Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
When Irving Thalberg died in 1936 preparations were already underway for a lavish -- even by MGM standards -- movie about Marie Antoinette, the queen of France beheaded in the French Revolution. It was the crowning vehicle for Irving's wife Norma Shearer, a popular actress of the 30s who definitely benefited from her royal position in the MGM hierarchy. Bitter rival Joan Crawford complained that she had no chance at an equal shot for parts, when the 'competition slept with the boss.'
Stefan Zweig's 1933 Antoinette biography tempered a great many historical exaggerations of the queen's high-flung lifestyle. She apparently never said the words "Let them eat cake," was politically disconnected and became the victim of ugly propaganda that spread rumors that she was a depraved sex maniac, that she poisoned her own children, etc. 1 At best, she was the wrong aristocrat in the wrong palace at the wrong time, mainly when the revolution came to call.
Austrian noble Marie Antoinette (Norma Shearer) is ecstatic to learn that she'll be marrying the heir to the throne of France, Louis Dulac (Robert Morley), but her visions are shattered when she finds out that Louis is a shy man considered a foolish simpleton by court players like the Duke d'Orleans (Joseph Schildkraut) and Mme. du Barry (Gladys George), the consort of the King (John Barrymore). Marie fritters away her time with expensive, frivolous living until it becomes obvious that she won't produce an heir; she also falls in love with the Swedish Count Axel de Fersen (Tyrone Power). But the King dies and Marie becomes queen; she and Louis have two children. After a number of years the ambitious d'Orleans arranges a swindle - hoax that creates the illusion that Marie, who actually is concerned for the poor, has bought an expensive necklace and refused to pay for it. The monarchy falls and the royal family is imprisoned. Count de Fersen returns from the United States and tries to help Marie and her loved ones escape, but the effort fails. First Louis goes before the guillotine, and then Marie is denounced in court by her own son.
The script for Marie Antoinette collapses a few characters and probably exploits a few historical unknowns (Marie's relationship with her friend Count Axel de Fersen) to enliven the tale, but it's not the whitewash one might expect. France was a hopeless mire of aristocratic corruption in which a liveried elite luxuriated in a grand style that still boggles the imagination. Paying almost no tax, the upper classes and nobility almost completely ignored the 'dogs' that howled at them from below. Marie's main claim to notoriety was her visibility. Her life was bombarded by rumors and scandals, mostly invented by court enemies. When she didn't have children, it was assumed that she preferred to sleep with others. Obscene pamphlets circulated showing her having sex with her brother-in-law, etc. Other enemies constantly harped that her loyalties remained in Austria.
Hunt Stromberg's production is perhaps the pinnacle of MGM's Golden-Age house style. There are so many scenes with hundreds of fully costumed extras in grandiose settings that we soon stop looking for matte paintings and other special effects. Although some characters are combined and the tale obviously simplified, it's complex enough to keep us occupied and entertained.
Tyrone Power's Swedish envoy is clearly highlighted to give Shearer classy romantic scenes and a lost love; Robert Morley's Louis the XVI is an oafish, slow-witted man who would rather work in a shop and avoids public appearances. Joseph Schildkraut's malicious Duke d'Orleans is presented as the source of all hateful gossip at the French court, when Antoinette had any number of enemies conspiring against her.
Marie Antoinette takes the easy way of making the queen into a relative innocent. She spent all of those millions so frivolously only because she had no idea of the value of money; she was flighty and participated in naughty party games (like kissing!) only because he (sniff!) had no love at home. The movie's version of The Affair of the Necklace, a cold blooded swindle that left Antoinette as the fall guy (girl) not only parades her affluence before the starving masses, but provides the flash point for the entire French Revolution. From that point on Marie is a model Grand Dame, stoically enduring hardship and watching helplessly as escape attempts fail and friends and loved ones are murdered. She's convicted on trumped up charges of treason by her own son, who is tricked by the rebels. In actuality, one of Antoinette's failed attempts to reverse her fortune was an effort to get Austria to invade France to free the imprisoned nobles. She either had wretched luck or was simply not suited for cloak and dagger intrigues ... one of her escape attempts failed when one of her messages was easily intercepted.
