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The France on Film Blogathon: "Marie Antoinette" (1938)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, Marie Antoinette (1938) opens when Marie Antoinette (Norma Shearer) is informed by her mother, Empress Marie Therese of Austria (Alma Kruger), that she is to marry the heir to the throne of France, the Dauphin Louis XVI (Robert Morley). Marie expects a life of grandeur, but finds that Louis is a shy and introverted man, who proves an unwilling husband as well. Her problems at the court are increased by Madame du Barry (Gladys George), the scheming mistress of King Louis XV (John Barrymore), who takes special pleasure in taunting Marie's inability to conceive an heir with the Dauphin. Though Marie initally seems to enjoy the support of the Duke d'Orléans (Joseph Schildkraut), he later reveals himself to be a duplicitious and power-hungry confidante.

Meanwhile, Marie meets the dashing Swedish diplomat Count Axel Fersen (Tyrone Power) and the two soon begin a romantic affair. A few days after their fourth wedding anniversary, as Marie goes to tell the Dauphin that she has fallen in love with Fersen, she learns that Louis XV has died unexpectedly of smallpox. When Louis XVI becomes King of France, Fersen realizes that he cannot conduct an affair with a queen and ends his relationship with Marie, but not before vowing his eternal love for her. Marie then decides to committ herself to France and her husband and soon bears two children first a daughter, Marie-Thérèse, and then a long-awaited son, Louis XVII. Years pass and Marie's extravagances, especially her unwitting purchase of an expensive diamond necklace, expose the French people's hatred for their Austrian queen. This, along with oppression and the political machinations of d'Orléans, leads to a revolution and the subsequent imprisionement of the royal family by rebels trying to overthrown the monarchy. Despite Fersen's efforts to rescue her, Marie Antoinette, as well as King Louis XVI, are sentenced to death and eventually meet their fate under the blade of a guillotine.

Marie Antoinette: I once thought if I were queen, I'd be so happy. To be applauded, then adored and obeyed. I don't want it now. I just want to be free to be with you, to love you. I cannot wear my crown upon my heart.

In 1933, while vacationing in Europe with her husband Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, Norma Shearer came across a book by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig called Marie Antoinette: The Portait of an Average Woman. She was immediately taken with the tragic story of the legendary French queen, believing that it could be the "part of a lifetime." Although Thalberg was not as excited as Shearer was, he indulged his wife by sending a telegram to MGM attorney J. Robert Rubin with instructions to buy the book for him. Upon their return to Hollywood, Thalberg assigned Claudine West and Ernest Vadja to write the script and Sidney Franklin, Shearer's most trusted director, to helm the picture. Meanwhile, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst was pursuing the same property as a vehicle for his mistress Marion Davies. To divert Hearst's attention from Marie Antoinette, Thalberg offered Davies the lead in Operator 13 (1934), a Civil War spy drama in which the heroine disguises herself first as a slave and then as a soldier. Although Thalberg insisted that this story would appeal more to Davies's fans, the film ultimately failed at the box-office, prompting the couple to leave MGM for Warner Bros.  

In early 1934, Thalberg pulled Franklin, West and Vadja off Marie Antoinette and put them on the costume drama The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), which starred Shearer, thus delaying production on the biography of the French queen. In late December 1935, it was announced that Marie Antoinette would be the first MGM feature to be shot in Europe and that Thalberg was planning to go to France in June 1936 in preparation for the film. In the meantime, however, Thalberg decided to assign Shearer to George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet (1936), postponing Marie Antoinette once again. At this point, the relationship between Thalberg and MGM chief Louis B. Mayer was not in the best of terms and the commercial failure of Romeo and Juliet strained it further. Thalberg believed that Mayer cared more about making money than making "quality films," while Mayer believed that Thalberg was indulging himself with "overtly uncommercial vanity productions." With Thalberg's unexpected death in September 1936, it looked as though Marie Antoinette would be shelved indefinitely.

Power and Shearer in a publicity still
Following Thalberg's death, Shearer discovered that she was being deprived of her husband's share in his "last great achievements," which Mayer wanted for himself. Her lawyer immediately demanded that she and her children be paid Thalberg's percentage of films he had worked on, but MGM contested the idea. When she took the story to gossip columnist Louella Parsons, an agreement was finally reached: Thalberg's estate would receive his full share of all profits from MGM films made and released between 1924 and 1938, the year his contract would have ended. In addition, Shearer made a deal to star in six more films for MGM, including one that she very much wanted to make: Marie Antoinette.

