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!