The screenplay for Désirée was written by Daniel Taradash, adapted from Annemarie Selinko's book of the same name, which The Boston Post had called "The most fascinating historical novel since Gone with the Wind." It's supposedly based on the true story of Désirée Clary, who fell in love with Napoleon Bonaparte before his great success. Napoleon left, promising to return, but Désirée later learned that he had become engaged to Josephine de Beauharnais. Eventually, she married General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, but her path crossed Napoleon's throughout the years. By a twist of fate, although Désiree did not become the Empress of France, she did become the Queen of Sweden and Norway when her husband, Bernadotte, was adopted by the King of Sweden and assumed the throne.
In the cast was Jean Simmons as Désirée, Cameron Mitchell as Napoleon's brother, Merle Oberon as Josephine and Michael Rennie as General Bernadotte. Also in supporting roles were future television stars Alan Napier, Richard Deacon and Carolyn Jones. As early as 1953, items appeared in the newspapers that producer Julian Blaustein wanted Audrey Hepburn to play Désirée. According to gossip columnist Louella Parsons, Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck was in London in the fall of 1953 and was to make an offer for Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier to co-star with Brando. Leigh was having serious health problems at the time and neither appeared in the film.
Director Henry Koster's father had been a Napoleon buff and his library was full of books, but Koster did his own research to make it as historically accurate as possible. Despite this, the film was not shot on location, but at various areas around Monterey, California, including Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, The Lone Cypress (standing in for the isle of Elba) and the famed scenic Seventeen Mile Drive.
When later asked if he enjoyed working with Brando on this film, Henry Koster replied that it wasn't an easy film to make because Brando "didn't want to play Napoleon, and he was right because Marlon is an introvert and Napoleon was a blasting extrovert. [...] Personally, Marlon Brando is a fascinating man, probably one of the greatest actors this country has produced or the world for that matter. But that wasn't his part. We had some little discussions about how Napoleon should be played, because I had a different opinion on the way it should be acted. He'd always say, 'I have to play it, and that's the best I can do.'" Brando later wrote in his autobiography, "A kind and pleasant man, Koster was a lightweight who was much more interested in uniforms than in the impact of Napoleon on European history. I had a chance to work with Jean Simmons, who was cast in the role of Josephine [sic]. She was winning, charming, beautiful and experienced, and we had fun together. Unfortunately, she was married to Stewart Granger, the great white hunter. By my lights, Désirée was superficial and dismal, and I was astonished when told that it had been a success."
Koster was happier working with Merle Oberon, who he called "the most beautiful woman." Her beauty caused Koster some problems when she had been burned by a sunlamp and needed to have her face treated by a dermatologist with sandpaper, which left her face slightly inflamed. Although the makeup covered it, Oberon was still sensitive and didn't want to expose that side of her face to the camera, so Koster had to be creative with his shots.
Désirée premiered in San Francisco on November 16, 1954 and proved to be Brando's first flop. One critic even titled their review "Brando Meets His Waterloo." British critic Dilys Powell said that Brando looked fine but sounded like Ethel Barrymore doing a poor imitation of Noel Coward, and Brian McArdle wrote that the film was not only "a thoroughly tasteless concoction, but Mr. Brando has turned in as ripe a piece of 'ham' acting as was ever recorded on celluloid." Others, like Lillian Blackstone in The Saint Petersburg Times thought that Brando was "remarkable" and "as much like Napoleon as that historical figure's portraits and never moves out of character."
Despite the critic's savaging, the film earned two Academy Award nominations: Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Color for Lyle Wheeler and his crew and Best Costume Design, Color for Charles Le Maire and René Hubert.
The Age 17 Feb 55
Blackstone, Lillian. "Age of Napoleon Lives Again in 'Desiree'" St. Petersburg Times 27 Nov 54.
Brando, Marlon. Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me
David, Ronald L. Just Making Movies: Company Directors on the Studio System
Harding, Les. They Knew Marilyn Monroe: Famous Persons in the Life of the Hollywood Icon
The Internet Movie Database
McArdle, Brian. "Brando Struts as Napoleon" The Age 15 Apr 55.
"Paramount's 'Desiree' casts Marlon Brando as Napoleon" The Youngstown Vindicator 1 Dec 54
Parsons, Louella "Zanuck to Take 'Desiree' Script to Vivien Leigh" The Milwaukee Sentinel 7 Sep 53.