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This movie will probably never be excelled largely because of the casting. I don't believe that anyone will ever find better actors or actresses to portray King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette than Robert Morley and Norma Shearer. The black and white aspect of this great classic film is simply spell binding in its interpretation of the life of the Royal Family. Color will give it a different dimension. The manner in which the conflict of the ensuing mob marching upon the Versailles is well portrayed. I especially like the sense of paranoia and fear that grip the Queen and her entourage. The use of the outside gate is especially endearing to me, reminding me why it is that King Louis XIV created the Château d' Versailles in such a distance from Paris. Unless one knows the history of the Château, nobody can truly appreciate the march of the Faubourgs. Excellent film, and I recommend seeing it before any other on the same subject!
This film boasts a number of wonderful performances and is a great example of film acting in the thirties and the power of the studios. Robert Morley steals the show as Louis XVI, but equally fine are John Barrymore as the dying Louis XV, Gladys George as Madame du Barry, Joseph Schildkraut as the Duke of Orleans and a whole slew of wonderful character actors who enlivened even the smallest role. Norma Shearer admirably tackles the nearly impossible task of portraying the life of Marie Antoinette from a young girl to a broken woman on her way to the guillotine. In the style of the time, the film has a tendency toward histrionics but for the viewer with patience the overall effect is fascinating. Of special interest to students of art direction. The sets and costumes are incredible.
As a young actress still in her 20s, Norma Shearer was hailed as the
First Lady of MGM, and she reigned as queen of the studio throughout
the 1930s. For about two decades after early retiring in 1942, she was
fondly remembered by fans and critics, but slowly she was forgotten.
Then in the early 70s, antagonistic film critic Pauline Kael,
grudge-holding MGM rival Joan Crawford and others took delight in
trashing her, usually with the implication that Norma's greatest talent
was finding a powerful husband (Irving Thalberg). Unfortunately, those
unfair remarks carried great weight since Shearer's movies were
unavailable on video and rarely shown on TV.
We're now able to see her talent for ourselves, thanks largely to Turner Classic Movies, and Norma Shearer's star is rising again.
If you've never seen a Shearer movie, Marie Antoinette is a good beginning. It is one of Hollywood's great epics of the 1930s, with lavish costumes and scenery, and its historic setting holds up well. Shearer plays the doomed French queen from teenager to the Guillotine, and the final scenes as she awaits death in prison are among the finest of her career.
In recent years, Shearer has gained new respect for her silent films, in which she was one of the most accomplished young actresses of the era. Two standouts are Lady of the Night and A Lady of Chance, in which she plays "worldly" women with a sly wit. She was not a typical ingénue, and you can see why sophisticated audiences of the time were enchanted by her.
10. The script
Uncredited as a scriptwriter is novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. His love scenes are extremely elaborate and exquisitely structured. They also introduce innovations that have since become clichés and the hallmark of 'women pictures' everywhere.
9. The actors
Barrymore is unforgettable as the regally cranky Louis XV. Morley gives one of his best interpretations. Schildkraut plays the best two-faced villain of his entire body of work. As for Power... remember the anecdote about the reporter asking romance-writer Barbara Cartland (Lady Di's stepmother) how she could possibly have written so many romance novels before she was even married and while she was still a virgin? Her answer was: 'Oh! We didn't have sex in those days. We had Tyrone Power.'
8. The director
Van Dyke was an expert at handling large crowds and acts of God. His directing style was a compromise between time-efficiency and giving the stars leeway as long as they respected the general style of the piece. This 'honour system' seems to have encouraged the actors to do their homework and present a credible, coherent performance every time. He also got an assist here from uncredited French genius Julien Duvivier.
7. Artistic direction
What can you say about a period film that tackled the challenge of recreating Versailles in the XVIIIth century on the MGM back lot? The production values are staggering. The Gallery of Mirrors is actually longer, higher and wider than the original. The costumes tread a fine line between historical accuracy (covered shoulders and revealed cleavage) and the requirements of the movie code (exposed shoulders were tolerated but bosoms had to be covered) but still manage to convey the era and the fairy-tale quality of Marie's court. The costumes were also specially constructed to shine, glitter and shimmer on black and white film.
