A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, December 4, 2015

Marie Antoinette (W.S. Van Dyke, 1938)

Hollywood historical hokum, and a vehicle for Norma Shearer that had been planned for her by her husband, Irving G. Thalberg, who died in 1936. MGM stuck with it because as Thalberg's heir, Shearer had control of a large chunk of stock. It also gave her a part that ran the gamut from the fresh and bubbly teenage Austrian archduchess thrilled at the arranged marriage to the future Louis XVI (Robert Morley), to the drab, worn figure riding in a tumbril to the guillotine. Considering that it takes place in one of the most interesting periods in history, it could have been a true epic if screenwriters Claudine West, Donald Ogden Stewart, and Ernest Vajda (with uncredited help from several other hands, including F. Scott Fitzgerald) hadn't been pressured to turn it into a love story between Marie and the Swedish Count Axel Fersen (Tyrone Power). But the portrayal of their affair was stifled by the Production Code's squeamishness about sex, and the long period in which Marie and Louis fail to consummate their marriage lurks unexplained in the background. MGM threw lots of money at the film to compensate: Shearer sashays around in Adrian gowns with panniers out to here, with wigs up to there, and on sets designed and decorated by Cedric Gibbons and Henry Grace that make the real Versailles look puny. The problem is that nothing like a genuine human emotion appears on the screen, and the perceived necessity of glamorizing the aristocrats turns the French Revolution on its head. The cast of thousands includes John Barrymore as Louis XV, Gladys George as Madame du Barry, and Joseph Schildkraut (in what looks like Jean Harlow's eyebrows and Joan Crawford's lipstick) as the foppish villain the Duke of Orléans. The best performance in the movie comes from Morley, who took the role after the first choice, Charles Laughton, proved unavailable; Morley earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination for his film debut. With the exception of The Women (George Cukor, 1939), in which she is upstaged by her old rival Joan Crawford, this is Shearer's last film of consequence. When she turned 40 in 1942, she retired from the movies and lived in increasing seclusion until her death, 41 years later. It says something about Shearer's status in Hollywood that Greta Garbo, who retired at about the same time, and who also sought to be left alone, left the stronger legend and was more ardently pursued by gossips and paparazzi.