Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/7/06.
The story of Marie Antoinette has been told in various forms with many known to the fact that she was the Queen of France born from Austria who was later beheaded in 1793 during the French Revolution. Since then, the stories have become legend to such tales as her spats with King Louis XV's mistress Madame du Barry, the infamous tale of the Affair of the Necklace, and the widely debated yet legendary supposed affair with Swedish Count Axel Fersen. In 1938, MGM studios to make a project on the life of Marie Antoinette into a motion picture at the request of the late Irving Thalberg. Basing on the biography of Stefan Zweig, the 1938 epic tale of Marie Antoinette tells the tale of the young woman who becomes Queen of France as she tries to win the heart of King Louis XVI, feuds with Madame du Barry, get scandalized by the Affair of the Necklace, and to her great demise. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke with a script by Donald Ogden Stewart, Ernest Vajda, and Claudine West, Marie Antoinette is a dramatic yet old-school 1930s take on the life of the French Queen with MGM studio actress Norma Shearer in the title role after a two-year absence. Also starring John Barrymore, Tyrone Power, Robert Morley, Anita Louise, and Joseph Schildkraut. Marie Antoinette is a fine, elegant costume drama that goes into her legend.
Being called by her mother and Queen of Austria Maria Theresa (Alma Kruger), young Antoine is wanting to hear the news from her courtesan Feldi (Cecil Cunningham). Feldi gives in by telling Antoine that she's to be married. Once meeting her mother, Antoine learns that she will be marrying the Dauphin of France, Louis XVI (Robert Morley) where she'll be accompanied by ambassador Mercey (Henry Stephenson) to Paris. Upon arriving in Versailles, Antoine is now christened as Marie Antoinette where she meets King Louis XV (John Barrymore), the shy Louis XVI, and Duke Phillipe d’Orleans (Joseph Schildkraut). Upon her meeting with the Dauphin, Louis tries to tell in a speech where the meeting is awkward as the king announces the wedding in a beautiful ceremony. Marie's beauty is transfixed as she attracts the likes of Princess Lambelle (Anita Louise) while being attended to by Comtess de Noailles (Cora Witherspoon). On the night she and the Dauphin are to consummate their marriage, Marie is forced to learn of Louis's insecurities as he admits that he didn't want to get married but wants to try and like Marie.
The marriage wouldn't be consummated for seven years as Marie has very few allies and is often ridiculed by the likes of Madame du Barry (Gladys George), who gives her a present as a joke about her unconsummated marriage. With the Duke of Orleans as her ally, she escapes herself through parties and such often being with Princess Lambelle and Comte d'Artois (Reginald Gardiner). In one such party at a gambling house, hoping to win a wager over her necklace, she finds a Swedish count named Axel Fersen (Tyrone Power) to pretend to be a Russian but loses the wager. Hearing about her parties, Count Mercey arrives to tell her that she must behave accordingly to the rules of Versailles while publicly acknowledging Madame du Barry in front of the king. Marie does but only to be further ridiculed by du Barry over the Dauphin's lack of public appearance since it's often that she's accompanied by the Duke of Orleans.
After a meeting with the king, Marie learns that her marriage is to be annulled as the Duke of Orleans chose to cut ties with her as she finds out why he associated himself with her. Hoping to talk to Mercey about everything, she finds herself comforted by Count Fersen, who knew her as a kid since they used to have the same music teacher and such where they fall in love. Hoping to take her back to Austria, Fersen has plans to see her again as she must return to Versailles for some news. After a confrontation with his grandfather, the Louis XVI tells Marie that the king is dying as he is faced with all of the decisions and things into becoming a king. With the news that Marie is now Queen of France, she secretly meets Count Fersen as she hopes to run away with him. Fersen, realizing of her new role, decides not to interfere with her destiny as he chooses to go to America to aid them in the revolution as he and Marie parted ways.
Years after the birth of their first two children, things seem to go well for Marie and Louis XVI but for France, the country is badly in debt and people are starving. With the Duke of Orleans already masterminding every amount of trouble of making the people turn against the monarchy, Marie and Louis XVI hope everything will turn around. Then one day, Marie was offered a huge, expensive necklace that was given to her but she turns it down considering the economic turmoil yet a plot involving a countess and a cardinal lead to the infamous Affair of the Necklace that would soil Marie's reputation for the worse. With the people of France declaring revolution, Louis hopes to have his troops support him but instead, they mock him. With Princess Lambelle choosing to stay in Versailles with Marie, the monarchy are now trapped as government officials hope to rid of the system as the French Revolution is underway.
Hoping to escape, she finds help from none other than Count Fersen who makes a plan for the entire family plus Lambelle to escape to Austria where Marie hopes to get aid. Everything goes well but when someone recognizes the king, everything falls apart as everyone is captured. Marie is forced to watch in horror as she sees Lambelle killed in front of her eyes while the Duke of Orleans helped succeed in aiding the execution of Louis XVI. With their two children, they have a final dinner on the day before he's executed as everything becomes tense as Marie hopes to count on Count Fersen one more time but not even he could help her as she awaits her doom.
