There are two kingdoms on display in W.S. Van Dyke’s Marie Antoinette (1938): France under the reign of Louis XV – such as it was...or might have been, as magically realized for the screen by Cedric Gibbons, Edwin Willis and Hunt Stromberg - and the mythical back lot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; a studio so vastly superior in its accoutrements that none in the realm of Hollywood dared rival its extraordinary opulence. Throughout the 1930s, MGM was constantly striving to outdo not only the competition but its own previous celluloid achievements. Indeed, the studio’s net profits coming out of the Great Depression equaled all other studios’ revenues combined. By mid-decade, with pre-production on Marie Antoinette well underway, MGM was in an enviable position. Six of the top ten box office stars were under contract to them – including Norma Shearer. Having already been dubbed ‘queen of the lot’ at her alma mater, it stood to reason Norma could also be Queen of France in Metro’s most luxurious and exorbitant production to date. Prior to Marie Antoinette, Shearer had been cast as a much too old (yet, nevertheless vivacious) Juliet in MGM’s critically acclaimed Romeo and Juliet (1936) – another prestige picture under the personal guidance of her husband; V.P. in charge of all productions, Irving G. Thalberg. And it is saying much of Thalberg’s driving ambitions he consistently hit the high water mark of integrity where Norma's career was concerned.
Unfortunately for both, Thalberg died of a heart attack at the age of 36 after having spent over a million dollars on the largest consignment of props and fabrics ever to pass through L.A. customs. Free standing sets built for Marie Antoinette sat idle for nearly two years while Shearer departed to mourn and convalesce. In the interim, her star power had hardly diminished with fans. Regrettably, MGM’s pugnacious mogul, L.B. Mayer’s interests in her as one of Metro’s preeminent stars had rapidly cooled. In truth, Mayer had seen something of the ‘promised land’ in pursuing family films as opposed to the more adult-themed and costlier literary adaptations Thalberg adored, leaving MGM’s aging – and more high-priced – talent out in the cold. The Garbos, Crawfords and Shearers were being eclipsed by the Rooneys, Garlands and Bartholomews. Mayer, for one, could not have been happier. Child stars cost considerably less and were far easier to bend to his will. Almost immediately following Thalberg’s funeral – a stately affair that uncharacteristically caused Hollywood in totem to shut down in observances – Mayer began an aggressive restructuring program, designed to systematically force out elements of ‘the old regime’, replaced with ‘yes’ men loyal to him. One might argue Mayer’s approach as callous and unfeeling. Indeed, he is rumored to have nudged producer, Sam Marx as their limo was pulling away from Thalberg’s services at the synagogue, rhetorically adding, “Isn’t God good to me.”
Mayer and Thalberg had begun their alliance under an auspicious bond. In fact, Mayer had wooed Thalberg away from Universal where he had once been the protégé of Carl Lemmle Sr. Asked by Loewes Incorporated President Nicholas Schenck, who ‘the boy’ at Mayer’s side was, as Thalberg was all of twenty-four when he agreed to helm the newly amalgamated Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Productions and Louis B. Mayer Pictures, Mayer pointedly replied, “That’s Irving Thalberg…he’s going to run the studio and you’re going to pay him a thousand dollars a week” (at a time when bread was six cents a loaf). In those early years, Mayer and Thalberg proved a united front, setting about to populate their wonderland with new discoveries and solid craftsmen working behind the scenes. It was a momentous period in the picture-making biz and the sheer number of films being produced per annum – between fifty and sixty – illustrates the relative excitement and optimism of the times. Yet, Mayer and Thalberg’s friendship was to suffer an irreconcilable falling out after 1932 as Thalberg pressed for MGM to concentrate on making fewer – but finer – films; Mayer adhering to the ole ‘assembly line’ mentality.
Around MGM, Thalberg could be a very remote figure, entrusting that with the right star, script and director at the helm, he could step aside and allow great artists to commit themselves wholeheartedly to their work. Still, Thalberg was a perfectionist. Perfection costs money. Far from being a spendthrift, Thalberg invested wisely in his movies, improving them where and when he felt it was needed, and occasionally, scrapping everything to begin anew – unafraid to recast stars and/or directors. By mid-decade ‘the boy genius’ had sufficiently stressed and his heart, suffering two heart attacks. While Thalberg convalesced, Mayer seized the opportunity to gradually encroach upon his young Vice President’s autonomy by installing his own top-heavy system of producers; affectionately known around the lot as ‘the college of cardinals’.
