Marie Antoinette (1938)
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MGM studio wonderboy Irving Thalberg died at the age of only thirty-seven in 1936. Marie Antoinette (1938) was the last project he worked on. The film was still in the planning stages at the time of his death. Despite a morning period and two year absence from the screen, wife Norma Shearer saw the film through production. But her heart wasn't in it anymore.
Shearer expressed a desire to retire when Thalberg died, but MGM wouldn't hear of it. She was a sure moneymaker and the $400,000 already tied up in pre-production costs for Marie Antoinette was too much to risk. Rumor has it the studio made the settlement of Thalberg's will contingent on Shearer continuing her contract with the studio.
Marie Antoinette turned out to be the second most expensive movie MGM produced in 1938. To create the film's 98 sets, the art department, under Cedric Gibbons, documented 11,000 photographs sent from Versailles to Hollywood. They collected 2,500 books and visual elements and bought rooms full of 18th century furniture.
Despite the attention to detail, some Hollywood license was taken. The grand staircase that appears in the film was actually demolished at Versailles in 1752. The ballroom never existed at the actual palace. And the chapel is more like the one at Fontainebleau than Versailles. Gibbons explained that it would have been impossible to duplicate Versailles on screen because the design was too delicate. It would not have photographed well.
So while Marie Antoinette may not be perfect history, as an example of MGM's grand period spectacle, it stands the test of time. And in the end, Shearer got the last laugh. Her role as Marie Antoinette won her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Also nominated was Gibbons for Best Interior Decoration.
The film is also notable for Tyrone Power's appearance as Count Axel de Fersen. The actor made a strong impression on audiences the year before in Lloyds of London and quickly became 20th-Century-Fox's most popular leading man. This would be one of his rare efforts for another studio besides Fox though he would continue to play matinee idol parts like this for years.
Director: W. S. Van Dyke
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Screenplay: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Donald Ogden Stewart, Ernest Vajda, Claudine West (based on the biography by Stefan Zweig)
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editing: Robert Kern
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Norma Shearer (Marie Antoinette), Tyrone Power (Count Axel de Fersen), John Barrymore (King Louis XVI), Robert Morley (King Louis XVI), Anita Louise (Princess DeLamballe).
BW-149m. Closed captioning.
by Stephanie Thames