Monday, 28 March 2011

"Marie Antoinette" (1938)

"Perhaps the great loves come with great tears."


Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Running Time: 2 hours, 29 minutes
Random Fact: The great novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, helped with part of the script
Based on the biography Marie-Antoinette by Stefan Zweig (1933)

Norma Shearer .... Queen Marie-Antoinette (Oscar nominated)
Robert Morley ..... King Louis the Sixteenth (Oscar nominated)
Tyrone Power ..... Count Axel von Fersen
John Barrymore .... King Louis the Fifteenth
Joseph Schildkraut .... The Duke of Orleans

I thought I'd blog a bit about some of my favourite movies and, still suffering from an OCD about such things thanks to two History degrees, I decided to post them in the order in which the movies were produced, beginning with Marie Antoinette from 1938.

Marie Antoinette covers the life of the Austrian princess who married the future King of France from her arranged marriage at the age of fourteen in 1770 until her execution during the French Revolution, twenty-three years later. One of Hollywood's greatest and highest-paid actresses of the 1930s, Norma Shearer, the so-called "Queen of MGM," signed on to play the title role, in a performance which many (included Norma herself) regarded as the greatest of her career. She narrowly, and controversially, lost out on the Oscar to Bette Davis for her performance in Jezebel.

Despite its age, Marie Antoinette is a beautiful movie to look at and it captures the decadence and glamour of upper class life before the Revolution perfectly. When showing Marie-Antoinette's late teens and early twenties, when she was Europe's ultimate socialite, the movie's costume designer, Adrian, spared no expense and no detail to try and accurately bring to life haute couture from the 1770s.
However, unlike the 2006 version of her life, starring Kirsten Dunst, 1938's Marie Antoinette is not simply a fun and colourful look at the life of the original "girl who has everything." It's also a proper, good old-fashioned historical epic and its final quarter, chronicling Marie-Antoinette's imprisonment during the French Revolution, is tough to watch. The scene in which she and her two children have their last meal with her husband, Louis, before he is taken for his execution on the following morning is incredibly moving, mainly because it is so understated. Norma Shearer's face as she watches her on-screen husband say grace before the meal, knowing that tomorrow he will be dead, is a wonderful example of saying more by doing less in one's acting. A warning though, the following scene, in which the queen's eight year-old son, Louis-Charles, is ripped from her arms to be placed in solitary confinement by their republican jailers is absolutely harrowing to watch. Norma Shearer pulls no punches with her performance and her screams as they try to separate her from her child take a long time to forget. It's made all the worse to watch when you know that it's almost word-for-word historically accurate.

Marie Antoinette is also a great example of how a movie can be historically accurate, without being a documentary. No movie or play or novel based on history will ever be truly accurate; it can't be. Nor should it be. It's supposed to entertain and playwrights and authors are supposed to cut the dull, confusing and messy bits out of life. They have to give life a storyline and so in historical movies, I think it's okay for many details (time line, the number of characters, etc.) to be ditched or fudged (within reason), in order to make the production flow together as a story. However, that doesn't mean you have to change or misrepresent the people you're portraying. I'm of the opinion that they were people, too, and if you're making money out of their life story, the least you can do is to try and get their personalities right. Marie Antoinette certainly does this. Yes, it has been criticised for some for being slightly too harsh on her rival, Madame du Barry, and for portraying her husband, King Louis, as much more simplistic than he actually was. However, in fairness, a lot of that comes from the biography the movie is based on and Louis's dignity and honesty is shown in full detail, particularly in the final half of the movie. And with its leading lady, Marie Antoinette gives by far the most accurate and honest dramatisation of Marie-Antoinette yet seen on screen. As a young woman, she is certainly frivolous, extravagant and "terrified of boredom," but she is also warm-hearted, friendly, honest and kind. Most importantly, Marie Antoinette captures what more modern versions of her life have failed to show - that as she grew up, she possessed a dignity and regal self-assurance that even her enemies commented upon. Given that Norma Shearer manages to convincingly play Marie-Antoinette from a naive but well-intentioned teenager to an heroic but heartbroken widow, it's easy to see why so many people praised the performance.

If you enjoy period dramas or anything from "the Golden Age of Hollywood," try and find a copy of Marie Antoinette. Just be warned: prepare to weep. I watched it one night in our student house in Oxford, because my housemate Beth loves old movies and I thought it would cheer her up after the bad day she had. Unfortunately, when I turned the lights on I found that Beth's mascara had reached her chin and tears were pouring off her face. Turns out, she had been quietly sobbing for the last forty-five minutes. 

"Didn't cheer you up... did it?" I asked, nervously.

"Those filthy, murdering bastards!" she roared, before shaking her head and blowing her nose. "Look what they did to her! I'm a lot angrier with the world than we started watching this. Why did you think that would cheer me up? WHY!"

Like the movie says, all the great stories come with great tears!


  1. Thank you so much, Gareth! I cannot even watch the final scenes of this wonderful film anymore...they are just too traumatic for me.

  2. Fantastic article! Thank you!


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