Manuel Betancourt

Mondays with Manuel: Camille (1936)

March 18, 2013 · in Books, Film, Manuel Puig

As I continue trying to keep up with blogging while trying to write a dissertation, I decided to make a blogging project that could double up as dissertation work. One of my chapters is on Argentine writer Manuel Puig. You may recognize him as he wrote one of the best novels about what it feels like to be enamored with Old Hollywood: Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976). If you haven’t read it, you should! In his earlier “police novel” titled The Buenos Aires Affair (1974) he opened each chapter with a snippet of dialogue from movies he adored, all of which star beautiful and iconic starlets from the 1930s and 1940s, from Dietrich to Leigh. I am making my way through all sixteen films that make up these epigraphs (none of which I had seen before embarking on this project!) I’m not following any order other than whichever ones I can find (if anyone has access to copies of Red Dust, Blossoms in the Dust and/or Tender Comrade let me know). That said, I wanted to kick of Mondays with Manuel (get it, because his name is Manuel as is mine?) with the film that opens book, the George Cukor film Camille (1936).

The handsome young man: You’re killing yourself.
Greta Garbo: (feverish, trying to hide her fatigue) f I am you’re the only one who objects, now why don’t you go back and dance with one of those pretty girls. Come, I’ll go with you, what a child you are (she gives him her hand).
The handsome man: Your hand’s so hot.
Greta Garbo: (ironic) Is that why you put tears on it, to cool it?
The handsome young man: I know I don’t mean anything to you, I don’t count. But someone ought to look after you, and I could… if you let me.
Greta Garbo: Too much wine has made you sentimental.
The handsome young man: It wasn’t wine that made me come here every day, for months, to find out how you were.
Greta Garbo: No, that couldn’t have been the wine. So you’d really like to take care of me?
The handsome young man: Yes.
Greta Garbo: All day… every day?
The handsome young man: All day… every day, why not?
Greta Garbo: Why should you care for a woman like me, I’m always nervous or sick… sad… or too gay.
(from Camille, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
Camille, based on the Dumas’ book The Lady of the Camelias, opens with Marguerite trying to fund her expensive lifestyle in the only way she knows how: by luring a rich Baron. This simple setup is complicated by Marguerite’s fondness (and later love) for the “young handsome man” in the epigraph. The entire film vacillates between Marguerite wanting to forsake it all for the love of Armand (Robert Taylor) or trying to repay her debts by staying with the Baron (Henry Daniell) and at times feels like a comedy of errors trapped in a melodrama. Much like what Puig suggests, we are here for Garbo alone who makes Marguerite’s ambivalence (and slowly worsening TB) more believable than the script around her would suggest. Having arrived at Camille via a movie-obsessed writer, I wasn’t too surprised to find that Satine’s mistaken attraction to Christian in Moulin Rouge! is merely the first of the many ways in which Luhrmann’s movie musical riffs on Dumas’s novel and Cukor’s treatment of it here, all the way to the sad fate that befalls these star-crossed lovers.

I love that Puig’s epigraphs make the film sound like a star vehicle (which it was), populated by unnamed co-stars (note how Taylor is reduced to “The handsome young man”). Tellingly, he spotlights the moment where Taylor’s Armand confesses his love for Garbo’s Marguerite. The scene revolves around the very issues of loving actresses that the book’s epigraphs perform themselves. Much like the “handsome young man,” Puig will take care of these actresses all day every day despite them being always nervous, sick, sad, or too gay. In fact, much like Armand, Puig implicitly confesses to having followed Garbo long before professing his love (it’s well known that Puig was so obsessed with Garbo, that his friends said that after hearing his impersonation of the beautiful Swede, Garbo’s voice thereafter sounded like a second-rate version of Puig’s). Also, by denying them their character’s names (we have “Greta Garbo” speaking these lines, not “Marguerite”), Puig is intent on underlining the way these female stars could exceed and embody both their star personas and the nervous, sick, sad, gay characters they play. Puig (like many before him) is noting that there’s no way to not love Garbo (the image of her at least); it can’t just be the wine making us sentimental.

 Mondays with Manuel Index:

Chapter I: Camille (1936)
Chapter II: The Blue Dahlia (1946)
Chapter III: Humoresque (1946)
Chapter IV: The Shanghai Express (1932)
Chapter V: Red Dust (1932)
Chapter VI: Blossoms in the Dust (1941)
Chapter VII: Marie Antoinette (1938)
Chapter VIII: Algiers (1938)
Chapter IX: I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
Chapter X: Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Chapter XI: The Letter (1940)
Chapter XII: The Hamilton Woman (1941)
Chapter XIII: Dishonored (1931)
Chapter XIV: Tender Comrade (1943)
Chapter XV: Grand Hotel (1932)
Chapter XVI: Gilda (1946)