Alla Nazimova takes on the role of Marguerite, the lady of camellias, a successful Parisian courtesan. She’s dying beautifully from tuberculosis but finds time to romance Rudolph Valentino in this modernized adaptation.
This is part of the Rudolph Valentino Blogathon hosted by Timeless Hollywood. Be sure to read the other posts!
Red alert! The women have retaken the narrative!
I remember back in the 1990s there were a considerable number of hands being wrung over so-called heroin chic. Skinny, morose models stared out of black and white Calvin Klein magazine ads with sunken eyes. Well, the worrywarts of the 90s should have realized that heroin chic had nothing on the Victorian/Gilded Age romanticizing of tuberculosis.
Consumption was regularly portrayed as a romantic and beautiful way to die back in the nineteenth century. It was the disease of poets, authors, fragile beauties of both genders. Young Alexandre Dumas, fils had been dazzled by a courtesan who died of the disease in 1847, the height of the TB chic movement. Just one year later, he published Camille, a romanticized novelization of her death. Dumas adapted the work for the stage four years later and it became a smash hit and the role was regularly used to showcase the acting chops of the best leading ladies in the business.
Jump forward nearly seventy years and we find ourselves at the Metro studio. Metro was a hair away from being the first M in MGM and was generally reckoned to be one of the classiest joints in the American film industry. Russian acting legend Alla Nazimova was in residence and a young fellow named Rudolph Valentino was steadily making a name for himself, thanks in part to the writing of June Mathis and the direction of Rex Ingram.
Camille had already been adapted into feature films, both Theda Bara and Clara Kimball Young had played the role, but Nazimova’s version would modernize the tale, take it out of grandfather’s day and turn it into a jazz age fable. Mathis adapted the story, Natacha Rambova would design the film and Nazimova would star. The director was officially Ray C. Smallwood but cameraman Paul Ivano later claimed that Nazimova took that job as well. I’m not sure how reliable this account is but, if true, this would not have been unusual. Mary Pickford was obliged to ghost-direct when the men hired for the job proved to be unreliable and one of the unwritten rules of Laurel and Hardy comedies was that Stan Laurel’s suggestions were law. (For what it’s worth, Patsy Ruth Miller, another member of the cast of Camille, stated that Nazimova had creative control but Smallwood was definitely the director.)
So, what we have is a very talented crew and they just happen to be women. This is going to be fun!
Quick note: I have a longstanding policy of not discussing the personal lives of silent film personnel unless it relates directly to the film being reviewed. I really do not care about theories regarding the love lives of Valentino, Rambova or Nazimova. In fact, I avoid them like the plague because some fans are, frankly, a bit too invested and derail film conversations in favor of discussing celebrity gossip. This ain’t TMZ so please no sex stuff in the comments. Thanks!
Nazimova is often described with a few quick strokes: temperamental, eccentric, party girl, a game of bedroom Clue and then off to a different performer. Hold your horses! Let’s dispense with the usual narrative baggage and see how Nazimova the actress, as opposed to Nazimova the personality, fares.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention that I don’t care much for the work of Alexandre Dumas, fils or TB chic. Oh well. (Needless to say, it was his father who wrote the adventure books.)
Marguerite (Alla Nazimova) is the most famous courtesan in Paris. She flirts and giggles and parties, all while wearing her signature flower, the camellia. (Did you know that Camellia sinensis is the scientific name for a tea plant? Well, now you do.) She is currently keeping company with the Count de Varville (Arthur Hoyt), a wealthy and dissolute nobleman.
Armand (Rudolph Valentino) sees Marguerite and is immediately smitten, which she finds incredibly amusing. It soon becomes clear that she takes no pleasure in her life and that while she is popular, real friends are few and far between. Marguerite has tuberculosis and is dying but knows that no one will miss her when she is gone.
