The classic romantic story of a sex worker with a heart of gold is remade in modern times, starring now-huge-names Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova. The look is a decided break with traditions established in the teens, and heralds the coming of the “roaring twenties” in all their glory.
The movie begins with a wide shot of a grand staircase, filled with people in evening clothes, ostensibly in Paris in the winter (there are no exteriors in this part of the movie, so it could be anywhere/when). We close in on Armand (Valentino) and his pal Gaston (Rex Cherryman), who play law students. Gaston is the elder, more jaded of the pair, while Armand seems to be thrilled by high society. When Camille (Nazimova) emerges, with a coterie of gentlemen trailing after her, Armand is immediately smitten, and asks Gaston about her. She is known as “the Lady with the Camellias” and is in the process of throwing over her current escort for a more high-ranking member of the aristocracy. Gaston introduces her, and she seems to lose interest in her high-stakes quarry for a moment when she sees how handsome Armand is. She lets it be known that there will be an after-party at her place and Gaston agrees to take his aunt and Armand along for the ride.
The next scenes take place in Camille’s proto-Art Deco apartment, where we see her refuse to give affection unless the man “puts a jewel in my hand,” and we also see that her efforts to appear cheerful and spontaneous mask a dark secret; she is seriously ill with tuberculosis, and this lifestyle is quite literally killing her. Her maid tries to convince her to take care of herself, but she insists on pushing herself to her limit. Armand is the one other person who expresses any concern for her health or her feelings, and it becomes clear that she is beginning to return his interest, though she warns him away from her. She explains the symbolism of her favorite flower: “cherished, it is the most beautiful, but wound it with a single touch and it will die.” She also introduces Gaston to Nichette (Patsy Ruth Miller), an innocent girl who used to work with Camille in a tobacco factory, and she makes it clear that he is not to treat her like Camille or the other “loose” women at the party. Finally, when her current escort upbraids her for paying attention to Armand rather than him, she throws everyone out. Armand stays and the image fades on their embrace.
The next scenes take place in the countryside in Spring, and show us the happy development of Camille and Armand’s relationship. He brings her a book, Manon Lescaut, and reads to her, bringing on a flashback in which Camille imagines herself living in the “New World” in the 18th century, with her lover abandoning his honor to follow her into poverty. Gaston and Nichette arrive and announce their betrothal. Gaston has reformed and now is worthy of Nichette, and this gives Camille hope for a future with Armand, although she fears the weight of her past will drag him down with her. She now makes plans to sell all of her belongings in order to support Armand in his studies, feeling that by abandoning her riches, she may make herself worthy of him, but Armand’s father finds their love nest in the country, and demands that she give him up, both for his sake and that of his sister, due to be wed to a respectable man who will not approve of any scandal in the family. Camille finally relents and runs away to one of her clients from earlier in the picture. Armand arrives just after she leaves, and is devastated when he finds her note.
Armand, like many young men in this situation, turns to a self-destructive rage in the next months, plunging into the decadent Parisian nightlife that was Camille’s original stomping ground. Inevitably, the two cross paths at a casino, each with another lover on their arm about whom they do not care, and do their worst to hurt one another by showing that they are “over” the old relationship. Armand takes this to an extreme, gets drunk, and rants about her to the assembled celebrants.
Camille now becomes too ill to continue her career as a courtesan, and her money dwindles as she takes to her death bed. Collections agents arrive to take everything, heedless of her condition, but she pleads with them to leave her the book Armand presented her. She clutches it desperately as she fades, and her maid, Gaston, and Nichette (fresh from their wedding, Nichette still with the garland about her head) gather at her bedside as she dies. A brief intercut scene shows Armand with his father, the father holding a note from Camille in which she professes her true feelings for him. She dies in the Winter, presumably about one year after meeting Armand.
This movie was produced by Nazimova and the “Nazimova Productions” company, and it is very much her film, from beginning to end. The role of Armand is actually somewhat minimized, as compared to other versions, and especially the fact that he does not appear at her bedside in the final scenes robs Valentino of the opportunity to really show the depth of his character’s feelings. His best work comes during the casino sequence, when he fluctuates between being hurt by Camille’s apparent betrayal of him, and lashing out trying to hurt her back, only to show remorse at one moment when he sees the effect he is having, followed by a stiffening as he realizes that people are watching. Suffice to say that this film is not the reason he became a major international phenomenon that is still revered today. However, Nazimova does carry the film effectively, even if she isn’t super-generous with her co-star. She is completely believable as the girl, terrified of death but burning the candle at both ends, desperate for love but despairing of achieving it, willing to sacrifice herself for her lover but unable to tell him why she has. Her acting is entirely physical, as is necessary for a silent film, but if her gestures sometimes seem melodramatic, it seems to fit the character, who is of course nothing if not a drama queen. And doing it that way allows her to show the depth of each emotion as it happens.
Visually, this movie is almost the opposite of the Expressionist classics I’ve been reviewing lately, resembling more some of the contemporary films of Ernst Lubitsch. The hyper-modern apartment, casino, and stairwell at the Paris opera are built around arches and floral patterns. Characters tend to stand aside from crowds, as if they were on stages even amidst the action. One sequence takes place partially in front of an arch with a spider web motif, suggesting how caught Armand is even when he tries to deny Camille. Camille’s wardrobe and hairstyle are like nothing we’ve seen in the homey works of the teens, or even the curt bobbed hair that is starting to crop up in the early twenties. In appearance as well as acting, she is larger than life, eye-catching, dramatic, even a bit bizarre. The camera loves her, though, and we see her as the symbol of the film, the flower that is beautiful, but incredibly fragile.
Director: Ray C. Smallwood
Camera: Rudolph J. Bergquist
Starring: Alla Nazimova, Rudolph Valentino, Rex Cherryman, Patsy Ruth Miller
Run Time: 1 Hr, 10 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music)