Thursday, November 23, 2006

Hold the Revision: Marie Antoinette (1938)

Certain cultural moments leave the Siren scratching her head, and the greeting accorded Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette is one. Not because the Siren dislikes the movie--she hasn't seen it and isn't enough of a Sofia fan to drop the newborn and rush out to remedy that--but because all the critics keep telling her it's based on a "revisionist" view of the doomed queen, an analysis that doesn't paint the woman as heartless, extravagant and silly.

To which the Siren replies, just what in the sam hill is so all-fired revisionist about that? Has any American film ever portrayed the French queen as anything other than sympathetic? Okay, the Siren can think of one: Start the Revolution Without Me, a breathlessly silly 1970 comedy the Siren loves. In it, Billie Whitelaw plays MA as a scheming nymphomaniac, a characterization the Revolutionary pamphleteers would have recognized and relished. Otherwise, l'Autrichienne gets sweetheart press over here, and always has. Prime example: the 1938 biopic starring MGM's Queen of the Lot, Norma Shearer.

No European film could ever be quite as royalist as this one. As hagiography, it makes Ivan the Terrible Part I look like Scarface. Marie is a victim of history, a good-hearted woman with a strong sense of duty, too noble to act on her passion for Count Axel von Fersen (Tyrone Power, barely there) after Louis XVI gets his (delicately unmentioned) phimosis cured. The revolution, it's suggested, wouldn't have been necessary if that nasty Joseph Schildkraut, playing the Duc d'Orleans, hadn't kept stirring things up. Starving peasants? Overtaxed middle class? ruinous wars? Geez, it wasn't Marie's fault that she didn't know how to stop a bread riot. She was just trying to be the best darn Queen of France she could be.

Still, I defy anyone with a love of classic film to view Marie Antoinette without, at minimum, getting some pleasure out of Cedric Gibbons' art direction. You could say MGM was unable to use Versailles, but the real answer is why bother, when they had the back lot? Gibbons worked not to recreate the world's most famous palace, but to suggest and, finally, outdo it as only MGM could. The spaces are bigger and bolder than in real life, full of laquered staircases, blazing klieg-light candelabra, and furniture and tapestries brought back by buyers rummaging through France. When the studio recreated the Hall of Mirrors for a ball sequence, they made it twice as big as the original. That's a pretty good metaphor for MGM's entire aesthetic, right there.

Adrian's costumes were equally over the top--check out this marvelously detailed site for a complete rundown of each costume. The site also has color snapshots of those costumes which have survived to the present day, and the gowns may be more lavish than anything the real Marie ever wore. Irving Thalberg was planning this vehicle for wife Shearer when he died in 1936, and at first it was planned as a Technicolor feature. It is a crying shame that money considerations meant it was filmed in black-and-white. One fur was even sent abroad to be dyed the color of Norma's eyes.

Shearer was a fascinating person, as Gavin Lambert demonstrated in his 1990 biography, but the Siren has a hard time warming to her performances. She had a marvelous voice, elegant posture and one of the most beautiful profiles in screen history, but she was very mannered, a back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead kind of dramatic actress. Marie Antoinette, however, definitely ranks with The Women and Idiot's Delight as one of Shearer's best talkie performances. Shearer spent hours learning to move gracefully under the heavy costumes, and her carriage is always aristocratic. That physical focus frees up Shearer's face and gestures, and her emotions flow much more organically than usual. The movie was a personal favorite of the actress. (In later years Shearer owned prints of only two of her movies--Romeo and Juliet and Marie Antoinette.)

And Shearer's greater believability as Marie Antoinette also probably had something to do with a wee bit of identification. Thalberg had been dead two years, and Shearer's power as Queen of the Lot was ebbing away. She had wanted old pal Sidney Franklin to direct, but an underhanded maneuver (did he make any other kind?) by studio chief Louis B. Mayer resulted in Franklin being replaced with W.S. "One-Take Woody" Van Dyke. The replacement probably helped the picture (Van Dyke, of Thin Man fame, was a better director), but such a thing would never have happened when Norma ruled at the Boy King Thalberg's side. When filming stopped, she was only four years and five movies from retirement.

The 1938 Marie Antoinette puts suffering Shearer front and center throughout, but it is the kings who stand out. John Barrymore seems more dissipated than even his role as Louis XV requires. But the Siren's favorite, and the real reason she would watch the movie again, is Robert Morley as Louis XVI. The Siren is an ardent small-r republican, prone to point out irritably that tearjerking scenes of Marie separated from her children obscure the question of the sufferings of France's less privileged children. But Morley, spending his last night alive lovingly repairing his son's toy soldier, manages to make her feel sorry for a Bourbon. Touché, MGM.


Gloria said...

My own favourite film on the French Revolution is Ettore Scola's "la Nuit de Varennes" which isn't precisely anti-monarchy, in the end... so I agree with you that the Films on revolution tend to be as sentimental about the kings of France as the cartoon "Anastasia", and ultimately anti- revolution. Not to mention those legions of scarlett pumpernickels always gallantly defying the unpolite and un refined sans-culottes... Possibly jean Renoir's "La Marsellaise" is one of the few films to explain and defend the French people's case.

I'm afraid I can't get too sentimental about Bourbons: I have to support them -compulsorily- by paying taxes :p

Brian Darr said...

I haven't seen either the new or the old Marie Antoinette but I did see the Scola film years ago. I was shown it by my 9th-grade World Civilizations teacher, and it caused quite a stir in the class. I don't know how many others in the class had, like me, never seen full frontal female nudity on screen before, but I'd bet nobody'd seen it in a schoolroom setting.