She hosts a party and Armand arrives with his friend Gaston (Rex Cherryman). Marguerite goes through the motions but her only real emotion occurs when she sees her innocent young friend, Nichette (Patsy Ruth Miller). Marguerite has a coughing fit and Armand follows her when she goes to her room to rest. He professes his love and Marguerite warns him not to wound her. Like the camellia, she is fragile.
And so they’re off on their love affair. Armand takes Marguerite to the county and her health is improving but things do not stay happy. Armand’s father (William Orlamand, who played Sourdough in The Wind) arrives and tells Marguerite that she must give up his son. Her reputation is rubbing off and will bring the whole family to ruin. This was something that Marguerite always feared and she agrees to drive Armand away, taking up with Varville once again to ensure that Armand will hate her.
The plan works all too well. Armand sees Marguerite at a casino and showers her with money, stating that she needs to be paid for her love. (Spoiler coming) Humiliated, Marguerite’s health fails. Armand discovers the truth but too late. With Nichette and Gaston by her side (they got hitched), Marguerite dies.
Before we discuss the performances in this film, let’s dive into the history of the main character of Camille.
Nazimova was forty-two when Camille was released and Valentino was twenty-six; this seems to be the first May-December casting in a Hollywood adaptation. (The Clara Kimball Young version had an Armand thirteen years older than Marguerite while Theda Bara was one year older than her Armand.) Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland were thirty-two and twenty-one respectively in the 1926 adaptation (also a modernized version) and Greta Garbo was thirty-one to Robert Taylor’s twenty-five in the 1936 sound adaptation.
While the idea of Armand falling for an older, more experienced woman has taken firm hold in the public imagination, I am sorry to say that the “jaded courtesan” upon whom Dumas based his story, Marie Duplessis, died of tuberculosis at the ripe old age of… twenty-three. She and Dumas were born six months apart in 1824. It was a time when women of little means had few options for upward mobility; they could and did work but the professions that could elevate them out of poverty were closed to them, for the most part. Women were sometimes placed in the position of making a choice between honorable squalor or, if they had the charm or beauty, living off the favors of wealthy men; Duplessis was frank about her lifestyle:
“I realize that mine is a sordid profession, but I must let you know that my favors cost a great deal of money. My protector must be extremely rich to cover my household expenses and satisfy my caprices.”
And, unlike her fictional counterpart, Duplessis did not have a miraculous awakening thanks to the pure love of an aristocratic youth. (Cough, cough, wish fulfillment!) I’m not sure she had time for such a thing, considering her extremely early death. In fact, her final year was a frenzy of partying, a reaction to her rejection by dashing composer, virtuoso pianist, womanizer and would-be priest Franz Liszt. Duplessis had offered to accompany him on tour (Liszt essentially invented the modern notion of a musical superstar) and was turned down.
The all-too-human lady of the camellias was resurrected in a more saintly and sanitized form by her (male) chroniclers, the ultimate courtesan with the heart of gold. The story is maudlin in that annoying Gilded Age way (Tuberculosis is romantic! Wheee!) and while it may be useful in comprehending Dumas’s wish fulfillment and understandable daddy issues, it doesn’t exactly lend itself to the screen.
June Mathis and Alla Nazimova took the May-December idea and ran with it for all it is worth, more power to them. It certainly fits with the melancholy tone they adopt for the picture. However, this has led to some rather unpleasant issues on the critical front.
What’s Nazimova doing in a Nazimova movie?
Modern reviews are not kind to Nazimova. Much is made of the use of filters on the camera lens to disguise her age with, I believe, William K. Everson leading the charge in American Silent Film. Because Hollywood has always respected older actresses and awarded them parts, giving them absolutely no reason to conceal their age. (End sarcasm.) I also notice that no one seems to mention, say, John Barrymore’s extravagant use of cheesecloth in the handsome close-ups in his films.