Five years earlier, Thalberg had married actress, Norma Shearer – one of the studio’s most popular leading ladies from the late silent era. The initial meeting between Thalberg and Shearer, and the unlikely romance that followed it, is the stuff of dreams and legends. Norma had casually met Irving in the hall on her first day at MGM, mistaking him for an office boy and asking if he could show her the way to Irving Thalberg’s office. Obliging Shearer’s request, Thalberg escorted her to his private suite, encouraging her to take a seat, whereupon he took his own behind an imposing desk and introduced himself. Instantly smitten, Norma made no bones about her passion, telling co-stars, “I’m out to get him.” In 1927, the couple wed in a small ceremony – Thalberg, age 26, and Norma, age 23. But by all accounts, the marriage was a blissfully happy one; a true alliance, as opposed to one of convenience designed to advance Norma’s stature. It helped matters she was a consummate actress; her career cultivated by Thalberg’s guiding principles to ‘do it big and give it class’. “He really worshiped her as a star he could mold,” first lady of the American Theater, MGM contract player and the Thalbergs’ close personal friend, Helen Hayes once explained, “He was an artist. She would lay out his clothes if they were going out in the evening. There was love there – a genuine love.”
Now, Thalberg spent more on Marie Antoinette than any other picture produced at MGM up until that time. Perhaps it was ostentatious, but not even Mayer could argue with Thalberg’s track record for achieving success. Nevertheless, Mayer was likely envious of Thalberg, who had garnered an enviable reputation within the industry as ‘the boy wonder’. At Loewe’s New York offices, Mayer’s boss, Nicholas Schenck harbored a genuine contempt for Mayer – particularly after Mayer thwarted Schenck’s lucrative takeover bid of the studio by William Fox; a real ole-time palace coup that would have ousted Mayer from his throne as the highest paid executive in America. Schenck admired Thalberg – and not simply because his sound decision-making had made Metro the biggest and brightest dream factory in the land. But on Sept. 14, 1936, the Thalberg era came to an unexpected and abrupt end when Irving suffered a fatal heart attack. Returning to Mayer’s cutthroat line, “Isn’t God good to me?” the context now shifts to perhaps Mayer’s own anxiety at being left in complete control of the studio. Thalberg, who had been the buffer between Mayer and Schenck, was gone.
As for Marie Antoinette: the picture was quietly put in turnaround while Norma departed to grieve. The company shares that once belonged to Thalberg now went to Shearer; Mayer begrudgingly paying out and Shearer absolutely refusing to entertain various offers made by Mayer to buy them back. Under a cloud of suspicion Mayer was plotting to recast Marie Antoinette, Norma returned to MGM. Too much time and money had been invested by Thalberg to simply scrap the project. But what Norma quickly discovered upon her return was a production greatly altered from the one Thalberg had initially envisioned for her. Gone were Thalberg’s plans to shoot Marie Antoinette in Technicolor (still highly experimental and very costly), even though all of the lavish sets and costumes had been designed expressly with color photography in mind. Mayer also replaced Thalberg’s choice of director with W.S. Van Dyke; known affectionate around the lot for his cost-cutting as ‘one take Woody’. The script was pruned from four to just a little over two hours; Thalberg’s plans to roadshow Marie Antoinette – complete with overture, entr’acte and end music canceled (despite the fact all this extemporaneous score had already been recorded). Marie Antoinette would receive a truly epic premiere at the Carthay Circle Theater, its forecourt redressed to resemble the gardens of Versailles. But virtually all other aspects of the production were tinkered with in Thalberg’s absence – arguably, to the picture’s detriment.
Shearer exacted her own pound of flesh, insisting on rewrites. The Antoinette of history – a spoilt self-indulgent sexual wanton who defiantly spent her country’s taxes on personal amusements while loyal subjects starved in the streets, and even more obnoxiously declared “Let them eat cake” – would not be the Antoinette depicted in this movie. Although Norma had played many a déclassé gal early on in her career, by mid-decade the Production Code had forbade such outwardly risqué portraits of femininity. And truth told, Shearer had rather willingly moved away from her bad girl persona, embracing the virtuous woman in its stead. Good girls were fashionable. Bad girls were played by Joan Crawford. As such, Shearer’s Antoinette would become an ill-fated ‘movie queen’; the wrong girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. The atmosphere on the set was anything but amicable. Norma’s personal loss, and her newfound lack of autonomy - the ground having shifted beneath her feet, the balance of power no longer in her favor – led to constant clashes with Van Dyke. Nevertheless, Shearer threw herself into the work – and, rather embarrassingly, at the head of co-star, Tyrone Power (on loan from 2oth Century-Fox). Norma insisted. Tyrone resisted, and their would-be love affair painfully expired on the cutting room floor. To some extent, all of this backstage intrigue occasionally manifests itself in Shearer's performance.
