the first time I saw Camille and was impressed by Marguerite’s innate kindness and inner beauty.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Except that in Traviata, she’s Violetta, not Marguerite. In the Zeffirelli film, Teresa Stratas perfectly acts, sings, and looks the part.

      Reply
  8. janette

    There was a British version made in the late 70s/early 80s staring Kate Nelligan and Peter Firth which I watched before leaving home. I do have a copy of it but haven’t got around to rewatching so I can’t comment upon the costumes.

    Reply
  9. ladylavinia1932

    There is also a 1984 version with Greta Scacchi and Colin Firth. But Ms. Scacchi looked not only healthy, but tanned in that film.

    For some odd reason, the only costume in which Garbo strikes me as looking sufficiently frail and vulnerable is the velvet ensemble–does anyone else think that as well?

    Yeah, I have to agree with you.

    Reply
  10. Pina

    Yes, cover Zeffirelli’s La Traviata please please please!?! Also, completely unrelated but would you consider covering Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?

    Reply

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