Then we get to complaints about her posturing and posing. To me, there is nothing about Nazimova that is not typical of a silent Russian performance, which tend to be a bit more on the expressive side. When I first saw Nazimova, I was prepared for near hysterics but any eccentricities before the camera are no worse than, say, Lillian Gish’s nervous fingers. Don’t let the naysayers scare you away! (On the other side of the coin, I have seen reviewers who have clearly seen few silent films reassuring readers that Camille is not as “hammy” as other 1920s films. Um, no. I never said it wasn’t hammy, I said it was quality ham.)
At the beginning of the film, Nazimova has plenty of kittenish antics but there is something deeper at work. Even as she is flirting outrageously, she conveys the sense of a woman who knows she is expendable to the world and to her so-called friends. Her antics are hollow, over-rehearsed. Nazimova is playing a complicated and risky game as she layers her performance; it’s little wonder that some viewers may not know to look below the first layer but anyone who bothers to watch closely will be rewarded.
Nazimova is hypnotic. Like so many great performers, she draws the eye, making it impossible to focus on anyone else when she is doing her stuff. A tiny woman, Nazimova exudes vulnerability and actually looks like a wilted flower when she finally loses Armand’s love.
We are left with the question of whether or not Nazimova was “difficult” to work with. It seems to me that while this label is used for both men and women, it is often employed to dismiss a woman in the film industry who wishes to have creative control. When writing about D.W. Griffith, Fritz Lang or Charlie Chaplin making demands and exhibiting perfectionism, film historians often take this as evidence of their dedication as artists. But if Alla Nazimova or Pola Negri make similar demands… Look, the film industry was and is full of creative people. It gets emotional. Nazimova had a distinct creative vision and she did her darndest to get it so can we lay off the sexist dog-whistles, please?
And now for the biggest question on everyone’s mind: how is Valentino? Camille was released at an interesting period in his career, six months after The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, his breakout role, and one month before The Sheik, the film that would make him a legend and cement his stardom. Valentino is a star who lends himself to fantasy, which is part of the reason for his continued popularity but it also makes it difficult to weigh his performances and decide on their quality. Viewers are often enticed by what they think they see, not what is on the screen.
In my opinion, though, Valentino is raw. There’s a lot of charisma there and some natural ability but his relative inexperience in larger roles shows. Take Valentino’s available films of 1921 (The Four Horsemen, The Conquering Power, Camille, The Sheik) and compare them to the performances he gave in 1925 and 1926 and it becomes clear that his acting talent was improving by leaps and bounds and that he finally had a handle on his lover persona.
In the late 1910s, Valentino had played generic leading men (The Delicious Little Devil) and sleazy villains (The Married Virgin, Eyes of Youth) but his best early role, for my money, is in All Night, a romantic comedy in which he is a nice kid trying desperately to NOT spend the night in the same room as his girlfriend. Valentino is cute, vulnerable, sweet and funny. In fact, his comedic chops are the most underrated aspect of his talent. It’s no coincidence that Valentino’s later successes skillfully blended humor into the mix.
Of course, the Nazimova crew was making art and were not in it for the comedy. This is a pity as Armand is a pretty annoying character, both whiny and cruel when he does not get his way. However, upping his likability was not in the cards.
You got peanut butter in my chocolate!
The problem we have with this film is that some Rudy fans act like there’s Nazimova in their Valentino movie. And Nazimova fans are like, “No, there’s Valentino in our Nazimova movie!” when what we all need to do is take a hint from Reese’s peanut butter cups and realize that the combination is kind of okay.
Also, all this whining about too much Nazimova in a Nazimova movie… Yeah, you watched a movie starring Nazimova with Nazimova’s name above the credits. Not sure what else you expected. This is like going to a superhero movie and moaning that there were too many guys in spandex.
(Obviously, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a Valentino fan seeing this movie for a glimpse of Valentino. I just find it odd when people complain about the star of a film starring in the film they were hired to star in.)
