Friday, June 3, 2016

Marie Antoinette (1938)



Today, I'm reviewing the 1938 biopic of French Queen Marie Antoinette, starring Norma Shearer.

This article is part of The Royalty on Film Blogathon hosted by The Flapper Dame.


Eighteenth century French Queen Marie Antoinette is still a pop culture icon for her over-the-top fashions and her tumultuous life story. MGM's lavish 1938 biopic, which was one of the most expensive films of the 1930's, gives a sympathetic and surprisingly accurate portrait of the life of this fashion queen turned revolutionary martyr.

Marie Antoinette begins when the 14-year-old Austrian archduchess (Norma Shearer) is informed that she will marry the heir to the throne of France (Robert Morley). Marie Antoinette is excited by the news, but once she arrives at Versailles, she finds that her Prince Charming is actually a shy, awkward man who prefers fixing clocks to spending time with his new wife. Despite her passion for a handsome Swedish nobleman (Tyrone Power), she and Louis come to love and respect each other until the revolutionary fervor of the common people threaten to tear their family apart.


Marie Antoinette is based on a 1932 biography of the French queen by Stefan Zweig. Biopics of royal ladies like Greta Garbo's Queen Christina (1933) and Marlene Dietrich's The Scarlet Empress (1934) were in vogue at the time, and at first it was speculated that Marion Davies might take the role (powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who was in a romantic relationship with Davies, was keen for her to play the part), but that changed when producer Irving Thalberg took over the project.

Thalberg planned a lavish production filmed on location in Europe that would be a showcase for the talents of  Shearer, who was one of MGM's top stars and Thalberg's wife. After Thalberg's untimely death in 1936, that version of the movie was scrapped. Instead, Shearer and the rest of the cast and crew dedicated themselves to making a movie in Hollywood that would be a tribute to Thalberg's genius.

Norma Shearer in one of her lavish, Adrian-designed costumes for Marie Antoinette (1938).
Costume designer Adrian and art director Cedric Gibbons did travel to Europe where they pored over paintings and books and toured several palaces so they could accurately recreate life in the Ancien Regime. Gibbons shipped antique French furniture back to Hollywood, and Adrian came back loaded down with antique fabrics, authentic French lace, and jewels that he used to create dozens of lavish costumes, including a replica of Marie Antoinette's wedding gown that weighed a whopping 108 pounds. 

The result was a budget-busting spectacle that cost the studio around $3 million, according to some estimates, but the sheer spectacle of it all and the popularity of newly minted matinee idol Power meant that the movie did do well at the box office. Today, Marie Antoinette is still a wonderful film that is both a tribute to the grandeur that was old Hollywood, and a fairly engrossing drama about the life of a woman who was the victim of forces beyond her control.



While there is certainly a lot of soapy melodrama, especially in the love scenes between Shearer and Power, Marie Antoinette portrays the French queen's life with surprising accuracy, although the events depicted are somewhat simplified. 

Shearer always counted Marie Antoinette as her favorite screen role, and she gives a fine performance that increases in emotional power as the movie progresses. In fact, Zweig's biography, which was meticulously researched, was one of the first books to rehabilitate Marie Antoinette's image. She was vilified during her lifetime as a vapid fashion plate who partied the night away while the French peasants starved, but Zweig presented the French queen as a woman of great character and courage, especially during the searing events of the French Revolution. Shearer does an excellent job of portraying these qualities in Marie Antionette, especially in the movie's final moments.



TCM will air Marie Antoinette at 6:30 a.m. June 14. It is also available on DVD and video on demand.


11 comments :

  1. Hey- Its Emily Thanks for writing! Ahhh what is a historical adaptation without a soapy aspect added for drama! Classic Hollywood's famous for that- less on history more on story telling! LOVE LOVE you added the Robert Osborne video- I miss him on my TV screen! I'm gonna have to catch this the next time its on TCM! Thanks so much! X-Emily!

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    1. I miss Robert Osborne too. I learned so much about classic movies from him.

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  2. This film was so good! It was watching Marie Antoinette that I fell in love with Tyrone Power. And I liked Norma Shearer, too, she was very good in it. It's an A+ biopic!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Cheers!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

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    1. It's one of my favorite films of the 1930's

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    2. Watching it now I'm Norma Shearer was truly luminous and amazing in this role convincing as the child Marie Antoinette and as the weary broken woman facing her death on the guillotine. A spectacular production on every level costumes sets music Direction and acting from a stellar cast

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    3. Watching it now I'm Norma Shearer was truly luminous and amazing in this role convincing as the child Marie Antoinette and as the weary broken woman facing her death on the guillotine. A spectacular production on every level costumes sets music Direction and acting from a stellar cast

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  3. What a terrific post for a film that's like a bittersweet slice of birthday cake. I have mixed feelings about the historical Marie Antoinette, but its hard not to like Norma Shearer in this. (Did that dress really weigh over a hundred pounds? No wonder six footmen carry the train for her!)

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    1. I don't know whether it really weighed 100 pounds (God bless Norma if it did) or it was the MGM publicity department getting carried away.

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  4. Very nice post. Have you noticed that her image makes a cameo appearance in Carol Reed's "The Third Man"? As the scene dissolves from Anna removing her 18th century costume in her dressing room to Harry's apartment, Anna dissolves into Felix Lecomte's bust of a 27 year old Marie Antoinette. Later as Anna walks through Harry's bedroom, we see the bust again gazing through the doorway straight at the head of Harry's bed. So why would Director Reed or perhaps Set Designer Vincent Korda suggest such intimate connections between Anna and Harry with Marie Antoinette? I think I know, but I will watch Norma Shearer's portrayal to be sure.

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    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I've watched The Third Man dozens of times, but I never noticed that moment.

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  5. If you want a new experience, focus on the props, the costumes, and the sets the next time you watch "The Third Man". They really add a fun third dimension to the film. For instance when Anna offers Holly some whisky instead of tea, the distinctive label tells us she holds a full fifth of Johnny Walker Red Label (Winston Churchill's favorite Scotch) which was almost impossible to acquire in the UK or anywhere else in Europe, except at highly inflated Black Market prices. So why would she readily offer a drink to Holly, and significantly diminish its value by opening it, when she really wanted to sell it? Was it simple good manners or a loss leader?

    There are lots of tidbits throughout the film, including the appearance of the word "schmuck" above Holly in the Prater Wheel scene, but they are often so subliminal you will need to hit the pause button to catch them. The fun is trying to figure out how Vincent Korda's set design is meant to advance the story.

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