Along with A Tale of Two Cities (which at least had the endorsement of Charles Dickens), Marie Antoinette fits into the Louis B. Mayer pattern of championing stylish aristocrats and grand rulers over what he would probably have characterized as "the mob." As the highest paid executive in the country Mayer was himself an aristocrat and indulged in horse race betting for sums that would stagger the average man. His personally managed movies condescended to the common man and often carried anti-union messages -- Unionists are treated as Bolshevik scum in films like Riff-Raff. So it's interesting to note that Marie Antoinette doesn't get into the more outrageous excesses of the French Aristocracy, but makes sure we know how criminally unjust was the barbarism of the mob. We merely get hints, as when Marie's governess Therese is pulled away from the children and thrown to the military guard. Marie looks through a window in horror and we have to imagine the atrocity for ourselves.
Glamorous, beautiful people with social advantages always make more attractive subjects than ignorant peasants; Marie's hairstyles are enough to intimidate the average person. Marie Antoinette misses the point of the Revolution entirely -- when the economic disparity between rich and poor becomes obscenely acute, and when the rich no longer consider the poor their brothers, the historical remedy has more than a few times been bloody havoc.
Norma Shearer is fine as Marie even though her face goes cross-eyed every time she wants to portray ecstasy. It's her biggest role and she does it justice, even if she can't compete with Bette Davis and Jezebel over at Warners. Perhaps the fact that she was already de facto Queen of MGM makes her seem less worthy of the role. Shearer goes all plain 'n' ugly for her last scene, a historically accurate moment but one that always reminds me of Gwen Verdon being changed back into a witch in Damn Yankees. (sorry!)
John Barrymore and Tyrone Power perform their parts ably enough. Power really seems to be around to provide a handsome face to put in the posters next to Shearer. Joseph Schildkraut is appropriately nasty as d'Orleans, and Gladys George is spirited as Mme. du Barry. We like seeing Ms. George looking so glamorous, after her more down-to-Earth parts in Warners pictures, but she seems to be chosen to ensure that Norma Shearer has no beauty competition among the featured players. George was only two years older than Ms. Shearer.
The real surprise is Robert Morely, who plays the laughingstock Louis on an entirely different plane than the other actors. Louis is a mouth-breathing outcast in an unfortunate position, surrounded by 1001 malicious wits eager to make him seem a fool. He slowly gains our respect and dignity, and we even believe that Antoinette grows to love him as well. I think Morley's Louis makes the movie work, for without him the only ones to even like Marie Antoinette would be Norma Shearer loyalists.
I would have to say that at one time there must be an even longer original version of this film. I like to think that I would recognize all of the following faces, but a few of them got by me: Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Albert Dekker, Peter Bull, Howard Da Silva, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor Kilian, Rafaela Ottiano, Phillip Terry, Ian Wolfe, George Zucco. I'm almost sure that the guard who helps Marie escape the Tullieries is Stephen (Horace) McNally -- who isn't listed as an actor until 1942. Any help with that?
Warners' DVD of Marie Antoinette looks terrific, with almost no grain. By 1938 camera film stocks had improved greatly, and nobody was making sleeker B&W films than MGM. William Daniels' glamour lighting is the top of the form. This release restores the movie to 157 minutes, adding Overture and Exit music along with an intermission Entr'acte.
The extras this time relate to the movie. Another Romance of Celluloid shows the physical process by which film is manufactured and developed before ending in a string of promos, some for films that were never made. Marie Antoinette shows up when some raw stock is delivered (via a Little Red Wagon) to William Daniels. A few shots of cotton being harvested prompts one of the PC disclaimer cards. Hollywood Goes to Town is the work print for an either lost or uncompleted short subject detailing the preparations for the premiere of Marie Antoinette at the long-gone Carthay Circle Theater in the Miracle Mile district. The only audio is the narration track. A trailer is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Marie Antoinette rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Supplements: Two featurettes, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 24, 2006
1. Unsubtantiated rumors, innuendo, and unproven criminal charges! A perfect movie for an election year!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson