Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Conquest (1937)



Director: Clarence Brown

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was more than just a man who attempted to conquer Europe after leading a revolution in France, he also was a man with a passion towards a certain lady in his life; this in the story shared in the lavish motion picture Conquest. Starring two of the Hollywood’s largest international stars, Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer, the film was backed with elaborate sets and costumes, bringing to the screen a love story centered around one of history’s most well known figures known more for his military might and short stature than for his personal life. MGM pours a fortune into this production which is clearly on display throughout the film, but would end up being one of the greatest financial failures the studio would ever see during Hollywood’s “Golden Age.”

Conquest is a romantic drama about the love affair of Napoleon with a Polish countess through the years of his greatest successes into his lowest days. Greta Garbo plays the Polish Countess Marie Walewska who had admired Napoleon (Charles Boyer) from afar, and when they finally meet become rather taken by each other’s charms. Marie is encouraged by a Polish senator to carry out an affair with Napoleon in order to benefit Poland, a relationship which blossoms into a romance. When Napoleon divorces his empress and Marie’s marriage is annulled by her husband, Count Anastas Walewski (Henry Stephenson), because of the affair, Marie builds hope that she will soon marry Napoleon. However he informs Marie of a marriage he has arranged with the Austrian Archduchess meant for political reasons, breaking the heart of the now impregnated Marie, a secret she has yet to surprise the emperor with. As Napoleon loses power Marie looks to regain the romance with the man she loves, but Napoleon’s stronger love for power once again rips them apart, even while introducing to him for the first time their son Alexandre (Scotty Beckett). After his fall at Waterloo Napoleon is banishes one final time, leaving Marie and Alexandre behind.

The picture begins with strong promise as a love story about an important historical figure that many may have never known about, portrayed in an intriguing dramatized manner. Both Garbo and Boyer play well the roles of lovers discovering each other to the background of historical events and characters that they are portraying. However the film takes an unfortunate turn in the second half as Napoleon and Marie are no longer trying to keep the romance alive, but are rather Napoleon turns his attention to furthering his stranglehold on Europe, flexing his muscle as self-proclaimed emperor. The film now becomes an attempted tragedy as Marie fails to receive the loving attention that they shared earlier in their affair. Boyer’s Napoleon is still in love with Marie, but he goes into random tirades about rebuilding his empire as he loses battles. The tragedy figure is Marie, deeply saddened, however this is far from being as gripping of a story of these figures attempting to simply get together in the first place hindered due to their statures they had in the first half of the picture. This change in drama would happen to lose the interest in both critics and audiences as the film fails to carry the same punch throughout the second half of the picture.

Director Clarence Brown was a veteran of period pictures and continues his masterful work of bringing great images to the screen in this depiction of Napoleonic Europe. As mention previously, the first half of the film plays beautifully. The subtle love story, the infatuated girl, the side tale of this military leader, and their growing passion for each other makes for a rather good movie. Despite the writing that led the picture to the second half about Napoleon being sidetracked by his failures and attempts to rise again, Brown still films the picture beautifully with its Academy Award nominated art decoration with vast visuals for such a love story. Brown manifests how he is able to get the right performance out of Greta Garbo having worked with her in his past experience with Anna Christie.

Garbo and Boyer as mistress and Emperor.
Garbo was a major name in the world of Hollywood usually a top draw in theaters. She was an actress that shied away from the public eye outside of her movies, but her performances on screen were usually so intriguing that audiences wanted more from her. Her portrayal of Marie lends to her ability to manifest an almost young love-type of attraction to Napoleon. In the scenes where she in infatuated with him she comes off so innocent, even with her deep, eastern European voice. It is not so hard for her to be the saddened figure she becomes in the second half of the film as Garbo’s natural look does present sense of deep sadness and longing. Unfortunately this turn causes her shine to lose its luster.

Charles Boyer’s performance as Napoleon brings to life the French military figure in an intimate way presenting both an emperor and a man finding love in a beautiful woman. The French born actor lends his accent to authenticate his depiction of the former ruler of France, while his look accentuates a proper depiction of the man. Perhaps to make himself seem shorter and/or more determined Boyer leans forward through much of his performance with legs slightly apart, something many other Napoleon performances other actors would pick up in future portrayals of the emperor. His outbursts at time seem a bit forced, but it can be assumed to be part of the character’s complexity. Boyer’s performance would earn him a nomination for best actor.

Conquest would fail to be the masterpiece the production set out to be with its lavish budget and superior art direction. Despite bringing in over $2 million in box office revenue, the film still cost MGM a near $1.4 million in losses, making it the biggest financial failure for the studio for many years. Garbo would become one of many aging actresses (at only 32 years old) who would be deemed “box office poison” in 1938, further pushing Garbo’s abhorrence the world of the movies she lived in. Sadly the picture lives on as a fine production that proved to be a failure, a standing reminder that not all large films live up to their hype even in the 1930s.


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