Marie Antoinette (1938)

Marie Antoinette (1938)

[Note: The following review is of a non-Peary title; click here to read more.]

“I once thought if I were queen I’d be so happy — to be applauded and adored and obeyed.”

When Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (Alma Kruger) tells her daughter Marie Antoinette (Norma Shearer) that she will become the next queen of France, Marie is excited for the new adventure but is quickly demoralized when she realizes her husband-to-be (Robert Morley) is an overweight, shy man who would prefer to be left alone to make locks. Marie finds solace in socializing at court, befriending a power-hungry duke (Joseph Schildkraut) and falling for a Swedish count (Tyrone Power) while resisting taunts from mean-spirited Madame du Barry (Gladys George). After Morley’s father (John Barrymore) dies, Marie and Louis (Morley) eventually have two children — but the wrath of the people of France has been building, and the royal family soon find themselves caught in a deadly spiral.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • French Revolution
  • Henry Daniell Films
  • Historical Dramas
  • John Barrymore Films
  • Norma Shearer Films
  • Robert Morley Films
  • Royalty and Nobility
  • Tyrone Power Films
  • W.S. Van Dyke Films

Norma Shearer’s crowning role as the “First Lady of MGM” was playing the title character in this big-budget biopic (directed by W.S. Van Dyke) about the infamous French queen who died at the guillotine (and apparently never actually said, “Let them eat cake.”). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film paints Marie in an almost uniformly positive light: she’s shown offering tremendous empathy and compassion towards Morley even when he’s at his most unsympathetic, and the eventual companionship they develop through their marriage is a worthy portrait of how arranged marriages can evolve into trusting alliances. Meanwhile, Morley’s portrayal of King Louis XVI is notable for refusing to villainize him, instead showing simply that he was constitutionally unsuitable for his role. The sets and costumes are marvelous, and the story-line reasonably engaging (though Power’s character is only given a peripheral role at best; I suppose MGM wanted to keep Shearer’s character “pure” and free from the actual ongoing affair she had with him in real life). The most intriguing supporting character is played by Joseph Schildkraut, whose make-up as the Duke d’Orleans is highly effective — see stills below for a comparison of his character “putting on an act” versus revealing his inner (true) character.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette (named by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Robert Morley as King Louis XVI
  • Joseph Schildkraut as the Duke d’Orleans

  • A touching portrayal of a respectful and loving “working marriage”
  • Magnificent sets and costumes

  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for Shearer’s Oscar-nominated performance.


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