Norma Shearer today is a sadly forgotten actress, her screen legacy somehow misplaced, or rather eclipsed in part due to her premature retirement from the movies at the height of her popularity. Yet, her body of work is as impressive as Garbo’s or Crawford’s – both her contemporaries then, though arguable neither in her class. In the 1970s, Shearer’s reputation as an artist was to suffer greatly at the poisoned pen of film critic, Pauline Kael who branded her ‘not much of an actress with a lazy eye’and ‘who never rose above conventional adequacy’. But this is quite simply not the case. With all due respect to Ms. Kael, her perceptions may have been colored more by jealousy than wit; a more accurate assessment of Shearer’s contributions offered for a 1976 tribute at George Eastman House in a biograph that, in part, read, “The more one tries to isolate the qualities that made Norma Shearer unique, the more one heads into an area of quiet, gracious dignity – a serene quality of bearing and attitude that eludes sensible definition. For certainly she played a good share of audacious, even wicked women, but never without that special Shearer aura that along with most of the other positive attributes that have vanished wholly from a morally dismal world. The ghost flowers are gone: the bluebirds are rare, and the likes of Norma Shearer are nowhere to be seen in contemporary films.”
Fair enough, Shearer’s Marie Antoinette is not the infamous wanton of history. Yet, she renders us a superb facsimile in its stead; full of girlish optimism in the first reel as she hypothesizes, “Think of it…I shall be Queen of France!”; then, fiery decadence, transmuting into a more mature introspection during the middle act, affirming, “…at least I’ll be the highest figure in the land”; a more worldly jadedness emerging as she admonishes Ty Power’s prepubescent Count, her eyes incandescently moist with very salty tears; “Count de Fersen...I am not amused!” Yet, the last act is irrefutably Shearer’s pièce de résistance. Stripped of her queenly accoutrements and grace; hair viciously cropped, and dressed in servant’s tatters and patches for her date with the guillotine, Shearer retreats into a devastated look of absolute complacency, mingled with desolate terror and an even more disturbing rectitude; a descent of unimaginable surrender into darkest despair. In this penultimate moment, Shearer achieves a haunting greatness unfettered by her own stardom and very much apart from her own personal tragedy. Separated by centuries, she and Antoinette have unexpectedly become complimentary figures in their genuine fatigue of spirit.
Based mostly on Stephen Zweig's thoroughly investigated book (although MGM did its own preliminary research, contained in no less than thirty-six volumes), the screenplay by Claudine West, Donald Ogden Stewart and Ernest Vajda begins with a teenage Marie (Shearer) being told by her mother, Empress Maria Theresa (Alma Kruger) of her arranged marriage to Louis XVI (Robert Morley) the inept and slightly effete Dauphin of France. Their marriage will ensure a tenuous Franco-Austrian détente put into place by the Empress and Louis’ father, King Louis XV (John Barrymore). The King is carrying on a torrid liaison with Madame Du Barry (Gladys George) – a woman who flaunts her contempt for ‘that Austrian’ in courtly circles and accuses the King’s cousin, the Duke d’Orleans (Joseph Schildkraut) of high treason. d'Orleans does not deny these allegations, citing Du Barry's overblown charms as having ruled (and arguably ruined) Frances’ ruler. The Dauphin and Marie are wed. Shortly thereafter, Louis XVI confesses his impotence to his wife. Her dreams of starting a family shattered, Marie tempers her loneliness in the decadences and revelries of court life; an endless parade of parlor-games and garden parties, royal engagements at the opera, secret attendances of artists’ masquerade balls, and playing host to various and exquisitely opulent palace gatherings. Marie has set her flirtations on Count Axel de Fersen (Tyrone Power), seemingly the only man immune to her charms, but who steadily becomes a platonic confident; then, Marie’s one true and impassioned friend and, finally, her ardent lover.
