Friday, June 28, 2013

Marie Antoinette (1938)

Director: W.S. Van Dyke

She was a privileged girl from Austria who would become Queen of France, a girl with dreams crushed, only to build new aspirations, and then be ultimately find devastation. This is the story of Marie Antoinette. Years in the making and one of the more highly anticipated films to release in 1938, this biographical picture of the former queen captured the romance of France leading to the time of Revolution. Norma Shearer, the wife of the late studio head at MGM, Irving Thalberg, and star of the film would see this epic sized bio pic to completion. Despite a small fortune in budget, it would not be produced to its peak. Even with its high expectations, the feature would not quite meet the hype. And despite these somewhat downfalls it still stands as a shining example of a prestige pictures in the height of Hollywood’s fame.

Marie Antoinette is a biographic picture about the late queen of France, her marrying of a shy, shut in prince, ascension to power, her passionate affair, the non acceptance from the French citizens as their queen, and the ultimate loss of everything in her life. Norma Shearer stars as the bright-eyed Austrian girl that comes to France to marry the prince and discovers being queen is not as glorious as she had dreamt. By marrying the introverted, shut in Louis XVI (Robert Morley), she discovers how a man can be a far cry from one pictured to be a king. After a short time she realizes that being queen is not as romantic as a girl would dream. First struggling to produce an heir for the royal family, then starting an affair with Count Axel von Feren (Tyrone Power)

The queen is despised by another noble woman, Princess de Lamballe (Anita Louise), who is jealous of the queen’s power and aids in turning the people of France against her and all of the nobles that rule in France, bringing revolution to France and the downfall of the monarchy. The royal family attempts to flee with the aid of Count Axel, but is found and slowly Marie Antoinette’s life is torn apart, watching as her husband is executed and her children taken away from her before she is sent to guillotine. All this plays out with the underlying love and loss for both her royal family and the love affair she shares with the Count, the last man standing as a remnant of woman that was queen.

Coming off the popular biography of the former Queen Marie Antoinette published in 1932 and the ever present Hollywood infatuation with the romantic age of a more Victorian time in European history, the story of Marie Antoinette was a well sought after green lit production in Hollywood. Initiated for production by the major studio head of some of the greatest movies of the time, Irving Thalberg, the film Marie Antoinette would take years and millions of dollars to produce, outliving the tragically short life of the man that gave the picture the go. It would be his surviving wife, the once great star, Norma Shearer, who would take reigns and make sure the film would be completed as tribute to her husband.

With a picture of this massive scale, director W.S. Van Dyke would do a masterful job filming the feature. Meant to be felt like an event, the picture was complete with entrance music and an intermission in the same manner as a great stage play. With perhaps the grandest collection of costumes ever assembled for any film ever, complete with miles of fabric and details that could never be fully enjoyed by eyes watching them on film, this picture was meant to be an absolute spectacle. With ever rising costs and setbacks in schedules the feature film spectacular was pushing the limits as the most expensive movie of all time. Due to these overdrafts MGM would make the unfortunate cutback of producing the feature in black and white instead of the intended marvelous Technicolor. It can only be speculated how much more grand the film would have looked if Van Dyke had the chance to film in Technicolor, enchanting audiences with vivid color and more detailed images, losing much of the designers works on the gowns filming without color. Despite this lavish drawback Van Dyke remains to create the grandeur of France in the age at the cusp of revolution.

The show’s driving force and star was Norma Shearer, the once great belle of MGM. In only her mid 30s Shearer had faded from the once high star. An Academy Award winner, Shearer puts out her best effort to embody this character from the youthful enthusiasm of a teenager looking forward to being queen, through her maturity, her sternness, to end ultimately as the sad figure being taken to the executioner. At times she seems to overdo the moments of innocence, but in instances of greatest drama, especially the final moments with Louis XVI and the family before his death. Her performances in the final scenes of the picture are far above the greatest of the picture. It was from these flashes of immensity she would be nominated once again for best actress. In years to come Shearer would be quoted to say Marie Antoinette was her favorite role she had ever played.

Her romantic star would be Tyrone Power, the handsome, young star lent from Fox. The picture pushes the long distance affair of the two as a major dramatic overtone, but Power actually spends very little time on screen, or even near Marie Antoinette. He becomes the infatuation of the queen, the romance and passion that lacks in her marriage. Power and his character would be the last image of the dramatic loss in the film as within the final moments of the picture he is the lone figure for audiences to watch as he merely listens to the sounds that tells us Marie has died. As a major romantically lead of the time period in Hollywood, this picture does not necessarily make the best use of Power. Fox would be rather upset that the one time they lend out its leading man it ends up for the greatest anticipated film for MGM in 1938. He would not be lent out by Fox again.

A newcomer to the screen, Robert Morley would be thrusted into a major supporting role as Louis XVI, a role that instantly garnered him a nomination for best supporting actor. The double-chinned stage actor would take the role once offered to Charles Laughton, though it is doubtful is Laughton would have been able to be as much of an oafish King as Morley was. At first his Louis is very strange, as the character is intended, but you come to love him as Marie does, as a man that cares more about the people he likes, especially his wife and children, than about being a monarch and taking advantage of his title. In his final moments he stirs up the emotion on the screen as a father being strong in the face of his family, not to show weakness to his son during the final dinner they will have together. Morley wins audiences over with every passing moment he is on screen.

The supporting cast is rounded out with some of the best actors there are including John Barrymore as King Louis XV, Anita Louis as the evil Princess de Lamballe, and Joseph Schildkraut as Duke d’Orleans. Each of them could fill the role of a star in many major motion pictures, but here their roles as supporting characters provide a strong presence to the majesty of the film.

The feature would go on to be nominated for four Oscars, including best original score and best art direction. A critical success, the film was doomed before it was even released with a budget that was over $2.5 million. MGM had no chance of making its money back, but a prestige picture was not about money. Despite an award nomination Shearer would continue to slide a major star in the movies. Marie Antoinette’s grandness would not shine too bright as its lack of Technicolor and the release of two MGM Technicolor spectacles the following year, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, would easily push this prestige picture to the background in the future of motion picture history. With war rising in the east, classical European romances would not seem as attention grabbing. Marie Antoinette is a finely produced picture, which sadly should have been better.

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