Sidney Franklin came to talk to me about doing Marie Antoinette, about all the work Irving had done on it, about Irving's ambition and hopes for it. I couldn't bear to do it without Irving. But then I couldn't bear to have someone else do it, or worst of all, not have it done it at all. It was the last picture Irving worked on, the last picture plan he worked out for me. I couldn't let that be for nothing.
(Norma Shearer)

Although Mayer wanted it understood that "Thalberg had not built MGM, and that MGM would continue without him," he had to concede that Marie Antoinette was a Thalberg project. Out of respect to both Thalberg and Shearer, Sidney Franklin, who had been "babysitting" Marie Antoinette on and off for four years, was hired to direct. Mayer also accepted Shearer's suggestion that Hunt Stromberg produce; he was "brainy and attentive to detail" and Thalberg would have approved of the choice. With both Franklin and Stromberg in her corner, Shearer was confident that Marie Antoinette would have "the Thalberg quality." For the first time in twenty months, Shearer was ready to step before a camera.

Behind of the scenes on Marie Antoinette
By the time Marie Antoinette was given a definite place on MGM's schedule, $400,000 had already been spent to cover pre-production costs. In addition, the number of writers who had worked on the script was staggering: Ernst Vadja, Claudine West, Carey Wilson, Robert E. Sherwood, Donald Ogden Stewart, Talbot Jennings, George S. Kaufman, Jacques Thiery, Sam Hoffenstein, Zoë Atkins, Bruno Frank and even renowned author F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the end, the screenplay for Marie Antoinette was credited only to Vadja, West and Stewart.

Marie Antoinette had probably involved more period research than any other picture of the decade. Edwin Willis, the head of the prop department, had spent three months in France buying fabrics, jewels, furniture, rugs, paintings, statues, scrolls and even original letters supposedly the largest single consignment of antiques ever received at Los Angeles Customs. Upon Willis's return to Hollywood, Mayer and Stromberg instructed Cedric Gibbons, the sudio's head designer, to prepare the most exquisite and impressive settings that could be conceived. Gibbons designed and supervised the construction of 98 full-size sets, all detailed reproductions of the Palace of Versailles. Although none were an exact replica, the sets proved authentic enough to earn Gibbons the seal of the approval from the French government. With the prospective budget already making any possibility of profit problematic, Stromberg denied Franklin's idea to shoot Marie Antoinette in Technicolor: "We have a great story and star and do not need the incentive color MIGHT [provide]."

Marie Antoinette's garden party gown
Before creating the lavish costumes for the 152 roles in the film, designer Gilbert Adrian travelled to France and Austria to research original 18th-century garments and materials. To ensure that Shearer's clothes would be accurate, Adrian carefully studied the paintings of Marie Antoinette, even using a microscope on them so that the embroidery and fabric would be identical. From Adrian's hundreds of sketches, the MGM costume shop turned out 2,500 costumes, while Max Factor and Company made more than 2,000 wigs. Shearer's 34 costumes were executed by an international assemblage of artisans using real silks, satins, brocades and precious stones.

Special silk velvets and brocades were woven in Lyons [...] and hundreds of yards of gold and silver lace and intricate trimmings were imported from the few small factories in Austria and Italy that still manufactured them. Eight embroiderers were brought from Hungary to decorate the costumes with exquisite handwork, and a former milliner of the Imperial Russian Opera costume department [...] agreed to oversee the making of hundreds of hats and headdresses for the film. Sydney Guilaroff, MGM's famed hairdresser [...] made Norma Shearer's eighteen wigs, and Jack Dawn created her porcelainlike makeup. Dozens of copies of eighteenth-century buckled shoes were made by hand. Embroidered gloves and a fortune in jewelry, some set with genuine precious stones and diamonds, were assembled. Not even history's real Marie Antoinette had been dressed with a more lavish hand! 
(W. Robert La Vine describing the effort that went into Shearer's costumes)

Robert Morley and Norma Shearer
Thalberg had wanted Charles Laughton to play Louis XVI, but he was unavailable at the time production began, working in England for tax reasons. Emlyn Williams, Peter Lorre, Roger Livesey and Oscar Homolka were then tested for the part, but Shearer rejected each one in favor of the English stage actor Robert Morley, who bore a striking resemblance to the French monach. Marie Antoinette marked Morley's screen debut and would be last film he made in Hollywood until Henry Koster's Take Her, She's Mine (1963). Morley was reportedly so displeased with the film that he dubbed it "Marie and Toilette."

Independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, who had been a "vocal friend" of Thalberg, offered to loan Gary Cooper for the role of Count Axel Fersen. Although Franklin was not pleased that Shearer had insisted on building up the romance between Marie and the Swedish diplomat, he figured that having Cooper play him might sell enough tickets to offset the extravagant costs of Marie Antoinette. Shearer, however, was uninterested; she wanted Hollywood's newest heartthrob, Tyrone Power. She had met him at a party and saw exactly why he was doing so well for 20th Century Fox he was "beautiful but unaffected." Stromberg was planning on casting either Herbert Marshall or Robert Taylor, but Shearer ultimately convinced him to hire Power instead. Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck agreed to loan Power to MGM on the condition that he borrow Spencer Tracy to star in Stanley and Livingstone (1939). When Zanuck realized that a star of Power's magnitude had been reduced to a mere supporting player in Marie Antoinette, he vowed never to loan him out again.

Just as Marie Antoinette was about to start filming, Mayer replaced Franklin with W. S. Van Dyke, who apparently had no knowledge of French history. Dubbed "One-Take Woody," Van Dyke was also known never to make more than two takes for any scene, thus saving Mayer a considerable amount of money. Although Shearer was angered by Van Dyke's refusal to be deferential or allow her more than two takes per scene, the two eventually grew to appreciate each other's working methods.

Power and Shearer at the premiere
Produced with a running time of 160 minutes (trimmed to 149 minutes after the first runs) and at a cost of $2.3 million, Marie Antoinette was MGM's most lavish extravaganza of the decade. After a successful preview at the California Theatre in Pomona on June 1, Marie Antoinette has its gala premiere at the Fox Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on July 8, 1938. According to the Los Angeles Times report, "this opening was the most spectacular in its history [...] Traffic was tied up on Wiltshire Boulevard for miles. San Vincente Boulevard was festooned with banners and dignified with French statues. Lights played into the sky. A thirty-piece orchestra directed by Frank Hodek, and accompanied by a chorus of twenty-four voices, entertained the 25,000 spectators seated in grandstands. The forecourt had been transformed into a veritable bower of flowers, shrubs, and fountains, a replica of the famous garden of Versailles. A battery of 265 sun arcs shone into the crowd of beautifully gowned and bejeweled stars and their escorts: Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, Florence Rice and Gilbert Adrian. Wild cheers came from the stands when Norma Shearer arrived on the arm of her co-star Tyrone Power."

A solid though not astounding success, Marie Antoinette did manage to gross almost $3 million, a sum greater than any previous MGM film. Variety said the film "approaches real greatness," though the reviewer admitted that the final decapitation of its heroine was "depressing," and "the exit is on the emotional downbeat." At the 11th Academy Awards, Marie Antoinette received four nominations: Best Actress (Shearer), Best Supporting Actor (Morley), Best Art Direction and Best Original Score.

The role of Marie Antoinette could not be more suited to Norma Shearer; after all, she was one queen playing another. In a 1938 interview with Shearer, entitled "The Queen Was in Her Parlor," Bosley Crowther claimed that Marie Antoinette would probably "envy" Shearer, who was a queen "of Hollywood, a much more prestigious position than Queen of France." Indeed, Marie Antoinette paralleled a shift in Hollywood's "royal alignment." By 1938, the new monarchs of MGM were ready to depose Shearer, one of a large group of female contract stars they were looking to replace with young models. Shearer had lost her greastest fan, her husband Irving Thalberg, and she would soon abdicate her throne and retire in 1941. 

This is my contribution to The France on Film Blogathon hosted by Summer at Serendipitous Anachronisms. To view all entries, click the links below.

DAY 1 | DAY 2

Grand Design: Hollywood as Modern Enterprise, 1930-1939 by Tino Baio (1995) | Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince by Mark A. Vieira (2010) | Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman (2005) | Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queens by Elizabeth A. Ford and Deborah C. Mitchell (2009) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes)


  1. Hi Cátia! I absolutely LOVE this post! So much fascinating behind the scenes info, really nice work. Norma Shearer sounds like quite a lady! I adore Marie Antoinette and this was a perfect addition to the France on Film Blogathon! Thank you for your lovely work!


    1. Hi Summer! I loved writing this post, so it makes me really happy that you enjoyed reading it. Thank you for hosting such a wonderful blogathon. :)

  2. Thanks for sharing all your research. The behind-the-scenes story would make a great movie in itself! I had no idea Robert Morley was so displeased with this film.

  3. What a great research you did here! THe backstory is almost as entertaining as the film itself. Marie Antoinette made me fall in love with Tyrone Power, and was a feast for the eyes. I've never seen a more lavish spectacle in any 1930s film. It is also very historically accurate, including Power's character.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Thank you. I completely agree. It was fascinating to learn everything that happened behind the scenes and all the effort that went into making this film.
      Thanks for reading. :)


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