Friday, August 10, 2012

Marie Antoinette (1938)

"Everything leads me to thee." 

            Marie Antoinette is one of the most famous women in world history. She came to France when she was fifteen years old to marry Louis-Auguste who would become the famed Louis XVI. Marie and Louis did not get along and for the first seven years they were together they did not consummate their marriage. The people of France did not like Marie for she spent an extravagant amount of money on gambling, jewels, clothing, and other outlandish items. Marie also had a lover a Swede by the name of Count Axel de Fersen. In time Louis and Marie did consummate their marriage and they eventually had four children. If you remember from your history class, the royal extravagance became too much for the people of France to bear and they stormed the Bastille and Versailles. Louis XVI was beheaded and nine months latter Marie shared the same fate.
            The story has the perfect amount of melodrama and glamour that Hollywood of the 1930s loved. And it did. The preeminent studio MGM turned Marie Antoinette’s story into a drama. The idea to make a film of the famous French Queen was begun by producer husband and actress wife Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer. While on vacation in France they had read a biography on the queen and Shearer wanted to turn it into a film. The project was begun when they returned to Hollywood but a series of setbacks caused delays in filming. Before filming could begin Thalberg died of pneumonia in 1936. Shearer continued on with the film making sure it was made. Shearer, of course, played Marie Antoinette.
            The film begins with Marie being a fifteen year old girl summoned to her mother. Marie gets it out of her nurse that her mother has found someone for her to marry. Marie is beyond excited she has always dreamed of being married to become a queen. She is being sent to France to marry Dauphin Louis-Auguste. Louis is a shy, awkward man who never wanted to marry. No matter how Marie tries to get to know her husband he pushes away in ridiculous shyness.
            As the years go on Marie and Louis are becoming the laugh stock of the kingdom as they have not consummated their marriage. Louis’s grandfather Louis XV (John Barrymore) wants to send Marie back to Austria where she came from since their marriage is a failure. Louis luckily defends Marie because he finds her kind and the only person who listens to him and treats him kindly. Meanwhile, Marie has been living it up around Paris. One night at a gambling house she calls to a man out in the street asking if he is Russian for a bet she has wagered. He is not Russian but Swedish but Marie does not care she says no one will know the difference between the accents. The man’s friend tells him not to go in she is the queen of France. He ignores his friend and goes to the queen. The Swede’s name is Count Axel de Fersen (Tyrone Power). Marie and her friends shame him but she is drawn to him and asks to meet him again. For as long as Axel is in France he and Marie carry on an affair.
            When Louis XV dies Louis-Auguste becomes king. He and Marie now become close and through the years have two children a girl and finally a boy. Although she now has a family Marie always has time to see the man she really loves when he is in Paris.
            When the monarchy grumbles we are made to feel terrible for the former royal family. Marie listens as her husband is killed and the people cheer at his death. Not long after she must suffer being separated from her children. The closer the time comes to her own execution as she loses hope and everything she has loved the more she loses her beauty. Axel comes to her months before her end risking his own life to tell her he loves her and always will.
            In the end Marie is brought to the guillotine. She looks like an old peasant woman with nothing more than a simple head dress on and a peasants dress. Marie does not look panicked or scared she looks as if she is ready to meet her end.
            Norma Shearer is a funny actress. I have seen plenty of her films from both the silent era and the early 1930s. With those films Shearer always seemed like she was trying too hard and seems so phony sometimes. But in her later films such as Marie Antoinette, We Were Dancing, and The Women she seems to finally have settled down and seems so natural and at ease. I enjoyed her performance so much. The one consistency with Shearer’s acting was her ability to portray emotion. Never was she more moving than when Marie’s son was taken away from her. No words had to be said as Marie was rotting away in prison alone Shearer’s face and body language did all the communicating. I have absolutely no complaints about Shearer’s acting in this film she was perfect.
            The rest of cast was not good. John Barrymore was barely in the film but of course he was great. Tyrone Power was very good in his few scenes. Norma Shearer requested him for the film because he was young and handsome and wanted him on her arm at the premier. He worked very well in the role because he was handsome and ten times better than Louis. The actor who played Louis, my friend called him a drool monkey. He was so weird and awkward. Irving Thalberg originally wanted Charles Laughton to play Louis but that plan fell apart after Thalberg passed away. Laughton would have hammed the role too much and taken the whole film away from Shearer so even thought the actor who eventually played Louis was weird and sucked, I am so glad Laughton did not play the role.
            Adrian once again made the costumes for Norma Shearer. Time and again I can see why Shearer and Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford requested him for their films he was just brilliant. His costumes are glamorous, outrageous, over the top but yet so beautiful and elegant in their designs and patterns.
            The one complaint I have with Marie Antoinette is the length. The story is very good but to my friend and I it just dragged. With this one complaint I must say it is one of the hundreds of films that made MGM the great studio it became. MGM was known for their extravagant period films and Marie Antoinette is one of their finest and best made. And who better to play the famous Queen of France than MGM’s own “Queen of the Lot” Norma Shearer.