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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
MADAME BOVARY is something of an underrated Hollywood classic! Produced
by Pandro S. Berman for MGM in 1949 it was one of the last movies of
Hollywood's Golden Age! Directed with a positive flair by the
ubiquitous Vincente Minnelli it was stylishly written for the screen by
Robert Ardrey from the "outragious" novel by Gustav Flaubert and
crisply photographed in gorgeous black & white by Robert Planck.
Jennifer Jones gives a superb performance as Emma Bovary the beautiful young vivacious woman in 19th century France who pursues her insatiable appetite for love and romance with reckless abandon resulting in her total moral decay, the neglect and alienation of her husband and young child and her eventual suicide. The actress applied herself assiduously to the role, almost eclipsing her Acadamy Award winning portrayal in "Song Of Bernadette" six years earlier. Excellent also is Van Heflin as her long suffering mild mannered doctor husband and Louis Jordan as Rudolphe - one of her lovers. Also making a striking appearance at the start of the picture is James Mason in an effective cameo as the novelist Flaubert himself who is in court on a charge of corrupting public morals with the publication of his "shameful" novel "Madame Bovary". Then from the dock Flaubert (Mason) begins to narrate the story of his infamous heroine as the film unfolds.
Underlining this heated melodrama is the wonderful music of Miklos Rozsa. This was the great composer's first score for MGM. This would be the beginning of Rozsa's most lavish and most prestigious productive period! Here at MGM he would create, among others, such outstanding works as "Quo Vadis", "Ivanhoe", "Plymouth Adventure", "All The Brothers Were Valiant", "Valley Of The Kings", "Knights Of The Round Table", "Green Fire" and culminating in 1959 with his masterpiece "Ben Hur". His score for "Madame Bovary" abounds with exquisite character themes such as those for the lovers Rudolphe (Jordan) and Leon (Christopher Kent). But his most appealing theme is reserved for the husband Dr. Bovary (Heflin) which has an engaging lyrical wistfulness to it. And the theme for the main protagonist - first heard in the Main Title - is troubled and turgid, perfectly reflecting the character of Emma Bovary. Of course the highlight and showpiece of the score is the swirling and dizzying waltz he composed for the elaborate ballroom sequence - the film's most memorable scene!
The DVD transfer is exceptional with well defined Monochrome images. But the extras aren't up to very much! There is a good trailer but there is no commentary and quite dispensable is a Droopy cartoon and a tired Pete Smith Specialty. However a movie like this that is well written, well played and beautifully shot and scored is well worth having in any collection!
Films of great novels are usually light years away in terms of quality from their originals. There are of course a few exceptions, the David Lean Dickens adaptations for instance and recently a Neil Jordan version of Graham Greene's "The End of the Affair" that I much admired. Generally it is second rate literature, "Gone WIth the Wind" a prime example, that fares so much better. Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" has continued through the history and development of cinema and TV to exert its fascination on would-be translators, although it has to be admitted that it has generally proved elusive. One would have thought that it would have fared particularly well in the hands of outstanding French directors such as Renoir and Chabrol but their efforts to come to grips with Flaubert's masterpiece have ultimately to be judged as among their lesser works. There is quite a lot going for Jean Renoir's early 1933 version, not least the authentic Normandy exteriors shot with great affection, but technically the film shows its age. It is rather like a series of tableaux, some in themselves quite well done, but ultimately lacking a strong narrative thrust and sense of cohesion. Nevertheless I remember being more impressed with it than with Claude Chabrol's 1991 version which I found surprisingly cold and passionless. I admit I have only seen this once and my memory of it is far from clear, perhaps because it grabbed me so little at the time. It may seem rather preposterous to award the accolade for the best "Bovary" to Vincente Minnelli's Americanised 1949 MGM version with its studio mock-up of a French village that seems more of a Flanders lookalike and some location work clearly done in Californian woodland, but, in the absence of so little competition, I would have to plump for it as being certainly the most enjoyable. After all it has that quite exquisite beauty, Jennifer Jones, as the eponymous heroine, suffering and eventually dying as tenderly as only she can. My favourite memory from the film is her first appearance on the farm where Doctor Bovary is calling to tend to her sick father. There she is in a setting of all too believable rural squalor decked out in the most unbelievably opulent dress imaginable. If nothing else it makes Bovary's initial besottedness with her absolutely credible. Minnelli's is a rather sanitised adaptation. Okay to have the heroine die beautifully once the initial agony of taking poison has been established, but the inevitable outcome of a botched operation on a villager's clubfoot - amputation - is, unlike in the novel and other versions, evaded by the doctor's refusal to take on the medical challenge. It makes for rather more comfortable box-office. There are some beautifully done scenes including the almost obligatory inclusion in a Hollywood period piece of a ballroom sequence. The one here has the hedonistic movement that is everything we had come to expect from "The Great Waltz" onwards. There is also the heroine's wait, her bags fully packed in a windswept street after dark for the lover that never comes. Wyler did it rather better in "The Heiress" but Minnelli's has plenty of atmosphere. His version may be even further than its competitors from Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" but he invests it with enough passion and commitment to ensure it a small place in Hollywood history.
