Only MGM could make you feel like the overthrow of an absolute monarchy is a bad thing. That’s the way the filmmakers behind Marie Antoinette wants the audience to feel when watching this movie. Likely bound by the production code, the 1938 film doesn’t highlight Marie’s excesses as much as you would expect. There’s a rather short sequence during the first half of the film that centers on her plight to win over Paris, but the focus is squarely on making Marie out to be a tragic figure, downed by the times she lived in, not by her own mistakes.
That’s not to say it’s a dated movie, just, again, different from what you may have been hoping for. Historical epics like these from the Golden Age often are more enjoyable than I expect, likely because the focus is on making a movie, not being historically accurate. You can easily get wrapped up in the romance of Marie Antoinette because of the immaculate set designs and wonderful performances. The clock may say that it runs 157 minutes, but it really doesn’t seem like it.
Marie Antoinette was also directed by one of MGM’s best, W.S. Van Dyke, who also helmed The Thin Man and San Francisco. He’d probably be better remembered today if he hadn’t died so young. He was only 53 when he died of cancer in 1943.
Norma Shearer was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, although she lost to Bette Davis’ performance in Jezebel. It’s hard to think of two entirely different styles of acting nominated in one single year. Although I love Shearer, you have to admit, she always remained with one foot cemented in the silent way of acting. Her scenes with a very young Tyrone Power spell that out.
The other actor here who secured an Oscar nomination was Robert Morley in his Hollywood debut. Morely went on to have an incredible career and his performance as the hapless King Louis XVI explains why. There’s also another great Joseph Schildkraut performance in here and John Barrymore makes an appearance as King Louis XV.
Warner Bros. Home Video did release Marie Antoinette as a pressed disc back in 2006 and it did appear in a box set. However, the set and the original DVD is out of print. Last year, Warner Archive issued a DVD-R edition, which does include the two spectacular MGM shorts included on the ’06 disc. One short, Hollywood Goes To Town, shows off the extravagant premiere MGM set up for the film in Los Angeles. The other is another Another Romance of Celluloid short, which goes over the process of developing film and shows off some “coming” attractions (for 1938).
I really do love Norma Shearer. I think she’s one of the most underrated stars of the 1930s and it’s too bad her star waned in the years following the death of her husband, Irving G. Thalberg. At least she got one last great role in The Women. In Marie Antoinette, she does give one of her great late performances and the final scenes in the film are enough to make you tear up.