Although it has its admirers, this lengthy but consistently gripping film remains an underrated biopic done in the grand Hollywood manner. It's also an eerily apt showcase for Norma Shearer, and along with PRIVATE LIVES, SMILIN' THROUGH and THE WOMEN, stands as one of the best things she
ever did. Shearer, long MGM's queen, was on the verge of a decline, like Marie's, linked to her husband's death. True, Marie Antoinette was executed and Shearer lost interest in her career and retired a wealthy woman, but the parallels between the lives of the two women permeate the film. Planned
as early as 1933 by Shearer's husband, "boy genius" Irving Thalberg, but halted in 1936 when he died, it's amazing just how well the project turned out.
Marie is married off to Louis Auguste (Morley), heir to the throne, by her mother, Empress of Austria (Alma Kruger), but is repelled by her first meeting with the dullwitted, unattractive Dauphin. (Shearer and Morley share an excellent scene as Louis hints at his impotence--an adult, well-handled
scene for the Hollywood of the day.) Further distressing Marie are the sneering, sickly King Louis XV and his conspiratorial mistress, Mme. Du Barry (George). Du Barry, feeling threatened by the future queen, forms intrigues against her, and Marie quickly becomes a pariah at court. She takes
Orleans's (Schildkraut) advice and gains solace from fast living, beginning an affair with Count Axel de Fersen (Power). Marie is almost sent back to Austria in disgrace after humiliating the bitchy Du Barry at a ball, but the king dies suddenly and Marie becomes Queen. Fersen tells her that her
duties must come before their love, and he sails off to America. Marie develops an affectionate relationship with Louis, who also gathers his wits enough to produce two children. Orleans, however, who had denied Marie help at her low ebb, is now an outcast at court and incites the people to
revolt. The guillotine beckons.
After Thalberg's death, MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer tried to make a flat settlement with his estate. Shearer, however, held the studio to an agreement giving Thalberg's estate a percentage of all the profits MGM had made since its 1924 consolidation. The handling of MARIE ANTOINETTE ended up being
not only an attempt to control costs on one of the studio's priciest pictures ever, but also perhaps a subtle revenge on the victorious Shearer. Mayer replaced original director Sidney Franklin with Woody Van Dyke, a no-nonsense helmsman who didn't cotton to La Norma's requests for more takes.
Gibbons's magnificent sets, crammed with authentic French antiques, outdid Versailles, and costumers Adrian and Steele used 500 yards of silk on one of Shearer's gowns alone. Daniels's camerawork is exceptional, and Van Dyke makes this long film move like a short one. The flash of Barrymore and
Schildkraut (with a great makeup job) steals many scenes, but top supporting honors go to the gifted Morley, who somehow lost an Oscar to Walter Brennan in KENTUCKY. Above all, though, the film showcases the regal qualities fans loved in La Norma. While some scenes show her fluttering or hamming
it up a bit much, there's a lot of excellent stuff here, especially as Marie awaits death. The overall result is ornate and satisfying, typical of MGM at its production zenith.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Although it has its admirers, this lengthy but consistently gripping film remains an underrated biopic done in the grand Hollywood manner. It's also an eerily apt showcase for Norma Shearer, and along with PRIVATE LIVES, SMILIN' THROUGH and THE WOMEN, stan… (more)