Camille (La Dame aux Camelias) opened in New York on November 1, 1932. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times reviewed the production:
“The Camille in which Lillian Gish is acting has a strange, quaint sort of magic …. If it is not Camille, it is Lillian Gish who remains one of the unworldly mysteries …. Miss Gish moves delicately and quietly through the part. She is frail and her features are exquisitely modeled. Her voice is as innocent as a star of the evening. In the death scene her voice is pathetically childish. Her gestures are limp. Throughout her performance her miniature chaste little Camille seems quite unaware of a courtesan’s perquisites, duties, and prerogatives. She is as detached from worldly turmoils as a vagrant wisp of cloud. And yet when you have noticed all of these aspects of Camille you still have the idealized spirit of Miss Gish to contend with. Even in the part to which she is unsuited, she can still silence a first night audience. Her company is of no great assistance. Some of them overact to the point of burlesque. Some of the make-ups are bad. Camille has a sort of distant charm…. And Miss Gish has reminded us that the tenuous quality of her acting is not to be imprisoned in a midnight review.”
Brooks Atkinson – New York Times (1932)
“The critics weren’t as ecstatic as they had been in Colorado, but those Colorado people were also praising the restoration of the theatre to its former days of glory in the 1860s when they had some touring company pass through. The Colorado engagement was a double package: the restoration of the theatre, and then the play. Lillian’s Camille was a real “ticket printer” as they used to call a success. A real “ticket printer.” I don’t think anybody would consider the play in the same league as a Eugene O’Neill evening. That would be impossible. The pre-New York reviews contained words we had anticipated: oldfashioned, which it was; melodrama, which it was; creaky, it was; and the phrase that spelled doom – showing its age. The older reviewers called it solid theatre. Everyone praised Lillian’s performance. What New York audiences were going to see was grand old theatre, the kind of theatre our grandparents saw. Of course, by modern standards, it wasn’t sophisticated. Dumas, like any writer, was writing for the audiences of his generation. That the play survived his generation, and spoke to generations afterward was the reason the play became a classic. Nothing becomes a classic if it only has limited appeal.”
Amongst the supporting cast she had auditioned and chosen was Raymond Hackett, as Armand Duval, Marguerite’s lover. Hackett was the husband of Lillian’s long-time friend, actress Blanche Sweet, who reminisced about the production in Colorado:
“Robert Edmond Jones, an important set designer, found enough standing of the Central City Opera House, built in 1860, to want to restore it, thinking it would be a nice place to present plays and develop a regular theatregoing audience, as well as a tourist trade. He presented his idea to some sort of council, and they went for it. Immediately all of the citizens in the area went digging in their cellars and attics, looking for anything they could contribute, when they heard the first production was going to star Lillian Gish. Everybody knew Camille. It was a very popular melodrama. Sarah Bernhardt had toured in it for years. She also filmed it. That theatre was loaded with things people were glad to get rid of: furniture, rugs, lamps, little insignificant things like old antimacassars that must have covered the arms of their grandmother’s sofa. What was finally chosen for the sets became a matter oflocal pride. It certainly brought in people who must have attended just to see their furniture come to life on that stage. That sofa Miss Gish is sitting on belonged to our aunt, sort of thing.
By the dress rehearsal, when everything had been assembled, we didn’t believe that anything had been recreated. What we saw on that stage had simply been maintained and dusted before they rang up the curtain. That’s how authentic it looked. You only had to look at that set and you yourself were back in 1860, and it was the current day! People came from miles away to attend the opening: on horseback, in haywagons, stagecoaches. And they were dressed in the clothing of the day! Even with all of the help, we were told the cost of the restoration was over $200,000. A hefty sum for those days.
What better choice for a Marguerite Gautier than Lillian Gish? Who could be better? Lillian certainly knew how to play a death scene. Everybody always said Broken Blossoms after her name was announced. That’s how she had fixed herself in everyone’s mind out there. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, that opening night – or during any of the performances that followed. Even the ushers wept. You saw them at the beginning of the play, and then they came back for the last minutes, just to watch that death scene. Marguerite was a role Lillian was born to play. I wish I had the handkerchief concession!”
Lillian Gish – A Life on Stage and Screen
By STUART ODERMAN
Central City Opera House Reopening on July 16, 1932