The common belief about Camille is that there was dirty work afoot. Nazimova was threatened by the talents of young Valentino and so she hatched a plan. This is how it unfolded, per Emily Leider’s Valentino biography Dark Lover:
But his acting skills got short shrift. His big moment in the deathbed scene was simply deleted, although Rambova said he played it so convincingly that even the extras were mopping tears from their eyes… The only way Nazimova could monopolize the emotion was by excising Armand, a move Variety lamented as “arrant misconception.”
So, we have a double charge against Nazimova: she cut Valentino’s scenes because he was too darn good and she did it showing total disregard for her source material. Let’s take the second part first.
Variety did indeed state that the final boudoir scene required Armand to be present and eliminating him was a serious error in judgement. They did not specifically complain about a Valentino shortage, though his performance was well-reviewed. The lack of Armand, Variety claimed, must have been a compromise to make the ending less sad. (How, exactly? Dying without a loved one is generally reckoned to be one of the saddest things ever and Armand was horrible to her.)
My suspicions were aroused. You see, Marguerite dies alone in the book. She addresses Armand in her diary, begging for him to return but he is too far away and is only able to send a letter. (Maybe he should have climbed into a cardboard box and mailed himself to her? But I digress.) When she becomes too weak to write, another character takes over, still addressing Armand and describing Marguerite’s death and funeral. The diary is delivered to Armand after Marguerite’s death.
Dumas’s stage adaptation (upon which Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La traviata was based) introduced the more familiar ending with Marguerite dying in Armand’s arms. However, Nazimova and/or June Mathis were on solid dramatic ground in omitting Armand, something that the Variety critic should have been aware of.
Motion Picture News praised both Nazimova and Valentino and singled out the deathbed scene for praise, while Motion Picture Classic complained about the change and claimed that two endings were shot but only the solo death scene was released. Again, the play is referenced but not the original novel.
My next problem is the main source of this narrative. Natacha Rambova can hardly be considered an impartial witness considering her personal involvement with Valentino. One’s wife is not generally considered to be the best judge of one’s acting skills. (Valentino and Rambova attempted marriage just six months after Camille opened and no, I do not wish to discuss their relationship.) Leider cites Rambova’s “intimate portrait” of Valentino, which was published soon after his sudden death, as her source for the description of his deathbed performance in Camille. (Rambova also seemed to be unaware of the solo death scene in the original novel. Did no one read books in 1921?)
In her memoirs, Patsy Ruth Miller wrote that Nazimova drove June Mathis nuts with her changes to the script of Camille. Miller wrote extensively about the backstage antics of Nazimova (she was a bit of a jokester) and her eccentricities, as well as Rudolph Valentino’s personality, hobbies, quirks and professional concerns. Significantly, she does not mention Valentino’s performance during the death scene, which seems odd considering the generally gossipy tone of the book. And, remember, Miller’s character, Nichette, is present during the extant death scene.
“What a second! What if other people, not just his wife, proclaimed that Valentino’s performance was brilliant? What do you say to that, Miss Smartypants?”
That’s not the point. No matter the source, it’s easy to claim that a cut performance was brilliant and stupendous and moved hearts of stone to tears but can we really know for sure? How many times have recovered lost films disappointed us? How many director’s cuts and special editions have added scenes that were best left on the cutting room floor? We are right to be suspicious.
While he was capable of good performances, Valentino was given to carrying on when not kept firmly under a skilled director’s control and he didn’t have the underlying acting chops of Nazimova to allow him to carry off overwrought emotions. While he definitely has natural charisma going for him in this picture, he also indulges in the kind of eye-bulging and nostril-flaring that made The Sheik so kitschy. He’s not bad in the film, he does a good job with what he is given, but there is a definite tendency to mug.
Is it possible that Valentino’s scene at Marguerite’s deathbed was not too good but too bad? Or that his performance was okay but that it unbalanced the scene? Or that his scenes were rehearsed but never shot at all? Or that there were censorship concerns? I’m not saying it is impossible that Nazimova cut him down in order to amplify her own scene, I am saying that we should be open to the prospect of another side to the story. Considering the tendency of some Valentino fans to turn every woman who ever crossed his path into a wicked villainess, I think this is a reasonable request.