Count d'Orlean, whose dalliances with Antoinette are strictly pursued to elevate his stature at court, despises Axel, even though the latter initially shows little amorous interest in pursuing Marie. Assuring the King she will not embarrass Madam Du Barry at a state ball, the evening’s festivities are ruined when the venomous Du Barry goads Marie into defending her own husband’s absence. “My husband has better sense than I,” Marie admits “He knows where to draw the line. You see...I've never walked the streets of Paris. But I’m sure you could tell me something about that.” The King and his consort withdraw in a huff, and Louis XV later informs Marie their two year marriage is to be annulled. Wounded, Marie confesses her heartbreak to two men; Axel and d’Orlean. The latter takes a pregnant pause to reconsider his position at court; then, refuses to accompany Marie to the embassy of the Austrian ambassador. But Axel, who at present happens to be a guest there, comforts Marie by revealing the two shared a governess as children. By now, Marie is in love with Axel and he with her. Meanwhile, Louis XVI confronts his ailing father, also threatening Du Barry with imprisonment in the Bastille after the King is gone. Marie decides to run away with Axel. However, upon returning to the palace to inform her husband of this decision, she instead discovers the King is gravely ill. Louis XV dies and Louis Auguste becomes King of France. Marie is now Queen of France and unable to renounce her duties to the crown. Axel, who understands completely the sacrifices Marie must make, valiantly bows out, though his heart remains steadfast and ever-devoted to her from a distance. Louis' impotence proves psychological. Shortly thereafter, Marie bears him a daughter and then a son (Scotty Beckett).
But the mood of the people has soured toward the imperial court. They pelt the royal carriage with stones, terrifying Marie and the children. A plot is hatched by D'Orlean with the Countess de Noailles (Cora Witherspoon) who fools the Prince de Rohan (Barnett Parker) into believing she is Marie, purchasing an expensive necklace in secret and promising Rohan to pay for it later with collected tax monies. D’Orlean threatens to frame Marie and Louis for the stolen jewels. The scandal would surely topple their throne as the seeds of revolution are already afoot. But the King and Queen refuse to be held hostage. D’Orlean, having wisely assessed the anger of the mod, now succeeds in bringing an uprising against the Crown. Louis, Marie and their children, as well as the Princess de Lamballe (Anita Louise) are placed under house arrest in the Palace while parliament debates the merits of their fate.
Returned from Sweden, Axel courts danger by sneaking into the palace and camouflaging the royal family in travelling clothes. They escape in the dead of night and Axel gives Louis and Marie forged identities on the open road before departing for their prearranged rendezvous on the outskirts. Safe conduct beyond the border has been guaranteed by Swedish forces waiting to take the royals abroad. Regrettably, Louis is recognized by a former tutor at one of the small villages only several miles short of their rescue. Marie, Louis, their children and the Princess de Lamballe are imprisoned in the Bastille. One by one they endure cruel and sadistic fates from the mob, beginning with the Princess, torn limb from limb and stoned in the streets by the ravenous crowd. Louis is beheaded. Marie has her children taken away by force. Hence, when Axel arrives at the Bastille he finds Marie a changed woman; malnourished, demoralized and very near a state of catatonia. In the dimness, she barely recognizes him at first, but gradually recalls what his love has meant to her. The drums sound and Marie is paraded through the streets to the guillotine; Axel shown on a hillside awaiting the venomous cheers from the mob, signifying Marie too has been beheaded.
Marie Antoinette is a resplendent entertainment. In hindsight, Norma Shearer only had one more performance left to give, worthy of her art: Mary Haines in George Cukor's 1939 classic comedy, The Women. Although Norma would make a few more films in the early 1940s, none were to recapture the glory of these ‘Thalberg years’. By 1942, Shearer willingly retired from the screen, her reputation and legacy largely intact, choosing to live obscurely with a new husband, Sun Valley ski instructor, Martin Arrouge, while continuing to nurture young and aspiring talent interested in a movie career. In later years, Shearer would suffer cruelly from bouts of dementia, confusing virtually all male visitors who came to call for Irving Thalberg. As for Marie Antoinette, unaware of the picture it might have been under Thalberg’s guidance, the public flocked to see it and was ‘royally’ treated to a spectacle well beyond the likes of which few – if any Hollywood productions before or since – had been able to rival. Marie Antoinette was a sensation at the box office; regrettably, not quite enough to offset the enormity of its production costs. After the briefest of ‘limited engagements’ in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, L.B. Mayer elected to release the picture at ‘popular prices’ across the country – presumably to shore up and recoup what he could from the initial outlay. If anything, Marie Antoinette convinced Mayer his tightening of the purse strings was not only prudent, but essential to remain competitive and profitable in the business. In years yet to follow, the sets and costumes from Marie Antoinette would be endlessly recycled, marginally redressed and seen in countless movies as diverse as Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Three Musketeers (1948), Scaramouche (1952), The Swan and High Society (both released in 1956).