That teacher also showed us another pair of French Revolution films that semester: History of the World Part I and Reign of Terror aka the Black Book, which I'd totally forgettn about until finding myself in the midst of an Anthony Mann kick a few years ago. That's a good film too, though also fitting pretty comfortably in the anti-revolution box.

The Siren said...

Ah, La Marseillaise is one of the few Renoir films I have left to see. I had forgotten the Bourbons are still ruling in Spain! But it could be worse ... you could have an elected leader in place due to primogeniture, and he could be far worse than Juan Carlos. Vive la Revolution, indeed.

As for female nudity--I grew up in Alabama. There we were shown the Zeffirelli Romeo & Juliet, with the love scene carefully excised. Full frontal female nudity? hell, the librarian took a marker to the nude ladies in the anthropology books.

Brian, I had forgotten all about the Mann film. Did you have the Alpha DVD? I am intrigued but Alpha quality is often so bad.

Have either of you seen the Wajda Danton? I have not. I am still waiting for someone to film the life of my favorite revolutionary, Desmoulins.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Saw the Wajda, Scola, Renoir and Coppola films. Liked them all. I actually saw Start the Revolution without Me at least twice theatrically. My favorite scene is the costume ball.

Exiled in NJ said...

I did not realize this was Morley's first role, according to IMDB, but the amazing thing is that in that still, and in the film itself, he is instantly recognizeable. He changed so little as he aged. So unlike the many Brit actors of my time that you wrote about in that 'tribute' to their dissolution.

The Siren said...

Peter!! I am catching up with your posts. Hope Thailand is treating you well. I am delighted that you also appreciate Start the Revolution Without Me. My favorite bit is Gene Wilder: 'I broke my bird.' Cracks me up every time.

Exiled, you are right about Morley! he really is the best thing in the movie. He had a lot of trenchant observations about Shearer in his memoirs too, which I want to get my hands on.

Tonio Kruger said...

I'm praying my local indy video store has this flick available for rental because I had just promised myself I'd buy no more old movie DVDs until after Christmas and I'm not sure I can wait until December 26 to see this one.

That away, I'm kinda to admit that apart from the above mentioned "Start the Revolution without Me" and "History of the World, Part I," the only film I remember seeing about the French Revolution is Ronald Coleman's version of "A Tale of Two Cities." At least that version shows a little sympathy for the peasants--at least at first. But then it's not exactly a peasant the Ronald Coleman character ultimately sacrifices himself for, either...

As for "Start the Revolution without Me," well, that film was certainly different. It seems to be one of the first comedies starring Gene Wilder that I remember. (His bit part in "Bonnie and Clyde" probably doesn't count.)
And it's certainly a better parody of Dumas's "The Corsican Brothers" than a certain Cheech and Chong movie that need not be mentioned. However, the ending left a bit to be desired and the rather obvious attempts at then-contemporary political commentary (the French king as LBJ, the revolutionaries as the SDS, etc.) haven't aged as well as one might think.

Oh, well. As I've said, it is different. And yes, I liked Billie Whitelaw in that movie too...

Anonymous said...


The Siren said...

Tonio - I was in my teens when I saw "Start the Revolution" and any political reverberations sailed right past me. The king as LBJ--cute, almost as cute as D.W. Griffith calling Robespierre and the Comittee of Public Safety Bolsheviks, in Orphans of the Storm. I can't make any claims for "Revolution" being a great (or even minor) contribution to film comedy, but for some reason it has always tickled me.

Emma, welcome and thanks for stopping by. I like your blog--everything from Leo to Chabrol!

Tonio Kruger said...

OK, I guess I should not protest too much, Campaspe.

After all, I've been a fan of Blake Edwards' "The Great Race" since childhood--and still am today despite the fact that that film was probably one of the farces which Tony Curtis appeared in just to pay for his child support checks.

And hey, I did watch the whole of "Start the Revolution without Me" so I obviously can't pretend I hated it that much. I guess it's that ending that ticks me off the most. (That and the fact that I could never figure out why they were always playing it on TV during the winter holiday season.)

I guess any film comedy that features Orson Welles AND Gene Wilder AND Donald Sutherland inevitably produces--ahem--great expectations. Though hopefully not of a Dickensian nature.

Btw, my favorite indy video store here in Dallas does have a DVD copy of the 1938 version of "Marie Antoinette." (See, there may be hope for the Red States yet.) Many thanks for the recommendation.

Bluemaryp said...

I really love this film and even bought a still from it off of ebay. I think Norma is very powerful in it and quenches your appetite for more. If you ever get really geeky about it like I did, there's this very nice essay about French Revolution portrayed in film:
Thanks for your blog. I wish I could have my own, but yours would always blow mine away, so I'll just keep reading yours!

Juanita's Journal said...

I do recall seeing Shearer in "THE DIVORCEE". I must admit . . . I really loved her in that movie.

The Rush Blog said...

Thalberg had been dead two years, and Shearer's power as Queen of the Lot was ebbing away. She had wanted old pal Sidney Franklin to direct, but an underhanded maneuver (did he make any other kind?) by studio chief Louis B. Mayer resulted in Franklin being replaced with W.S. "One-Take Woody" Van Dyke. The replacement probably helped the picture (Van Dyke, of Thin Man fame, was a better director), but such a thing would never have happened when Norma ruled at the Boy King Thalberg's side.

Mayer's replacement of Sidney Franklin with Woody Van Dyke didn't stop Ms. Shearer. According to Robert Morley, she still managed to maintain some control of Van Dyke.