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Madame Du Barry (1934) takes a farcical approach to its story of the famous courtesan who became King Louis XV's official mistress in eighteenth-century France. As The New York Times declared in 1934: "[It is] not the definitive screen masterpiece of one of the world's most celebrated fancy ladies, but it is always pleasant and sometimes it sparkles. It is, perhaps, the principal charm of the comedy that it never adopts the slightly apologetic air of funereal parlor solemnity which sometimes overcomes the cinema when it comes to grips with history. It wears its powdered wigs and jeweled rapiers gracefully and it does not suffer from too conscientious a passion for historical truth."
In other words, this historical romance is presented as a fun and funny romp instead of an exercise in strained seriousness. Variety, interestingly, criticized the film for just this reason, saying, "Du Barry, as one of the world's champ courtesans, is too vivid in public mind to be treated as frothily as this."
Madame Du Barry has a lot going for it and stands up as an unjustly forgotten picture. Renowned film historian William K. Everson, in his film class program notes in the 1960s and 1970s, compared this film favorably to previous versions of the story starring Pola Negri (Madame DuBarry ) and Norma Talmadge (Du Barry, Woman of Passion ). Everson wrote that Negri and Talmadge "were never able to make the DuBarry story really come alive." Beautiful Dolores Del Rio, he thought, still had trouble in this regard, but the writing, camerawork, lighting, sets, music and choreography of Del Rio's version were so technically outstanding, and the supporting cast so good, that the film itself came alive like none of the others. (For the record, there was another early version of the story made in 1917 starring Theda Bara, and a foreign version would appear in 1954.)
The most-praised cast member, by Everson as well as critics in 1934, was Reginald Owen. Everson called his performance "touching," and wrote that "once one has accepted his British accent, and discarded memories of his gloriously hammed-up villains in later movies, his performance dominates the whole film -- and his superbly done death scene quite steals all the thunder from Dolores' dramatic exit." Everson also notes Anita Louise's turn as a "very bitchy" Marie Antoinette, a big contrast to Norma Shearer's regal characterization in Marie Antoinette (1938). Anita Louise, by the way, would also appear in the 1938 film, but not in the title role; instead she played a mere princess.
Also notable in Madame Du Barry is Osgood Perkins as Richelieu. Perkins was the father of actor Anthony Perkins and acted in around 20 movies from 1922-1936, including Scarface (1932).
For all the prestige films that William Dieterle directed in the late 1930s and 1940s -- The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) among them -- some of his best and most stylish work came in the early 1930s, in films such as The Last Flight (1931), Jewel Robbery (1932), Lawyer Man (1932), 6 Hours to Live (1932), Fog Over Frisco (1934), The Secret Bride (1934) and Madame Du Barry. William Everson went so far as to call Madame Du Barry the best movie Dieterle ever did in the period genre. "For once," wrote Everson, "here is a historical romance without a false note. Obviously, historic and dramatic license is taken, but one never notes an anachronism, no line of dialogue strikes a wrong note, no performance provokes an unintended laugh.... Occasionally theatrical -- as history sometimes has a habit of being -- this Du Barry seems to ring true, and the colorful meeting of Louis the 15th with Marie Antoinette -- on a country road as opposed to the dramatic courtroom encounter in the MGM film -- is a fine sequence. Even the occasional dry racial humors seem to belong more to French history than to Hollywood of the '30s."
Madame Du Barry was condemned by the Legion of Decency for its risqu approach to the story and dialogue. In fact, a famous scene of Du Barry appearing at court in a negligee was often missing when the film ran on television for decades afterwards.
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: Edward Chodorov (screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Heinz Roemheld (uncredited)
Film Editing: Herbert Levy
Cast: Dolores del Rio (Madame Du Barry), Reginald Owen (King Louis XV), Victor Jory (Duc Armand d'Aiguillon), Osgood Perkins (Duc de Richelieu), Verree Teasdale (Duchess de Granmont), Ferdinand Gottschalk (Lebel), Anita Louise (Marie Antoinette), Maynard Holmes (The Dauphin), Henry O'Neill (Duc de Choiseul), Hobart Cavanaugh (Professor de la Vauguyon).
by Jeremy Arnold