Posted in 1920s, Movies, Rudy Valentino, Silent film

An Art Deco Lady of the Camellias

In loving memory of John Lennon, who was taken from this world 41 years ago today.

The Alexandre Dumas fils novel La Dame aux Camélias has been adapted to the silver screen 29 times, in the U.S., Italy, Mexico, Turkey, the U.K., Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, Argentina, and Poland. Its lucky number nine version was released 26 September 1921.

Though it was released after Rudy Valentino shot to superstardom with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it was filmed prior. Thus, this film is truly a vehicle for Alla Nazimova, who chose Rudy as her leading man because she saw a lot of promise in him. The memorable Art Deco sets were designed by art director Natacha Rambova (née Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy), whom Rudy began dating during filming and later married.

The novel is set during the 1840s, but screenwriter June Mathis (Rudy’s beloved mentor and surrogate mother) moved it up to the present day. Also unlike the novel and most screen adaptations, Armand isn’t in the famous final scene.

Because Camille was such a financial failure, Metro terminated Nazimova’s contract. Even today, the film is better known for its costumes, hairstyles, and sets than the actual acting and storyline. Nazimova was a larger than life star, and that was reflected in all her films.

This also wasn’t a very good vehicle for Rudy, particularly after he’d proven himself an incredible actor who was more than capable of holding his own with strong leading roles. However, I’m told the role of Armand is notoriously difficult.

Young law student Armand Duval has just moved from the provinces to Paris, and is enthralled by the exciting life in the French capital. Not long after he arrives, he sees courtesan Marguerite Gautier at a party and falls in instalove. His attraction grows even stronger when he attends a surprise party at her apartment later that night.

At this second, smaller party, Armand discovers Marguerite isn’t in very good health. Though the reason for her illness is never outright stated in the film, it’s pretty obvious she’s suffering from TB. Armand begs her to let him love her and take care of her, wishing he were a dog so he might grovel at her feet.

After much pleading, Marguerite finally accepts his offer of love, and they begin a tender love affair. Her courtesan days are over.

Marguerite is making up a document to authorize the sale of all of her possessions (some worth quite a lot, like her car and jewelry) when Armand’s father arrives. His daughter’s fiancé has threatened to call off the wedding if Armand doesn’t leave Marguerite, since that would cause scandal in his picture-perfect family.

Marguerite insists she genuinely loves Armand and has never asked for a penny from him, and shows the document as proof. Even so, Monsieur Duval still wants to break them up.

Marguerite promises to go away until after the wedding, but that’s not good enough for Monsieur Duval. He wants Marguerite to end the relationship altogether, forever.

Finally, Marguerite agrees to make Armand hate her, and writes a goodbye note on the business card of her former lover, the Count de Varville, who recently sent unwanted flowers. In the note, Marguerite says she’s returning to Paris and the Count.

Neither Armand nor Marguerite are happy after their breakup, and it’s obvious to everyone around them, despite how heartily they throw themselves into other relationships and pursuits like partying and gambling. Everything comes to a head when Armand confronts her at a party and demands she set the record straight once and for all. Does she still love him, or does she truly love the Count?

And meanwhile, Marguerite’s health has continued to worsen, and she’s beset by financial problems.

Because the film is only 70 minutes long, Armand and Marguerite’s relationship feels very rushed instead of slowly developing into a natural, more believable romance. I understand films don’t have the same luxury of time as books to fully flesh that out, but it’s hard for me to believe an intense relationship that begins almost immediately after the first meeting.

Not having Armand in the final scene also means the film ends on an even unhappier note.

Author:

Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

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