Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. USA, 1938. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screenplay by Claudine West, Donald Ogden Stewart, Ernest Vajda, based in part on the book by Stefan Zweig. Cinematography by William H. Daniels. Produced by Hunt Stromberg. Music by Herbert Stothart. Production Design by Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design by Adrian, Gile Steele. Film Editing by Robert Kern. Academy Awards 1938.
Married to the king of France as a teenager, brought to the court of Paris from her native Austria, Marie Antoinette (Norma Shearer) quickly made friends and enemies and, in dealing with the latter, decided that living high on the hog was the best way to put fear in all who would defy her. Her extravagant living, we learn in this film, is also the result of having been married to a simple and almost sexless Louis XVI (Robert Morley in his film debut), who prefers clockmaking to lovemaking and hates this woman for ruining his permanent adolescence. When his grandfather (a growly John Barrymore) dies and places Louis on the throne, the two of them find a friendship that does become loving, she putting her efforts into assisting his policy decisions and he putting his best effort, such as it is, into doing his job. Unfortunately, the ruinous wars that starved an already oppressed population under the previous king have now made the upper classes the symbols for tyranny and excess, an affair over the purchase of a necklace leading, quite shockingly, to the French revolution. All this and more is rendered in shimmering silver hues in this epic film from 1938, the last grand project for producer Irving G. Thalberg before he passed away at the age of 37 (it was also something of a signing off for Shearer, his widow, who only made a handful more pictures after this before retiring early, and none of them quite on this scale). Giant sets (including a recreation of Versailles at twice the size), filmed backgrounds at the actual palace and painstakingly researched and recreated costumes dazzle you for almost three hours as the historical pageantry plays across the screen in vivid detail. Uncredited director Julien Duvivier likely has much to do with the sheen of the whole thing, while main helmer W.S. Van Dyke (here pompously credited with a Roman numeral after his name) more responsible for the steady pace. There are melodramatic moments that reek of the film’s production era, not to mention the fact that everyone speaks and behaves like an American, and historians will have a field day with the presentation of the royal couple as well-meaning leaders who are ultimately helpless against the ignorant and savage population, their disrespect for authority easily linked to rising fears of communism in 1930s America. What actually keeps this one from being the classic epic it should have become, though, is an obvious, automatic assumption of importance, the kind of movie that knows that it is aiming for timeless status and fails by trying too hard. Shearer is wonderful (her hairstyles later inspired Eva Peron), a full-blooded performance that makes her years as a reigning star easy to understand, carrying the weight of the entire thing without ever letting it sag and equally effective as both naïve youth (which given that she was 36 at the time, is amazing) and disgraced and impoverished adult.