Marie Antoinette (1938)

Genres - Drama, Historical Film, Romance  |   Sub-Genres - Biopic [feature], Historical Epic  |   Run Time - 160 min.  |   Countries - USA  |  
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Stefan Zweig, on whose popular biography this opulent film was based, had great sympathy for the star-crossed Austrian princess who became queen of France mainly to stabilize relations between two crumbling empires. History has generally not been quite as kind although most sources agree on the lady's final acts of bravery. Noblesse, after all, oblige. Like Marie Antoinette, Norma Shearer was a dethroned queen of sorts, her diminutive, workaholic husband Irving Thalberg having for more than a decade been the true power behind the scenes at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. But Thalberg had died more than a year before production commenced in late December of 1937 and Marie Antoinette was really a final bequest to his widow, a bequest that not even Louis B. Mayer could refuse her. To say that Marie Antoinette is overproduced is merely to state the obvious; was the real Versailles ever really this splendid? But although hundreds of extras mill about ornate sets, the narrative itself remains a bit stuffy. They borrowed Tyrone Power from 20th Century-Fox to play the dashing Von Fersen -- dashing according to Zweig but a description not entirely supported by surviving portraits -- but he is really too young to fill out the character whether in romantic clinches with La Belle Antoinette or as her heroic, if hapless, would-be savior. When all is said and done, neither Shearer nor Power do justice to the age and its decadence. And how could they, existing as they are in a Hollywood Versailles where romance at all times takes precedence over politics. The historic final days of the Bourbons are probably better represented here by the supporting cast: John Barrymore's old roue Louis XV; Joseph Schildkraut's painted and decadent Orleans; Gladys George's scheming but slightly dense Du Barry; and last but far from least, Robert Morley's awkward but well-intentioned Dauphin. The latter's performance remains Marie Antoinette's true tour-de-force and it is one of those Hollywood conundrums that he should lose a best supporting acting OscarĀ© to Walter Brennan, who won that year for playing Walter Brennan in Kentucky.