Many readers have found Gustave Flaubert's classic novel 'Madame Bovary'
somewhat cold and dispassionate, but few will have that complaint after
watching this film. Jennifer Jones' flesh-and-blood embodiment of Emma
Bovary has passion and emotion to burn, yet it still manages to remain in
the spirit of Flaubert's work. Vincente Minneli's direction is brilliant and
at times stunning. Witness the waltz sequence. Besides being so
aesthetically wonderful, just think what a technical marvel this scene must
have been in 1949! I can recommend this version of 'Madame Bovary' without
Jones' center-stage presence dominates, of course, but the performance of Van Heflin as another memorable character, the pitiable, cuckolded Charles Bovary, should not be overlooked. Plus this movie shows us that Ellen Corby wasn't always old! Check her out as the Bovary's servant, Felicite.
Three versions stand out as far as Flaubert's classic is concerned:the Jean Renoir one,with Valentine Tessier,which has not worn well,the acting has become unconvincing and almost lurid when you see it today,Minelli's version and Claude Chabrol's starring Isabelle Huppert ,which doesn't avoid totally academism,despite Jean-François Balmer's portrayal of Charles that steals the show . Now for Minelli 's attempt:some have been hard on his rendition,and however,it features the best Emma ever:Jennifer Jones,the romantic heroine par excellence.Her savage beauty,looking tense,triumphs here. The supporting acts are well-chosen:Van Heflin is oafish,meek.The French Louis Jourdan is well-cast as Rodolphe Boulanger,Emma's lover who betrays her and leaves her to despair.Their final confrontation,in Boulanger's luxury mansion oozes hatred and contempt. The main drawback is the rural background:Minelli did not realize how this country life disgusted Emma:the wedding,a very very peasant one ,which Flaubert describes in lavish detail,is too short on the screen.The farms are too clean-Emma dreamed her childhood away because she could not stand the mediocrity of her milieu.She jumped out of the frying pan into the fire:a two-bit doctor,a would-be sawbones who 's totally incompetent.Van Heflin's rendering makes up for Minelli's weaknesses.The movie is sandwiched between two brief scenes of Flaubert 's trial (He was accused of immorality in his book),that's redundant.It would have been better to tell the audience about Emma's daughter's terrible fate:after the doctor's death,an orphan,she becomes a worker in a spinning mill.Supreme decay for a mother who was longing to be a socialite.
Madame Bovary is a difficult piece to translate to film. It is very
easy for the heroine to become either dislikable: either willfull (the
PBS version with Francesca Annis) or peevish (the Isabelle Hubert
What Minnelli so masterfully and ironically captures here is the "dream machine" that drives Madame Bovary (and society) to be dissatisfied with their daily lives, to want and need more and therefore to be perpetually unhappy with what they have. Of course, Minnelli was part of that machine for Hollywood, which is the irony. Here he uses the period-correct analogy of romance novels and magazine ads (and to a lesser extent operas and plays) as vehicles that feed and drive Bovary's dissonance with her reality. (James Mason as Flaubert, too!)
The irony that Flaubert was faulted for denegrating the french woman is fully captured here as well. This version still doesn't get to a real meaty statement of realization that men were not considered immoral or corrupt it they have affairs and forget about their children; but women were. Personally, I think that may have been one of Flaubert's real points - this same behavior would have been tolerated and venerated in a male.
Where this production succeeds so brilliantly over the others I mentioned is in the writing and performance of Emma. She is clearly delineated as being a victim of the commercials of her time - the ultimate consumer, and therefore very identifiable. Jone's own personal charm also factors in here. Her fresh innocence and desire to be liked and to entertain come through the role and make her sweeter. Annis is often a bit self satisfied and Hubbert ice cold, making their Emmas less likable, although perfectly valid and well performed roles, just the difference that writing, production and acting bring to the role.
Minnelli liked women and identified with foibles. He gives a very nice slant to Dr. Bovary, too. (Gives him a little more self knowledge and honor than Flaubert did, which also colors the relationship and the film.) Louis Jordan as her dream man is also colored very nicely here, as being sincerely in love with her and very conflicted. Something he does very well, and this all creates a marvelously satisfying production and package. When you add the great score, you have a very fine film indeed.
