Risking the comfortable life afforded her by the Baron de Varville, courtesan Marguerite Gautier falls for handsome innocent Armand Duval, only for his father to forbid the liaison.
This was the fifth screen adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils's novel, La Dame aux Camélias, after silent versions starring Clara Kimball Young (1915), Theda Bara (1917), Alla Nazimova (1921) and Norma Talmadge (1927). It proved to be the last production supervised by MGM wünderkind, Irving G. Thalberg. But it survived the bombastic opulence with which he draped it to become one of the most genuinely moving romantic dramas Hollywood ever produced.
This is almost entirely due to the majestic presence of Greta Garbo. Ever since Dumas transferred his story to the stage in 1852, the part of Camille had been deemed the female equivalent of Hamlet. Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse, Tallulah Bankhead and Lillian Gish, among others, had risen to its challenges. But it's impossible to imagine that any of these divas could have matched Garbo as the impossibly refined demimonde, who radiates the passion she feels for her dashing swain before succumbing gracefully to the pain of parting. Rarely has prostitution been presented with such insight, tact and cultivation. Yet, there's an almost ironic perversity about Camille's willing abandonment of her pampered existence to sample once again the thrill of young flesh and Garbo captures this with a disarming honesty that enables her to relish each joy with unsurpassed rapture and to suffer each reversal with exquisite agony. Taylor is clearly in awe of his co-star, but this gives his otherwise lunkish display of devotion a puppyish appeal. Henry Daniell is more cynically persuasive as Camille's spurned patron and Leonore Ulric exudes poisonous envy as Olympe. But George Cukor allowed Lionel Barrymore to play Duval as another of his peppery curmudgeons and the unrepentant Americanness of his performance is one of the film's few failings. Hollywood, however, committed a more grievous faux pas by overlooking Garbo and awarding the Best Actress Oscar to Luise Rainer for The Good Earth.
Garbo is stunning in this sweeping and genuinely moving adaptation of the Dumas romance.