Sunday, January 16, 2011
“Camille” (1921) is a silent romantic drama starring Alla Nazimova, Rudolph Valentino, and Patsy Ruth Miller. Directed by Ray C. Smallwood, this film was adapted from the novel by French author, Alexandre Dumas, “La Dame aux camelias,” and the scenario for this modern day version was written by June Mathis.
The story begins with a Parisian courtesan, Marguerite Gautier, played by Alla Nazimova, despising her life and not being able to break free of it. She also has tuberculosis and is frequently beset by bouts of illness. One evening, Marguerite meets a young law student, Armand Duval, played by Rudolph Valentino, at the opera. Armand pursues her, but she rejects his advances at first. Eventually, Marguerite and Armand begin a relationship and they start living together. Marguerite’s love for Armand is a way out of her sordid way of life. Unfortunately, Armand’s father, Monsieur Duval, played by William Orlamond, demands that Marguerite renounce Armand for the sake of his own future and that of his sister. Marguerite finally relents and runs away to a wealthy client, leaving a note for Armand.
By the fall of 1921, Valentino was solidly established in the movies, and he was a name. Playing Duval to Nazimova’s modern-dress Camille was no easy assignment. Nazimova was an actress of great experience and talent. Against her somewhat cold but forceful performance, Valentino seems low-key and subtle, and he blows her off the screen. Nazimova knew it, and cut him completely out of her death scene. Valentino absolutely commands attention, despite Nazimova’s Art Deco costumes and bizarre settings. In “Camille” (1921), Valentino was expected to be her co-star, yet he managed to establish himself much more strongly in the film than she did. “Camille” (1921) was not a financial success, but Valentino was not harmed by it. He and Nazimova made a curious pair and a sharp contrast in film acting styles. Valentino was a movie star as opposed to an actor. Nazimova was more theatre- oriented and at times her performance goes far over the top. “Camille” (1921) was designed with magnificent sets and costumes by art designer Natacha Rambova, who became Valentino’s second wife. One of my favorite scenes was the daydream sequence where Nazimova appears as Manon Lescaut and Valentino as Manon’s lover. Even though I like the 1936 version with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, I think Valentino was more expressive than Robert Taylor. The love scenes with Valentino and Nazimova were subtle and very well done.
Alla was born Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon in the Ukraine on June 3, 1879, of Jewish parents. At age 17, abandoning her training as a violinist, she quietly studied theatre with assorted young actresses with whom she shared a boarding house. At age 17, she auditioned at the Philharmonic School in Moscow with Konstantin Stanislavsky. Her work with the Moscow Art Theatre led to tours of the United States, where she impressed the Shubert Brothers. The theatrical giants opened her in “Hedda Gabler” in English. For the following several years she established a reputation as the outstanding portrayer of the Ibsen works, “A Doll’s House,” “The Wild Duck,” “The Master Builder,”and “Little Eyolf.” During the early years of World War I, Alla appeared on the stage in a one-act pacifist drama, “War Brides.” Alla also debuted in films in “War Brides” (1916) and immediately created a sensation with her exotic manner, powerful presence, and sincere portrayal. Metro offered her a five-year, $13,000 a week contract, and she had a meteoric career appearing in 17 silent films. As her success in films grew, Alla became convinced that she alone could best direct her efforts. After several major companies refused to finance the projects, she made the unwise decision to produce both “A Doll’s House” (1922) and “Salome” (1923) with her personal savings. “A Doll’s House” (1922) was extremely well acted and Alla was said to be truly effective in her emotional scenes. Alan Hale, Alla’s leading man in the film, was a pioneer film actor in hundreds of films from 1911 to 1950. “Salome” (1923) is so outlandishly stylish and bizarre that it is actually enjoyable. Unfortunately, both “A Doll’s House” (1922) and “Salome” (1923) were critical and commercial failures. After her production of “Salome” (1923), Alla lost what remained of her fortune. Left with few options, Alla returned to perform on Broadway. In the early 1940’s, she appeared in a few more films, playing Robert Taylor’s mother in “Escape” (1940) and Tyrone Power’s mother in “Blood and Sand” (1941). Alla died on July 13, 1945. She was 66 years old.