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?).
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!
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.
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.
That’s not to say that Garbo doesn’t look gorgeous in Adrian’s designs, because hello, it’s Garbo.
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:
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.
In the promotional stills, there’s a similar gown that sits more appropriately at the shoulder points.
Garbo gets a few more restrained outfits for daytime wear, such as this velvet number:
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:
The gents’ outfits are nice. I mean, they’re not as flashy or OTT as the ladies’ but they are well designed and executed:
What are your thoughts about Camille? Share them in the comments!
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?
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.
Is it the ball gown from 1949’s Madame Bovary? (the photo here is small, but the only clear view I could find https://www.deedr.fr/bac-2016-madame-bovary-gustave-flaubert-et-amp-vincente-minnelli/)
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.
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. ;)
The French used to laugh at the movie’s title, since Camille is a man’s name and many Americans thought it was the name of the female lead.Of course, the title was a distortion of the original French title : La dame auxcamellias.
Dan tablet! It took out the space after aux.
Something else not mentioned in the film… She is called la dame aux camelias because she wears a white camellia when she’s available for sex, and a red one when she’s menstruating.
THAT IS HILARIOUS
I think we should bring it back into tradition!
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Except that in Traviata, she’s Violetta, not Marguerite. In the Zeffirelli film, Teresa Stratas perfectly acts, sings, and looks the part.
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.
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.
Yes, cover Zeffirelli’s La Traviata please please please!?! Also, completely unrelated but would you consider covering Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?
I just recently watched “Camille”. I’m not a big fan of the costumes in this film – at least for the women. They seemed too exaggerated for my tastes. But I think the film itself is first-rate. It’s a beautiful story in one way, but ugly in another. And rather depressing. But in my view, I think it’s first-rate . . . even after 82 years.