Wonderful performances by Jones and Heflin and splendid directorial realization overcome the spurious moralizing fore and aft tags in which Metro saw fit to sandwich the story. There were complaints for years about the scripting of the novel, but tell me, "What's missing?" I've read the novel at least a dozen times and seen the film many more times than that and all that is missing is Flaubert's 'Proustian' tendency to meander all around his themes with just one more detail. And, after the recent tedious Elizabeth Hubert version this film is exemplary in its efficiency and that makes me wonder if any of the original reviewers ever did read the book. Of course, the ball sequence is without peer, an unyielding display of erotic romanticism and unabashed narcissism. Bravo Vincent, Brava Jennifer!
Jennifer Jones is "Madame Bovary" in this 1949 adaptation of Flaubert's
novel, directed by Vincente Minnelli and also starring Van Heflin,
James Mason, Louis Jourdan, Gene Lockhart, Alf Kjellin and Ellen Corby.
The film starts with Flaubert, on trial for indecency. As he defends
the book, he tells the story of Emma Bovary, a delusional young woman
living on a farm who, from romantic novels, has unrealistic ideas about
love and happiness. She nabs a simple country doctor (Van Heflin) and
proceeds to buy herself an incredible wardrobe and live as a rich
woman, even though she and her husband are not wealthy. She has a
little girl whom she ignores, leaving her to the nurse (Corby). Emma
soon becomes bored and attempts to seduce a young man (Kjellin), but
his mother (Gladys Cooper) catches on and sends him to Paris. Then she
meets Boulanger (Jourdan) at a party, becomes his lover and plans to
run away with him to Italy - but he sees what high maintenance she is
and takes off without her. In an attempt to make her husband more
prominent, she attempts to talk him into performing a new surgery, but
he refuses (in the book, however, he's ambitious as well and does the
surgery, which is a failure). Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her husband,
she owes a fortune, and if she doesn't find a way out, the family is
due to lose their home and furnishings.
"Madame Bovary" is one of the most stunning films ever made, with a captivating performance by Jones who makes Emma pathetic, desperate, frantic and sympathetic. As one of the comments on the board pointed out, it's easy to make Emma unlikable. With Jones' natural charm making her likable and somewhat sweet, we can see ourselves in Emma. She has great backup from Heflin as her cowed husband. Jourdan is handsome and arrogant - he sees his future with Emma, and he doesn't like it.
Minnelli handles every detail beautifully in this film. Not enough can be said about the waltz at the party, its dizzying effects making it one of the most thrilling scenes on film. When Emma later puts on the same gown and looks in the mirror and remembers that night, we know for her it was the ultimate dream evening, when she become one with the heroines of the novels she read. The gowns - well, there have been beautiful gowns in films - the 1938 Marie Antoinette comes to mind - and, as in that film, these gowns are works of art, particularly the white ball gown. When Boulanger returns from Italy, and Emma goes to see him, she actually looks different - tired and older - the subtlety of the makeup is spectacular.
Though set in France in the mid-1800s, Madame Bovary is a classic because it deals with an ordinary person so dazzled by illusion that she cannot accept anything about her life as it exists. How apropos for today, when the media bludgeons us with multimillion dollar homes, heiresses who go to parties every night, size zero, red carpet premieres - it's hard to be happy when you're a housewife in sweats paying $4 a gallon for gas. Even before films, television, the tabloids and the Internet, people weren't satisfied with their lives because they were told to compare their inside with someone else's outside and found themselves not measuring up.
"Madame Bovary" isn't an immorality tale, it's a morality tale and, of course, Flaubert was acquitted. It's considered one of the two greatest novels ever written, along with Anna Karenina, and it's perfectly adapted for film in the 1949 version - the story of a woman who thinks that shopping on credit till she drops is the way to real happiness. Like many in the 20th and 21st centuries have found, she was wrong.
Though I'm sure that the various French dramatizations of Madame Bovary
are probably superior to this film, this English language version that
MGM did in 1949 is as good as any we would have gotten from Hollywood.
of that era. Jennifer Jones, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan, and James Mason
were unfortunately hampered by the Code in this version.
MGM's version incorporates the author right into his story. James Mason plays Gustave Flaubert and the film opens with him on trial for authoring indecent material as the French censors of the day saw Madame Bovary. While on the witness stand defending his work, he tells the story of his creation Emma Bovary, a girl with silly romantic notions who brings tragedy all around because of them.
