Camille, the story of a young innocent whose love transforms a kept woman, was almost a century old when MGM released it in 1937, but the once-in-a-lifetime casting of Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor made it seem new. Their romantic scenes marked the definitive meeting of female experience and male naïveté, both on- and offscreen. Taylor was terrified to be working with Garbo, which played well into his character. In addition, the athletic young actor from Nebraska was ill-prepared for her approach to onscreen lovemaking. As she had done with frequent costar and offscreen lover John Gilbert, Garbo played the aggressor’s role. In one scene, without laying a hand on Taylor, she leaned in and covered his face with short kisses. He was afraid the scene would reinforce his “pretty boy” image, but female fans adored it. The film may have been Garbo’s acting triumph, but for Taylor it was a very important step up the ladder to stardom.
Inexperienced as he was, he turned out to be Garbo’s most effective costar since Gilbert, justifying MGM production head Irving G. Thalberg’s faith in him. Thalberg had begun working on an adaptation of Camille in 1933. The novel had been a favorite of his mother’s, and he was convinced Garbo was the only film actress who could follow in the footsteps of such stage legends as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse in the tragic role. With her busy schedule and problems coming up with a suitable screenplay, it took three years to finally get the picture in front of the cameras. Thalberg knew that one problem with most productions of Camille was the casting of her young lover, Armand. Actors in the role were usually overaged or overly priggish, making them far from believable or sympathetic. Most of Thalberg’s fellow executives thought Taylor, who had only gotten into movies two years earlier, wouldn’t be able to hold his own against Garbo. But the producer was convinced the actor’s youthful innocence and sheer beauty made him a good match for the role—and for Garbo. With the help of director George Cukor and Garbo’s imaginative playing, Taylor came off better than anybody had expected. Nor did it hurt that the costars looked terrific together. Their scenes captured a sense of romantic longing that still resonates today. Taylor’s move into tougher roles and Garbo’s limited production schedule made future teamings unlikely, which only makes their single encounter in Camille more special. In years to come, Taylor would speak affectionately of his surprisingly warm encounters with Garbo, the Swedish Sphinx. And Garbo would consistently call the film her favorite, a sentiment echoed by generations of critics and fans.