Judge Brett Cullum saves this 1938 version of Marie's story from the guillotine.
Our review of Marie Antoinette (PBS), published November 15th, 2006, is also available.
"I cannot wear a crown upon my heart."—Marie
Marie Antoinette has been a hot hip figure ever since she lost her head in the French Revolution. She stirs imaginations, and conjures images of decadence and royal privilege. Sofia Coppola recently unleashed her vision of the famous queen, so it makes sense Warner Brothers would release their 1938 vault version of Marie Antoinette starring Norma Shearer (The Women) on DVD at the same time. It's a lavish Hollywood treatment complete with dresses that have a life all their own, and a melodramatic romance with Tyrone Power (Rawhide) pining for the doomed "glamazon" as she slips closer and closer to the guillotine. Grab a piece of cake, and get ready for an old school studio production about the notorious Queen of France who inspired an entire uprising with her sense of style and impropriety.
Norma Shearer was the wife of studio head at MGM Irving Thalberg when this project was greenlit sometime before his death in 1936. The film had a huge budget, lavish sets, and gargantuan costumes that made even the most over the top MGM spectacle look anemic. They did this one on a huge scale, and it was the Titanic of the day in terms of going over budget and promising a thin romance pasted over historical events. The movie is loosely based on a 1933 biography of Marie written by Stefan Zweig, but Marie Antoinette is unmistakably a studio product. The film follows the entire life of Marie Antoinette from Austria to France, and almost back again. At over two hours and thirty minutes, they have plenty of time to embellish on some historical episodes while mixing in a tepid romance that never gets off the ground. The MGM picture almost makes Antoinette a hero, she is shown as merely an innocent who had little skill at cloak and dagger games or controlling angry mobs.
This is Norma Shearer's defining role, and the actress was nominated for a 1938 Best Actress Academy Award. She eventually lost to Bette Davis in Jezebel, but it remains one of Norma's most powerful acting showcases. Also nominated was supporting actor Robert Morley (The Young Mr. Pitt) who made his movie debut as King Louis XVI. Art direction and the score also garnered recognition from Oscar, but no gold statues went home for people involved in the production.
The real reason for grabbing a copy of this 1938 production is the thousands of costumes and lavish set designs. You've never seen anything like this, and thankfully it's in black and white so you won't be blinded by all the crystals, sequins, and rhinestones everywhere. If you love Hollywood design, this is a classic movie of Moulin Rogue design overload proportions. None of it is terribly period accurate, but never mind the history and revel in the excess. The ballroom at Versailles was built to be twice as large as the original, so you can imagine what the rest of the castle looks like. The budget was a then preposterous 2.9 million dollars, and plans to render it in color were scrapped because of concerns it would cost even more to add Technicolor. The DVD print adds in some of the roadshow elements such as an intermission and overture which have not been seen since its release.
The full screen transfer is a striking grain-free print with little to distract viewers from the rococo grandeur. Lighting is pitch perfect as are black levels, and this is a fine example of how good black and white can look on DVD. Extras are sparse with only two vintage shorts included on the disc. Another Romance of Celluloid shows the physical process of making film stock, including some decidedly un-PC shots of "cotton pickers" which forces the studio to print an apology before they air. Hollywood Goes to Town gives us a glimpse of the elaborate premiere for the movie. Also included is a trailer.
Marie Antoinette will be a marvel for anyone searching for glamorous Hollywood productions of the late '30s. It was an ambitious undertaking at the time, and the dying wish of Irving Thalberg to showcase his wife Norma Shearer. It is a wildly expensive piece of cake that offers more glitz than gritty history. Something tells me if the real Marie Antoinette was captivated by pleasure and decadence, then this would be the treatment of her life she would champion (certainly far more than Kirsten Dunst running around listening to The Cure in Converse high-tops in the 2006 edition). Warner Brothers provides an excellent transfer with added musical interludes for your pleasure. The only thing I call for their head about is the lack of extras, but when a movie is this long perhaps it doesn't need much else.
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