Camille is not about Armand. In fact, he is the least interesting character in the story and his behavior toward Marguerite at the casino is so cruel that, frankly, I wished that he would somehow manage to get between a mother bear and her cub. Literally no one goes into a performance of Camille wishing for more Armand unless, of course, they work for Variety or Motion Picture Classic. This brouhaha rather reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and how the substitute happy ending of My Fair Lady has completely replaced Shaw’s more realistic (and ambiguous) climax. A viewer may prefer the happier ending but they would be a silly creature if they were to whine about an adaptation taking a cue from the Shaw original.
I suppose the aspect of this argument that annoys me the most is that it takes a film that was produced and (rumor has it) ghost-directed by a woman, written by a woman, designed by a woman, featuring a woman-centric plot and makes it all about a poor wittle man. And if you’re going to complain, at least read the end of the original novel, for goodness sake! (An English translation of the novel would have been available for decades when the film was written.)
So, the gist of my argument is as follows:
- Read the book before complaining about the adaptation.
- You have no idea whether or not Valentino’s allegedly cut performance was brilliant. The shouldawouldacoulda game is fun but it becomes dangerous to the historical record when the what-if fantasy is passed off as fact.
- Yes, by all means, take a film created by talented women and make it all about a guy.
This has been a public service announcement by Movies Silently.
The Technical Side
Next to Nazimova, Rambova gets the most tomatoes thrown at her. She was too consciously arty! Too affected! And Rambova wasn’t even her real name, if you can imagine such a thing happening in Hollywood! These pearls are clutched so tightly, you will have to pry them out of their cold, dead hands.
Phooey! Consciously arty they may be but Rambova’s sets are sort of a science fiction delight with their diaphanous doors (yes, doors) and symbolic decorations. The camellia flower shows up a lot, of course, but we also get a spider web in the casino and Marguerite’s see-through doors symbolize her vulnerability. I particularly dug the window in her bedroom, which is huge and round and slides open with the touch of a button. Very Star Trek!
The costumes are also fun to watch. What I have always admired about 1910s and 1920s outfits is their intriguing construction. Nowadays, we’re back zipper, side zipper or forget that and wear leggings. Older fashions, on the other hand, sometimes went together like a puzzle and had unexpected additional details. For example, Nazimova’s party dress in the opening scene is actually wound around her and could be unwound for a decidedly leggy display. And can I just say that Nazimova had an enviable figure? I could only hope to look that good at forty-two.
So, the technical side of things is pristine, the acting is splendid and Nazimova is hypnotic. I approve!
Oh, by the way, this may seem like the perfect time to do a Silents vs. Talkies but the thought of a post-code Camille and having to once again endure almost two hours of Greta Garbo alternately lurching about and talking baby talk was too much to bear. And, frankly, I do not find the story interesting enough to warrant a search for another version, though it is a pity that Theda Bara’s performance in the role is missing and presumed lost. So, we’ll just wrap up the review of the 1921 version here.
I find Nazimova fascinating. The fictionalized Marguerite, less so. However, don’t let the drippy story and snarky critics scare you away. Alla Nazimova was a talent to be reckoned with and Camille showcases her powerful acting chops; the gorgeous set design is the icing on the decadent cake. The film is not subtle but it doesn’t aim for subtlety. It whacks you over the head with its look and performances but oh boy does it ever feel good.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
Camille was released on DVD as an extra feature for the 1936 Greta Garbo vehicle. It has a very enjoyable orchestra score from Peter Vantine. Definitely the version to get!
Special Note: Since some commenters seem to be having trouble with the concept, let me explain. Participating in a blogathon means that I review a film that features the blogathon’s subject. Participation does not oblige me to write ONLY about that person or change history in order to fawn over them. That would be silly. You would think this would be obvious but it seems to be a rather sticky concept.
And a special thanks to the Valentino fans who have worked so hard to illustrate my points!