While the film is true to the history set in two parts with the first half of Marie playing the role of bringing France an heir and the second about the French Revolution. The interpretation of the film is more of a dramatic retelling rather than a serious, historical type of film. Director W.S. Van Dyke definitely creates a sumptuous, epic, costume drama with all of the lavishness of the times. Still, despite a well-structured script and a faithfulness to history and legend, the film does lack a sense of serious historical context. Largely due to the fact that since the source they used was from the Stefan Zweig biography, Van Dyke wanted to make a film that was entertaining where some parts of the film is dramatized but then again, that was the approach of the times. While the legendary yet debated affair of Fersen is expanded more in several scenes, the role of the Duke of Orleans is much bigger since the character is played a villain when in reality, he was someone not liked by Marie Antoinette yet he did play his part in the execution of Louis XVI.
Despite those flaws, the film at a running time of nearly 150-minutes moves pretty fast due to the structure while the portrayal of Marie Antoinette is somewhat sympathetic to her. She's not portrayed as some monster or a careless queen but someone who is naive of her role while searching for love. Van Dyke's approach was right since he wanted audiences to have the main character to be likeable. More importantly, the dramatic direction and staginess might be dated to today's audience but back then, it worked since the drama works to carry the story and bring sympathy to Marie as Van Dyke does some fine work. Even capturing the lavishness of the 18th Century by actually shooting some parts of the film in Versailles.
Helping Van Dyke with his lavish vision is cinematographer William Daniels whose black-and-white photography filled with nice, soft touches in some of the film's more romantic settings as the picture looks wonderful though it probably would've looked amazing in color. The production design from art director Cedric Gibbons is wonderful for the lavishness and period to detail of the 18th Century with the advantages of the film shot in Versailles. The costumes of Adrian and Gile Steele are also wonderful for the lavishness and the bouncy sides of the dresses. Editor Robert Kern does nice perspective cutting for some of the sequences while bringing style to the editing that gives a leisurely flow to the film that isn't too slow and not too fast either. Herbert Stothart adds an epic, triumphant feel to the film's orchestral score in the first half while a more engaging, suspenseful tone in the film's second half as the music works to play to the times.
The film's large cast that includes such notable small performances from Cecil Cunningham, Cora Witherspoon Marilyn Knowlden as Princess Therese, Scotty Beckett as the young Dauphin, Alma Kruger as Empress Maria Theresa, and Reginald Gardiner. Gladys George is great in her role as lecherous, slimy Madame du Barry with her insults and power-hungry desire to be more than a madam as George brings a lot of vamp to the character. Henry Stephenson is also excellent as the wise Count Mercey, who reminds Marie of her role and is shown more in his attempts to save her from execution. Anita Louise is also good as Princess de Lambelle whose loyalty for Marie is matched by her role as being Marie's partner-in-crime of spending and such. Joseph Schildkraut is wonderfully good as the evil, manipulative Duke of Orleans, a character that is expanded for the film. While not much is known about the man, Schildkraut is excellent in the role of a traditional villain who can create great schemes and such. John Barrymore is great as the power-hungry, decadent King Louis XV with his love for du Barry and his role over his grandson as the legendary Barrymore proves his brilliance in the great role.
In his film debut, the late Robert Morley is extremely impressive as the awkward, insecure Louis XVI. While Morley may not pass as a young 15-year old Dauphin, Morley does have the physique and indecisive personality that the man had while in later scenes, we see him try to be powerful in an awkward way. Morley really owns the character as his performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Tyrone Power is also great as the very good-looking, charming Axel Fersen. Power's performance is the opposite of Morley as he is someone who knows how to comfort Marie while being the one who knows when not to be involved in her destiny. It's a superb performance from the great Tyrone Power.
Finally, there's Norma Shearer in the role of Marie Antoinette which is nothing short of brilliant. Shearer may not look like the 14-year old Antoinette of Austria in the film’s early sequence but her exuberance in the film's first half is wonderful as is her dramatic portrayal of the young queen. In the second half, Shearer really takes stage as a woman trying to protect her family while being aware of the country's economic despair. It's a great performance from Shearer who really exudes the woman who started out dreaming of being a queen only to be sinned for her naivete as Shearer herself, would be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress while winning the Volpi Cup at the 1938 Venice Film Festival.
Despite some flaws and an overly-dramatic acting style and interpretation, W.S. Van Dyke's version of Marie Antoinette is an entertaining film led by the wonderful performances of Norma Shearer and Robert Morley. While some might feel that the acting style and dramatic approach might seem dated, it's too easy to think of that since this is a film that is more of a historical, dramatic epic that does its job in entertaining. When comparing it to the recent, 2006 film version by Sofia Coppola, it's really incomparable largely due to the sources, interpretation, and everything else the two films have. Still, the best source on Marie Antoinette's life on a non-literary media is a 2006 PBS documentary recently shown on television that gives a lot of historical context. Yet, the 1938 version of Marie Antoinette is a great companion piece of her life to both the documentary and Coppola's film version.
Related Review: Marie Antoinette (2006)
(C) thevoid99 2011