The life of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) from betrothal and marriage in 1770 to her beheading. At first, she's a Hapsburg teenager isolated in France, living a virgin's life in the household of the Dauphin, a shy solitary man who would like to be a locksmith. Marie discovers high society, with the help of Orleans and her brothers-in-law. Her foolishness is at its height when she meets a Swedish count, Axel de Fersen. He helps her see her fecklessness. In the second half of the film, she avoids an annulment, becomes queen, bears children, and is a responsible ruler. The affair of the necklace and the general poverty of France feed revolution. She faces death with dignity.
Norma Shearer ... Marie Antoinette
Tyrone Power ... Count Axel de Fersen
John Barrymore ... King Louis XV
Robert Morley ... King Louis XVI
Anita Louise ... Princesse de Lamballe
Joseph Schildkraut ... Duke d'Orleans
Gladys George ... Mme. du Barry
Henry Stephenson ... Count de Mercey
Cora Witherspoon ... Countess De Noailles
Barnett Parker ... Prince de Rohan
Reginald Gardiner ... Compte d'Artois
Henry Daniell ... La Motte
Leonard Penn ... Toulan
Albert Dekker ... Comte de Provence (as Albert Van Dekker)
Alma Kruger ... Empress Maria Theresa
Adrian went all out for this lavish, gorgeous production of "Marie Antoinette" starring Norma Shearer, who is never more beautiful or glamorous than in this epic biography. This Marie is quite the heroine, a woman of the people, generous to a fault, and never says, "Let them eat cake," and would only have said it in reference to her children. History tells us that Marie's downfall was really the "Affair of the Necklace," and she was no different from other aristocrats in being totally out of touch with what was going on with the French people.
This film is jaw dropping in its splendor. Adrian's costumes are totally magnificent, as are the palace settings. Tyrone Power is drop-dead gorgeous as Marie's Swedish lover, who comes to her aid in her time of need. Power was the inspiration for Barbara Cartland to say, when asked how she could write so convincingly about sex while she was a still a virgin, "We didn't need sex. We had Tyrone Power." The rest of the cast is fantastic, including Robert Morley, John Barrymore, Joseph Schildkraut, and Gladys George. As for Norma, she does a great job, giving a vivid, if movie star, performance in one of her last films. The last scenes are very touching and beautifully done.
I had no expectations for this film and as a rule am not crazy about period pieces, but this one swept me away. It does follow history quite closely - for those who commented that the Tyrone Power character was fictional, he was not, and he did try to help her.
Don't miss this one.
**A funny Marie Antionette anecdote: The studio wanted Shearer to use their contract star, Robert Taylor, but Shearer got a look at Power at a dinner, invited him to be part of the film, and got her way. During their first kiss, she held on so long the kiss had to be edited down. Power apparently did not return her affections. She became angry. At a photo shoot, she appeared with gigantic plumes that hid him as he posed behind her and the plumes shot up. The photographer gave Power a box to stand on. As the photographer activated the flash, Power crashed through the box and hit the floor. Though he escorted Shearer to the premier, he snuck out to see his soon to be wife, Annabella.
Norma Shearer's turn as Marie Antoinette, the tragic 18th-century queen of France, will always stand out as one of the lushest of MGM's 1930s lush budget productions, and for that reason alone is always worth a look--and a very enjoyable look it is. Forget that the costume designs are more than a bit over the top, even for the Versailles of Marie Antoinette's day. Forget Shearer's uneven acting, which as in all her films veers from the truly affecting to the annoyingly melodramatic (e.g., her stagey, even hokey body language in the night meeting with Tyrone Power in the garden just after she becomes queen, when he makes her understand they must not see each other again). Just enjoy the experience of what Hollywood figured they could pass off as history in the 1930s and expect a worldwide audience to accept as history.
The film fails as history for two major reasons. First, it is based on a groundbreaking biography of the queen by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian novelist who was a close friend of Freud and was deeply influenced by psychoanalytic thought. Zweig's book created and popularized the view of Marie Antoinette's sex life that remained current for decades--that Louis XVI was unable to consummate his marriage with her for more than 7 years, and had to have minor surgery before he could seal the deal. Zweig's predictable view was that sexual frustration explained Marie Antoinette's notorious frivolity and spendthrift ways. We know today that Zweig fabricated his tale only by suppressing valuable evidence that would have weakened his theory, and giving undeserved prominence to other material that let him paint the kind of picture he wanted to create. Recent historians (and Zweig was not an historian) looked at the evidence Zweig omitted and proved conclusively that Louis XVI was not impotent and never had the surgery Zweig claimed was necessary. Louis was a lousy lover, true, and it did take some years before he got down to serious boudoir athletics, but Zweig's thesis has been thoroughly wrecked.
