These notes accompany the screening of George Cukor’s Camille on December 22, 23, and 24 in Theater 3.
Of all the major film directors of the classical Hollywood period, only two were local New York City boys. Although one of them, Raoul Walsh, romanticized the city in several of his films, he was a cowboy at heart. George Cukor (1899–1983), on the other hand, seemed to bring the city’s cosmopolitan culture to his career. I don’t mean to suggest that natal geography is destiny, but being close to Broadway as a child and becoming a stage manager there at 20 was bound to have an impact. (Although I was born on the wrong side of the Hudson, I can attest to the early lure of the city, although my Lincoln Tunnel travels were predominantly to see the hapless New York Rangers at the old Madison Square Garden, and only once did I visit the Metropolitan Opera in its pre–Lincoln Center digs.) After a decade in the theater and with the advent of talkies, it’s appropriate that one of Cukor’s earliest films was The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), satirizing John Barrymore, whom Cukor was to direct two years later.
Louis B. Mayer’s M-G-M studio was long on production values but short on patience with maverick talent. Even King Vidor, who put the studio on the map with The Big Parade and The Crowd, had to endure much frustration in subsequent years. Cukor’s style was elegant but not flashy, and because he relied much on respected literary works for which the undereducated Mayer had regard—and which generally did well at the box office—Cukor thrived for decades. His characters tended to be “theatrical,” either professionally, in real life, or both. Of course, the “book” on Cukor was that he was a great director of actors, most notably women. His early work with Tallulah Bankhead, Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, and Constance Bennett was extraordinary, and he made Katharine Hepburn (with whom he made ten films over nearly a half-century) a star with A Bill of Divorcement (1932). Later, he would get career-defining performances from Judy Holliday, Judy Garland, and others.
Since this series is by definition about directors, several of the great stars of silent films have not made an appearance. These include Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, and Marion Davies. The most significant gap in this regard is Greta Garbo (1905–1990), who (together with Lillian Gish) was the greatest silent actress. I did not choose to show inferior prints of Gosta Berlings Saga (1923) or Die Freudlose Gasse (1925), anticipating in the latter case that we will be showing a new print in our forthcoming Asta Nielsen exhibition. At M-G-M, Garbo was directed mostly by comfortable studio journeymen directors like Fred Niblo, Edmund Goulding, George Fitzmaurice, and her personal favorite, Clarence Brown. While her work in the late silents and throughout the 1930s was terrific, I think few directors and projects fully challenged her transcendent talent. The notable exceptions would be Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933), Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), and Cukor’s Camille (1937). (A reel of Victor Seastrom’s The Divine Woman, from 1928, has recently surfaced, but this potentially important film by Sweden’s greatest director remains essentially lost.)
Camille was already an overripe property in 1937, the book and play by Alexandre Dumas fils being nearly a century old. Giuseppe Verdi’s operatic version, La Traviata, was scarcely more current. It had been filmed previously by such diverse talents as Sarah Bernhardt and Theda Bara. Garbo’s Marguerite, however, somehow overcomes all obstacles to die in one of the most glorious scenes in the history of the movies (perhaps rivaled again only by Gish’s Mimi in Vidor’s 1926 La Boheme.) In spite of its lavish period recreation, it is an easy film to fault, for reasons ranging from Robert Taylor’s vacuity to Lionel Barrymore’s typical scenery chewing. At its heart, though, is an impeccable, incredibly moving performance by Garbo under Cukor’s direction, indisputably one of the greatest in cinema history.