Jennifer Jones is Emma and imagine Bernadette Soubirous who instead of having a divine experience has the misfortune to have other things peak her interest as an adolescent. She reads a whole lot of romantic novels who give her exaggerated notions about the nature of love.
She lives in a pretty dull town in Normandy which was also where Flaubert himself hailed from and which he satirizes in acid in this work. She marries solid, dependable Van Heflin who's a doctor and who she hopes will give her a better life.
It's in Heflin's character that the Code watered down what Flaubert was trying to say. Here he's an upright guy, a lot on the dull side, but dependable. In the novel he's as much desiring of social climbing as Jones is. In fact in the film he refuses to perform an operation that might gain him fame and success because he knows he's not qualified to do it. In the novel he does the operation and it ends in disaster all around.
Jones takes lovers Louis Jourdan and Alf Kjellin and runs up bills that put Heflin into financial disaster. All the while refusing to face the truth about life and herself.
Given the Code restrictions director Vincente Minnelli does as best as he can with his cast. James Mason makes a brilliant and erudite Flaubert on the stand. But considering he was on trial for indecency by not showing the alleged indecency to the fullest the Code defeated what could have been a classic.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is impossible to do a perfect movie version of any novel. This is
particular true about great novels. There have been huge numbers of
versions of Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tom Jones,
David Copperfield, War and Peace...you can add the titles... and while
many are really impressive as movies (or are favorites of the viewers)
few of them are as good as the novel. It's because there is a serious
change in the art form involved - the written word can be read and
interpreted in so many ways, while the cinematic "eye" of the film may
not encapsulate all the writer planned to push with his/her words.
When Gustave Flaubert wrote MADAME BOVARY in the middle of the 19th Century, he shook up that country in a way that was unusual. Flaubert wrote a story of passion and love, but from the standpoint of a female bourgeoisie in the countryside. And one who finds her escape from humdrum provincial life by her overly romantic imagination. But Emma Bovary is doomed by that imagination, and the unscrupulous reactions to it by the men who dominated that same provincial world. Her lovers, like the aristocratic Rodolphe, see her as a willing tool for their pleasure, or as a silly impediment to their careers (as her lawyer lover soon finds). As the strands of her romanticism are lopped off, as the debts she gets that her husband Charles cannot pay lead to bankruptcy, she goes to pieces and kills herself.
The full novel is wonderful, and even now I consider it possibly the best 19th Century novel. But it's appearance met with public disbelief and anger. Flaubert was put on trial for publishing an immoral book. The censors and hypocrites felt that he had besmirched the pious middle classes of the France of the 1840s and 1850s. Flaubert was acquitted, and the scandal of the trial improved the sales of the novel.
Vincent Minnelli's 1949 movie can't reach the effect of the full novel - and I say this thinking that I could only read it in English, so that I can imagine what it must be in French! He does peel the skin of the provincial society, with it's social leaders, money lenders (like Lhereux - Frank Allenby) here who are all business and no sentiment, aristocrats (Rodolphe is Louis Jourdan), and attempts to push themselves into the greater world outside. Just as Emma sees herself the object of desire by aristocrats at the ball Rodolphe throws, the village sees itself made into a household name if Charles can perform the great foot operation that will restore one of the rustics feet to normal. Both are in for great disappointment.
Minnelli sense of composition works wonders in the film. The scene where Emma finally is the center of attention looks shows her surrounded by handsome beaus in a mirror - it looks like an idea from the mid-century painter Winterhalter (although he was Austrian). The backwoods provincial background is caught perfectly. When debts starts swooping around a frightened Emma, she goes to a man she respects, and finds he's ready to make a financial arrangement if she'll sleep with him!
Minnelli surrounds the telling of the story by showing the trial of Flaubert. James Mason plays the writer, eloquently "forgiving" his heroine for flaunting the conventions of a hypocritical society. Jennifer Jones possibly had her best performance in this film - not her Oscar winner, SONG OF BERNADETTE. The climatic moment when she decides to destroy herself makes her behave like an animal - and she is a trapped animal at that point. Van Heflin plays the good-natured but boring Charles quite well.