6. Historical accuracy
The film's script is based (in part) on Stefan Zweig's groundbreaking biography of the Queen, "Marie Antoinette, Portrait of an Ordinary Woman", which tried to create the first accurate, adult, factual but Freudian-inspired narrative of the Queen's life by using documents and correspondence that had long been overlooked or suppressed. The book was the first to reveal Louis XVI's mechanical sexual problems, which prevented his consummating the marriage during its first seven years (until a slight surgical intervention) and explained in turn the Queen's extravagant spendthrift personality, in Freudian terms, as extreme sexual frustration. This story actually makes it to the screen in a large degree. Compare this to recent biopics like "A Beautiful Mind", whose scriptwriters conveniently 'forget' essential but non-mainstream plot elements like the fact that John Nash's paranoia may have been caused or amplified by the McCarthy era persecution of homosexuals. Some historical events have been telescoped into one another in order to accommodate the general American public's limited understanding of French history and the Orléans character was used to maintain tension by representing the turncoat part of the nobility which exploited MA for their own various agendas.
5. The music
Herbert Stothart may not be a household word but he did win an Oscar for his original score to "The Wizard of Oz", based, of course in part on Harold Arlen's melodies. Besides giving Miss Gulch/the Wicked Witch her immortal theme, he is also one half of the composing team that produced the operetta "Rose Marie". Stothart shines in two respects: the approximate recreation of XVIIIth century dance music in the court scenes, emphasizing the bored grandeur of the proceedings, and the psychological music that accompanies everything from exciting chase scenes to the love scenes between Shearer and Tyrone. Note especially the use of the harpsichord in a rupture scene between Orléans and MA and the use of the viola d'amour in the garden love scene.
4. The cinematography
MA is in 'glorious black and white', but especially in the escape to Varennes sequence which has the most credible - and suspenseful - 'day for night' sequence ever filmed. The marriage scene may have inspired Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. Also notable are the matte paintings, the overwhelming use of cranes to move in on particular characters in a crowd scene and the chiaroscuro of the last meeting with Fersen.
3. Detail and scope
Every scene has something special added to it in characterization, movement, rhythm, lighting, art direction, choreography (and not just in the dance scenes). The costumes could have starred in a picture by themselves.
2. The lost art of story-telling
This film was planned with intelligence and skill and was built around the principle stated by Selznick when filming GWTW: 'The secret of adapting a book to the screen is to give the impression that you are adapting a book to the screen.' Which means that many literary devices are used to give the story many interesting arcs and recurring themes. The story is well balanced in terms of spectacular action, recreation of important historical events (giving the impression of the passage of time) and intimate scenes. It is truly 'the intimate epic' that Mankiewicz's 'Cleopatra' was supposed to be. Need I add I am really dreading the Sofia Coppola version...
1. Norma Shearer
Norma Shearer is an unjustly forgotten star of the first magnitude. MA is permanent testament to her uncanny abilities. In this film she portrays the main character from the age of sixteen to her death as a prematurely aged and debilitated woman of 38, all with perfect verisimilitude, thanks to her magnificent vocal instrument and stage presence. As a fairy-queen, she makes Cate Blanchett as Galadriel (in LOTR) look like Carol Burnett's charwoman. Her virtuosity as the fated widowed Queen is all the more poignant when one realizes that at the time she was Thalberg's widow in her last husband-approved venture and that the Hollywood suits were rapidly closing in on her.
Adrian went all out for this lavish, gorgeous production of "Marie
Antoinette" starring Norma Shearer, who is never more beautiful or
glamorous than in this epic biography. This Marie is quite the heroine,
a woman of the people, generous to a fault, and never says, "Let them
eat cake," and would only have said it in reference to her children.
History tells us that Marie's downfall was really the "Affair of the
Necklace," and she was no different from other aristocrats in being
totally out of touch with what was going on with the French people.
This film is jaw dropping in its splendor. Adrian's costumes are totally magnificent, as are the palace settings. Tyrone Power is drop-dead gorgeous as Marie's Swedish lover, who comes to her aid in her time of need. Power was the inspiration for Barbara Cartland to say, when asked how she could write so convincingly about sex while she was a still a virgin, "We didn't need sex. We had Tyrone Power." The rest of the cast is fantastic, including Robert Morley, John Barrymore, Joseph Schildkraut, and Gladys George. As for Norma, she does a great job, giving a vivid, if movie star, performance in one of her last films. The last scenes are very touching and beautifully done.
I had no expectations for this film and as a rule am not crazy about period pieces, but this one swept me away. It does follow history quite closely - for those who commented that the Tyrone Power character was fictional, he was not, and he did try to help her.