In reviewing Marie Antoinette today, one finds a good deal apart from Shearer’s iconic central performance to recommend it. Robert Morley is an empathetic Louie Auguste; Joseph Schildkraut, a venomous scion of the revolution, and John Barrymore, a self-absorbed and even more self-destructive monarch in steep decline. Gladys George’s Du Barry is by far the most intelligent of the many less than stellar incarnations this historical figure has had to endure; achieved with a ripened thirst for bitchery. Certainly, Cedric Gibbon’s production design deserves high marks; the authenticity achieved in 98 gargantuan sets, owing to meticulous research with over 59,277 specific reports prepared as part of the film’s historical research, 1,538 books and approximately 10,615 photographs taken in France. Even by golden era Hollywood standards of opulence, the grandiosity on display in Marie Antoinette is bewilderingly impressive. The film’s grand misfire remains its lack of romantic chemistry between Shearer’s doomed monarch and her paramour, played by a fairly wooden, Tyrone Power.
My one regret has always been Thalberg’s desire to shoot the picture in blazing Technicolor was vetoed by Mayer. The few costumes that survive today are miracles of design attesting to resident fashion guru, Gilbert Adrian’s meticulous eye for exquisite detail; real woolens and silks, intricately embroidered with gold leaf, ever so delicately hand-stitched by the small army of seamstresses Metro had under contract during its heyday. What perfection! As it stands, Marie Antoinette can only tantalize with the sort of colorful spectacle we might have seen had Thalberg lived to see the day. At 160 min., William Daniels, George Folsey and Leonard Smith’s B&W cinematography positively glistens with satin-silvery sheen. Understandably, nothing on the screen registers in true B&W; rather, tonal variations of gray.
Yet, in the final analysis, Marie Antoinette remains a movie of near sacred beauty and bounteous riches. It also exemplifies the great artistic divide between the Thalberg era and Mayer’s revised edicts to streamline the studio’s product. One senses Mayer’s hand in Van Dyke’s unprepossessing direction; single takes and conventional staging that, arguably, does not show off the picture’s visual assets to their fullest advantage. The screenplay too is curiously void of famously quotable lines. There is just enough dialogue to get the audience from points ‘A’ to ‘B’, the connective tissue, simply that, occasionally burdened and generally without the finesse it might otherwise have possessed. Yes, it does maintain a continuity of sorts, and the action does flows rather smoothly – just not like that rare champagne Thalberg might have poured from his own glass slipper. Regardless, Marie Antoinette is a total package deal – overflowing with an embarrassment of riches and intrigues waiting to be rediscovered.
I would strongly petition the Warner Archive to get behind a Blu-ray release of Marie Antoinette. Warner Home Video’s DVD is, in a word, magnificent. But one can only imagine the oodles of fine detail that would be revealed in a 1080p remastering effort. Back in the era of LaserDisc, MGM/UA Home Video undertook to reassemble Marie Antoinette with its overture, entr’acte and exit music. Alas, the transfer quality then was highly suspect, marred by some edge effects and problematic aliasing issues. However, the DVD is virtually flawless. It too contains the reinstated overture, entr’acte and exit score (not heard since recorded). Better still; the original elements have undergone a considerable and breathtaking restoration. The gray scale is quite stunning with deep rich velvety blacks and very clean whites. Occasionally, dissolves and transitions between scenes appear slightly grainier, but for the most part the image is stable and sharp with fine details exceptionally realized and virtually free of age-related artifacts. The audio is mono, yet crisp and nicely cleaned up. Truly, from a visual and sonic standpoint this is a reference quality disc in standard def that could only benefit from making the transition to Blu-ray. We will wait in the hopes the Warner Archive has this one on their radar.
No extras: disappointing – not even an audio commentary, but several vintage shorts from the period, including one documenting the movie’s lavish premiere at the Carthay Circle Theater. It’s missing the sound elements but remains a fascinating record of ole-time Hollywood glamour and the lengths to which the studios often went to promote their most lavish pictures to the public at large. Bottom line: 'wow' - what a picture: Marie Antoinette comes very highly recommended, although one sincerely hopes for a Blu-ray soon.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)