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Désirée begins to win us over almost as soon as the titles come up -- each title "card" of names is not painted artwork but a lacquer and metallic art creation, like a Fabergé egg. Although never delivering an experience as lavish as the promise of those titles, this 1954 early CinemaScope production has a commanding cast, headed by the hottest actor of the 1950s, Marlon Brando. That fact became carved in stone early on. When claiming that he isn't the greatest actor in the world, Fred Astaire's character in the musical The Band Wagon (1953) snaps, "I am NOT Marlon Brando." Working out a non-exclusive contract with Fox, Brando ankled The Egyptian and instead accepted the role of Napoleon Bonaparte in a film adaptation of a popular novel. Seven years earlier Fox's period soap Forever Amber was packed with illicit meetings, hot lust and an illegitimate child. But the Production Code office must have really grabbed the studios by the short sprocket holes. Despite the presence of the spirited Jean Simmons, Désirée is a bodice-ripper in which no bodices get ripped.
Producer Julian Blaustein and director Henry Koster assemble an efficient historical tale. After the French Revolution Napoleon Bonaparte (Brando) is an impoverished general trying to find a job for his brother Joseph (Cameron Mitchell) and a way to support his troublesome sisters. But he and Joe chance to meet the adventurous Désirée Clary (Jean Simmons) and her sister Julie (Elizabeth Sellars). The general seems romantically committed to Désirée, even though he insists that nothing will stop him from achieving his destiny of leading France to unprecedented glory. Despite the objections of the girls' father (Richard Deacon) the Bonapartes practically move in to the family silk shop. Julie marries Joe but Napoleon suddenly disappears. Pursuing him to Paris, Désirée finds that he's become engaged to the older and more socially advantageous Josephine (Merle Oberon). She's comforted by General Bernadotte (Michael Rennie), who also falls immediately in love with her. When Bonaparte assumes the role of Emperor, Joe is promoted to a high office and the family's fortunes rise. Désirée comes to Paris again -- and Napoleon finds himself smitten once more. The Emperor gets his way in almost everything, and even twists Bernadotte's arm to obtain his service. But will Bonaparte claim Désirée as well?
Not too many girls are called Désirée any more... were there ever many? Richard Deacon seems a bit foolish to be surprised when his daughter turns out to be man bait extraordinaire. We don't know if Désirée succumbed to Napoleon's advances in the beginning of the story, but we tend to doubt it. The only real conflict in the show seems to be about Bonaparte bending those around him to his will. He ends up ditching Josephine because she can't bear children, and marrying a Habsburg, because women of that family are so... productive. Napoleon seems keen to have his Gallic way with the honorable Désirée, who at one point finally marries the honorable Bernadotte. Désirée and Bernadotte leave the country to rule Sweden (monarchs being hard to come by, it seems), and when Désirée returns to thaw out in the warmer climate the Emperor holds her hostage. But not once does
Julian Blaustein's production has many large sets and plenty of costumes, but we can see that the film is French history on a budget. With no stock footage library of 'scope Napoleonic-era conflict to draw from, wars happen off-screen. One battle is conveyed with a quick montage of pink smoke puffs and falling flags. It seems almost a parody of those old, elaborate 30s montage sequences.
The acting is very good but Henry Koster directs the show as he did the original 'scope effort The Robe of the previous year. As a general rule, nobody gets closer than fifteen feet from the camera, so as to avoid focus and distortion issues. Almost nobody gets a medium-close shot except Brando and Simmons, and even those aren't particularly frequent. Most rooms seem enormous, even in the Clary family's house or a crowded fabric shop. The whole show looks like a stage play, with the camera stuck in the tenth row. We hardly get a close look at the beautiful Merle Oberon and Elizabeth Sellars. Only when visually experimental directors like Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan got a hold of the new process a year or so later, did CinemaScope movies become less like costume pageants.
Brando really gets into the Bonaparte role, strutting and posing. As an impoverished general he has a dingy uniform and unkempt hair. Later on he browbeats and cajoles cooperation from disaffected friends and colleagues. He conveys very well the notion that the Emperor had backing as long as he seemed a winner. When things go bad, it's banishment to one island or another.
I can't name a Jean Simmons movie I didn't enjoy, and Désirée gives her plenty of interesting scenes. In this version of history, Désirée is the one to bring the bad news about permanent exile to the Emperor who hoped to conquer the world. I understand everything about the scene except why, after all the threats and insults, the ex-sweethearts are even friendly toward one another.
Elizabeth Sellars is the beautiful unheralded actress with the best dialogue line of the 1950s, from Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa. (Look it up. It begins with, "What she's got..."). Cameron Mitchell hasn't much to do, but at least the script doesn't make him a creep molesting the leading ladies, as he did in at least two other 'Scope movies that year. As one of Napoleon's sisters, Charlotte Austin gets a chance to act in something more substantial than The Bride and the Beast. Always seen in a wide shot but immediately spot-able for her wide-set eyes is the adorable Carolyn Jones. Also bopping around the periphery of this Fox epic are Alan Napier, John Hoyt and Evelyn Arden.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Désirée looks extremely good, with excellent color and contrast. The many traveling matte shots are far better than they ever were on pan-scanned TV prints (that cropped away half the film's cast members). A hyped original trailer is present, along with an Isolated Music Score for Alex North's fine musical contribution.
Julie Kirgo's insert pamphlet essay offers a wealth of interesting information about the powerful stars in this show -- Brando and Simmons segue'd almost directly into the film adaptation of Guys and Dolls. The cover art worked up for Twilight Time's disc easily bests any of the film's original American posters.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Désirée Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.