Don't miss this one.
**A funny Marie Antionette anecdote: The studio wanted Shearer to use their contract star, Robert Taylor, but Shearer got a look at Power at a dinner, invited him to be part of the film, and got her way. During their first kiss, she held on so long the kiss had to be edited down. Power apparently did not return her affections. She became angry. At a photo shoot, she appeared with gigantic plumes that hid him as he posed behind her and the plumes shot up. The photographer gave Power a box to stand on. As the photographer activated the flash, Power crashed through the box and hit the floor. Though he escorted Shearer to the premier, he snuck out to see his soon to be wife, Annabella.
This is a fantastic movie, a real emotional roller coaster, one feels emotionally exhausted at the end, the last 20mins are truly harrowing. How Norma Shearer didn't win the academy award for best actress is beyond me. Other great performances include the debut of Robert Morley and the incredible acting of Joseph Schildkraut, the makeup he wears must have been truely scandalous at the time. The costumes are spectacular you really are taken back to the late 1770's. another point of note is how Norma Shearer ages in the film is incredible, from the young girl in the beginning to the much older broken woman at the end, very well done indeed. Tyrone Power is very good as well, one can go on for ages about Marie Antoinette, it truly is a spectacle in the grand MGM scale. 8 1/2 out of 10!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette (Norma Shearer) is seen being
married off by her mother Maria Theresa (Alma Kruger), the Empress of
Austria, to the immature dauphin Louis (Robert Morley) grandson of
France's king Louis XV (John Barrymore).
She is soon disillusioned at her first meeting with the timid, uninspiring Louis who proves to be an inattentive husband, frigid in his relations with his young beautiful wife... Louis lacks self-confidence and is completely dominated by his grandfather, King Louis XV... He also is ridiculed by his cunning cousin, the Duke of Orléans (Joseph Schildkraut) and the king's mistress, Madame Du Barry (Gladys George).
On her wedding night, Marie Antoinette is left confused and tearful by Louis, who admits he is incapable of being a husband... She soon becomes a hopeless forsaken figure at Versailles...
Denied the love of a husband and the counsel of trusted friends, Marie Antoinette becomes a pawn in the hands of the dishonest Duke of Orléans - cousin of Louis - who plays her against Du Barry: "Conquer Paris", he said, "and you will conquer Madame Du Barry."
Left into the companionship of a small circle of frivolous court favorites, Marie Antoinette becomes the most lavishly dressed woman in France, losing fortunes at the gambling tables... There she meets a Swedish nobleman with whom she falls in love, the attractive Count Axel de Fersen (Tyrone Power).
When the alliance with Austria is threatened, Marie Antoinette is persuaded by Count de Mercey (Henry Stephenson), her mother's clever ambassador, to give a ball at which she can in public recognize Madame Du Barry... Instead, her insulting manner toward the mistress of the king enrages Louis XV who informs her that he is annulling her marriage and he is sending her back to Austria...
Marie Antoinette goes to the Count de Mercey for help, where she meets there Axel de Fersen who reaffirm his love for her...
The sudden death of Louis XV places her husband on the throne and Marie Antoinette finds herself Queen of France... Fersen, realizing that he could not dare to love a queen, leaves her that night and sails for America...
Marie Antoinette, determined to become a good queen bears a son and a daughter... The king (a loving father) had not sufficient strength of character or power of decision to combat the influence of court factions...
Marie Antoinette's close associations with the more dissipated members of the court aristocracy prompted her enemies to circulate false and insulting reports of her alleged extramarital affairs... These vilifications culminated in the 'Affair of Diamond Necklace' in which the queen was unjustly accused...
Duke of Orléans plots against the throne and becomes a leader in the Revolution... As a result, Marie Antoinette becomes the main target of the popular agitators, and the royal family hostages of the Revolutionary movement...
Count Fersen, hearing of Marie Antoinette's danger, goes to her and arranges an escape from Paris...
Norma Shearer, billed by M.G.M as "The First Lady of the Screen" receives her sixth Oscar nomination for her performance... She plays with dignity the title role of Marie Antoinette, the unfortunate French queen sank to the deepness of cell, tumbrel and guillotine...
Tyrone Power is convincing as the Swedish nobleman who gave the ill-fated monarch romantic surcease...
Robert Morley makes a memorable film debut, playing the feeble-minded Louis XVI - a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination...