Actually the cast was up to snuff regarding their parts, and somewhat surprising. George Zuuco, for example, is the lawyer (Dubocage) whose clerk Leon (Alf Kjelin) was Emma's second lover. He does not appear frequently but appears reading the papers of a lawsuit that Emma is trying to use to raise money on her father-in-law's prospective estate. Zucco is appalled by it, and angrily confronts Leon about this waste of time for their busy office. But a moment afterward, Zucco suddenly realizes why Leon is doing this. Actually (for a Zucco character) he softens, and says, "Do yourself a favor and forget her my boy." Not helpful for poor Emma, but actually sensible for Leon (who has a future in law).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Madame Bovary (1949): Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan, Van Heflin, James
Mason, Alf Kjellin, Gladys Cooper, John Abbott, Gene Lockhart, Harry
Morgan, Frank Allenby, Ellen Corby, George Zucco, Eduard Franz, Henri
Letondal, Esther Somers, Paul Cavanaugh, Frederic Tozere, Vernon
Steele, John Ardizoni, Charles Bancroft, Paul Bryar, David Cavendish,
Fred Cordova, George Davis, Edith Evanson, Jack George, Stuart Holmes,
Karl Johnson, Gracille LaVinder, Bert LeBaron, Manuel Paris, Lon Poff,
Constance Purdy, Phil Schumacher, Helen St. Rayner, Sailor
Vincent....Director Vincente Minnelli, Screenplay Robert Ardrey.
French novelist Gustave Flaubert's classic masterpiece has enjoyed a long history of film adaptations. This version, from 1949 and directed by Hollywood legend Vincente Minnelli, however, takes the crown for the most faithful, most unique and interesting adaptation of the book. No, it's not perfect and it is by far the most "Hollywood" of the film versions, and it's but one of many films adapted from 19th century novels released at the end of the 1940's (Anna Karenina with Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson and "The Heiress" with Olivia De Havilland are others). The cinematography is grand, the sets and costumes are beautiful, perhaps too beautiful and even so, this is a supreme work of cinema and those who have read and enjoyed Madame Bovary will be sure to appreciate this film. Jennifer Jones stars as the eponymous Madame, the doomed "fallen woman" who seeks escape from her dull provincial life and marriage. Gorgeous Jennifer Jones was once an unknown actress in 30's Hollywood until her marriage to David O. Selznick rocketed her to fame. This is possibly her best performance on film, for compared to the vixenish/innocent characters she portrayed in other films, this particular performance is developed and more challenging for her. Rather than portraying Mme. Bovary as victim of fate we are forced to sympathize with, she goes all out in making her appear spoiled, self-centered and careless. Her addictions ? Living luxuriously as if she were a member of French aristocracy. But the truth is far less glamorous. She married a country doctor, Charles (Van Heflin), and was initially happy. But boredom quickly sets in. Charles is constantly away on house-calls, often in distant locales, and house-frau Emma feels trapped. Seeking to live a rich and exciting life, such as the lives of women she has read about in countless romance novels, she makes friends with prominent Parisians when she sets up a salon in her home. She goes to a ball where she meets Rodolphe Boulanger (Louis Jourdan) who becomes her lover. She gives birth to a girl, when she had wanted a boy (to live vicariously through on account of males being free and women having less rights). She neglects her home and pursues her passions with Rodolphe. Ultimately, Rodolphe has used her and tires of the affair, abandoning her after promising an elopement. Things begin to go downhill from there. She takes up another lover, her husband's friend Leon Dupuis (Alf Kjellin). Because she has furnished the home with expensive furniture, wears costly imported gowns from Paris, debts mount and soon there is no money left to pay the house with. In despair, she drinks arsenic and dies. This is not a pretty story. The addition of Gustav Flaubert's court trial (his book was banned in France) is a superb touch. Flaubert (James Mason) defends himself by stating that Mme. Bovary is a figure straight out of reality and that he was only mirroring reality. Madame Bovary's drowns in her own excesses. Paris, too, could die the same way. Minnelli's film is a winner in many respects. The music by Miklos Rozsa is both touching and dramatic. The cinematography by Robert Planck has the feel of old Hollywood costume epic. The costumes are from veteran Hollywood costume designer Walter Plunkett (of Gone With The Wind). The best touches are found within the film's structure. For instance, at the ball, Emma becomes the center of attention and guests go as far as to break windows when she gasps for air after a dizzying waltz. Louis Jourdan as Rodolphe is perfectly cast, and here he is at the beginning of his long career in film. He may not be doing anything particularly good, but he fits the character's shallowness and selfishness (like Madame Bovary's) quite well. Van Helfin as the long-suffering, betrayed husband is terrific. This film, unfortunately, is one that time has forgot and what a shame. There's so many reasons to preserve it: Vincente Minelli (who would marry Judy Garland and father Liza Minnelli) felt this was one of his early masterpieces and would later go on to make other hit films like "Gigi" (working again with Jourdan). If you must watch one Mme. Bovary film, make it this one. It's also highly recommended for viewing in college English classes reading the book.
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