In the 1930s when Zweig's book was new and influential, MGM could base a movie on it but couldn't openly portray the sexual issues at the heart of Zweig's account. Screenwriters had to dance around Louis' bedroom limitations and had to find a way to imply that the queen and Count Axel Fersen (Tyrone Power) were not lovers as Zweig implied they were. Thus the film's version, that the noble Fersen gently but firmly told the enamoured queen that they could no longer see each other. In fact, Fersen was at Versailles on and off throughout Louis XVI's reign; it was rumored that he fathered the queen's second son, born in 1785 exactly 9 months after one of Fersen's visits. But Louis accepted the child as his, so he must have been visiting the queen's bedroom at the right time. There's no proof Fersen ever paid the queen that kind of visit.
The second major flaw in the film's historicity is that Shearer would not play Marie Antoinette as a featherbrained, shop-til-you-drop type, which would be nearer the truth than the noble character Shearer gives us. It's unlikely that Marie's sex life was as active as some writers want us to believe, but she could spend up a storm when she put her mind to it. Shearer preferred to act a queen seriously devoted to the welfare of France and the French people, a writer of Louis' speeches and a woman who labored relentlessly to improve her subjects'lot. The resulting queen bears no resemblance to the real deal. Attractive, charming, stylish, generous to a fault, yes; a skilled and dedicated politician, no.
The film's hold on history is thus slender. In 1938 Hollywood could not acknowledge that the real dupe in the Affair of the Necklace was a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church; here the fool appears as the duke de Rohan, a relative of the cardinal. Mozart's famous "Don Giovanni" minuet is played at the ball during which Marie Antoinette insults Louis XV's mistress, Mme du Barry. In the film's chronology the ball immediately precedes Louis XV's illness and death in 1774; Mozart wrote "Don Giovanni" in 1787. The film compresses the ball and Louis XV's death into 24 hours, but Louis XV's last illness lasted 2 weeks. Marie Antoinette never openly insulted du Barry as shown here, nor was there ever a formal decision to annul Marie's marriage. The royal family's return to Paris after their foiled escape attempt is here followed immediately by Mme de Lamballe's murder. The attempted escape was in June 1791; Lamballe, who was not with the royal party during the attempt, was killed in the September Massacres of 1792.
So enjoy this splendid piece of film purely as spectacle--a testament to Hollywood's world view in a bleak decade. Entertainment it truly is, and not at all bad. As history, it's bunk.
Often said, and, for better or for worse, just as often true: "Marie Antoinette" is one of THE definitive examples of an MGM prestige picture, 1930s style. Years in planning and preproduction, "Marie Antoinette" was Norma Shearer's first film after Irving Thalberg's death: little expense was spared in making the "First Lady of MGM"'s return to the screen a royal one in every sense.
Technically superb, the film suffers from erratic pacing and a patchwork script. But the supporting cast alone almost compensates for these deficiencies: Robert Morley side-stepping caricature to make Louis XVI touchingly human; John Barrymore and Gladys George contributing brilliant, razor-sharp vignettes as Louis XV and Madame du Barry (indeed, the confrontation between Marie Antoinette and du Barry is one of the film's highlights); and Joseph Schildkraut redefining the term "oily" as the scheming Duke of Orleans. Only Tyrone Power (borrowed from 20th Century-Fox) comes off less well; this, perhaps is due more to an ill-conceived role in the script than to a lack of acting ability as such.
But it is, first and foremost, Shearer's film and she is superb. From the young, light-hearted Austrian Archduchess to the fun-loving, lightheaded Queen to the prematurely aged but proud and defiant widow on her way to the guillotine, Shearer is in full command, giving a splendid display of her artistry (including, in the prison scenes, an outstanding example of silent film technique): it is her finest mature dramatic performance.
Carps, quibbles, and differences of opinion? Yes, every film lover has them, if only out of love for the medium or a specific film. But after viewing a film such as "Marie Antoinette," it can with utmost conviction be stated, "They DON'T make them that way anymore."
Originally to be directed by Sidney Franklin, but given to W.S. Van Dyke.
This was Irving Thalberg's last project while head of production at MGM. At the time of his death in 1936, the film was in the planning stages, but his widow, Norma Shearer, took special interest in the film and stuck with it to its completion in 1938.
Irving Thalberg originally planned for Charles Laughton to play the role of Louis XVI. Laughton, after lengthy deliberations, finally declined.
MGM's recreation of the ballroom at Versailles was twice as large as the original.
The few lines of Swedish spoken by the Swedish count Axel von Fersen are genuine, although 'Tyrone Power (I)' speaks them with a very thick accent.
From its initial inception up until right before the cameras started to roll, the film was designed to be shot in Technicolor. All of the sets and costumes were designed with color in mind. MGM went so far as to send the fox cape that Norma Shearer wears (to see Henry Stephenson on the night she becomes Queen) to New York to be specially dyed to match the blue of her eyes. Fearing that the addition of Technicolor would swell the already mammoth 1.8 million dollar budget, the production went before black and white cameras instead.
The role of Marie Antoinette was reportedly Norma Shearer's favorite of her roles.
Robert Morley's first film.
The film became the favorite movie of Eva Per?n, who so admired Norma Shearer style that she later dyed her hair blonde.
William Randolph Hearst campaigned heavily for Marion Davies (Hearst's mistress) to star as Marie Antoinette. Davies didn't get the role and ended her contract at MGM and went to Warner Bros. along with Hearst.