John Barrymore plays King Louis XV and in flashing traces of his old sardonic glee, he says: "The state will last my time. After me the deluge!"
Norma Shearer "come-back" picture, is an elaborate costume masterpiece, glamorized in satin wardrobes, elaborate costumes, elegant huge sets... It traces the life of the Austrian princess who becomes queen of France covering her romantic attachment for the Swedish Count Axel de Fersen...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
At the time, only MGM could bring forth this overproduced, lavish drama detailing the rise and fall of Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI of France. Their preference for elaborate sets and ornate costumes made this story a natural for the studio to give it all their best and bring that dazzling, rococo period to life. The casting of Norma Shearer in the title role -- one of the perks of being married to Irving Thalberg who had had this movie in production for more than a year before its release in 1938 and was in many ways the person above Louie B. Mayer -- is a bit of an irony since she at the time was considered the Queen of MGM, now its Widow, at the height and end of her acting career. Never allowing her Adrian costumes to out-wear her, her rendition of Marie-Antoinette is moving, convincing as a girl about to be married, who evolves into a woman aware of her position as Queen of France but is a little out-of-touch, and who later becomes one of the many victims who lost their heads under the guillotine's deadly blade. One of her finer performances, she was Oscar nominated but lost to Bette Davis who won for JEZEBEL. Robert Morley, a character actor who made his film debut in MARIE ANTOINETTE and went on to appear in many films until the 80s, is also dead-on as the awkward Louis XVI and was also nominated for his supporting role but lost to Walter Brennan for KENTUCKY.
MGM's lavishly budgeted look at the French Revolution during the reign
of King Louis and his famously selfish MARIE ANTOINETTE spares no
expense in detailing the grim background of court conspiracies and the
people's unrest that led to their downfall.
Too bad none of this eye-popping splendor wasn't captured in Technicolor, as originally planned--but with a budget well over 1.5 million it was decided to film it in glorious B&W. No matter, it's still a spectacle for sore eyes.
There can be no doubt about NORMA SHEARER's triumph in the title role nor is any of the acting in the large cast below standard. ROBERT MORLEY as the weak and indecisive Louis is immensely touching and effective as he realizes the gravity of their predicament. JOHN BARRYMORE is fine and Joseph SCHILDKRAUT is wonderful as an aristocratic fop. TYRONE POWER lends his romantic presence to a role that requires little more than his good looks. He and Shearer make a physically appealing romantic team.
It's interesting that Irving Thalberg died before production began on the film. One wonders whether his influence on it might have made it an even stronger production. There are definite lulls in the telling but it builds dramatically to all of the final scenes. It's the kind of film that leads one to read more about the actual events and that's always a good thing.
Summing up: Sumptuously produced, well acted and well directed--what more could you want for an interesting glimpse of a life of royalty among a time of social upheaval? Shearer's triumphant return to the screen after a two-year absence.
Often said, and, for better or for worse, just as often true: "Marie
Antoinette" is one of THE definitive examples of an MGM prestige picture,
1930s style. Years in planning and preproduction, "Marie Antoinette" was
Norma Shearer's first film after Irving Thalberg's death: little expense
was spared in making the "First Lady of MGM"'s return to the screen a royal
one in every sense.
Technically superb, the film suffers from erratic pacing and a patchwork script. But the supporting cast alone almost compensates for these deficiencies: Robert Morley side-stepping caricature to make Louis XVI touchingly human; John Barrymore and Gladys George contributing brilliant, razor-sharp vignettes as Louis XV and Madame du Barry (indeed, the confrontation between Marie Antoinette and du Barry is one of the film's highlights); and Joseph Schildkraut redefining the term "oily" as the scheming Duke of Orleans. Only Tyrone Power (borrowed from 20th Century-Fox) comes off less well; this, perhaps is due more to an ill-conceived role in the script than to a lack of acting ability as such.
But it is, first and foremost, Shearer's film and she is superb. From the young, light-hearted Austrian Archduchess to the fun-loving, lightheaded Queen to the prematurely aged but proud and defiant widow on her way to the guillotine, Shearer is in full command, giving a splendid display of her artistry (including, in the prison scenes, an outstanding example of silent film technique): it is her finest mature dramatic performance.
Carps, quibbles, and differences of opinion? Yes, every film lover has them, if only out of love for the medium or a specific film. But after viewing a film such as "Marie Antoinette," it can with utmost conviction be stated, "They DON'T make them that way anymore."
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