Cast & Crew
In 1794, Etienne Clary, a prosperous Marseille silk merchant, is horrified to learn that his impetuous younger sister Désirée has made the acquaintance of a Corsican named Joseph Bonaparte and invited him and his brother, Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, to call upon the family the following day. Désirée quarrels with Etienne, her mother and sister Julie, but the next day, Julie and Joseph are immediately attracted to each other, and the forceful Napoleon is taken with Désirée. The naïve girl is bemused by Napoleon's blunt talk of his great destiny, and his admission that the poor Bonaparte brothers need the rich dowries of the Clary sisters, but quickly falls in love with him. Later, Désirée is in the family shop preparing Julie's wedding dress when Napoleon is arrested and taken to Paris. Napoleon eventually returns to Marseilles and tells Désirée that he has been cleared of charges of treason, but has been ordered to track down royalists in Paris. Désirée begs Napoleon to leave the Army and join Etienne in business, but the arrogant young general scoffs at the idea of becoming a ribbon merchant and instead proposes marriage. Although Etienne refuses to bless the union, Désirée accepts and lends Napoleon the money to return to Paris. Napoleon tells her that he will always love her and will return soon for their wedding, but as the months pass, Désirée begins to doubt him. After hearing Napoleon's sisters gossiping about the hedonistic lifestyle that he is leading in Paris, Désirée goes to the city and tries to attend a party at the home of Madame Tallien, who is a friend of Napoleon. When a servant refuses to allow Désirée to enter unescorted, she asks for help from Gen. Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, who gladly escorts the pretty girl inside. Heartbroken to discover that Napoleon is engaged to the wealthy, socially powerful Josephine de Beauharnais, Désirée throws a glass of champagne at her and flees. Bernadotte follows her to a bridge on which she is contemplating suicide, and gives her a ride to her lodgings in his carriage. Bernadotte falls in love with Désirée during the journey, but she refuses to give him any information about herself or to see him again. Later, in 1797, Napoleon, now France's leading general, has succeeded in conquering Italy, and Désirée lives in Rome with Julie and Joseph, who has been made an ambassador of the French Republic. Désirée tires of the gloomy palace in which they live, however, and decides to return to Paris, even though her family worries that she still has feelings for Napoleon. Désirée dismisses their concern and attends a party at which Napoleon, who is now married to Josephine, compliments her on her stylish, adult appearance. During dinner, Napoleon announces that he will be leaving soon to lead his campaign to conquer Egypt, and Bernadotte, who is thrilled to see Désirée again, questions Napoleon's position that conquest is the way to establish peace between the East and West. Afterward, Napoleon talks alone with Désirée and defends his warlike policies by stating that he is the true spirit of the French Revolution. Napoleon makes a veiled request for Désirée to become his mistress, but she runs from the room and is once again rescued by Bernadotte, who takes her to "their" bridge. There, Bernadotte proposes marriage and assures Désirée that he will not mind that she first loved Napoleon. By 4 Jul 1799, Désirée and Bernadotte have happily settled into married life and have a son, Oskar. When Josephine and Napoleon pay their respects to the new parents, Josephine sadly confides in Désirée how much she envies her her son. In the other room, Bernadotte continues to challenge Napoleon's autocratic methods and states that he will not support him in establishing a dictatorship. On 9 Nov 1799, however, Napoleon is proclaimed First Consul of the French Republic, and when Bernadotte reports to his office the following day, Napoleon asserts that his appointment has averted civil war, then asks Bernadotte to join his council of state. Intrigued by Napoleon's promise to enact civic improvements such as a unified code of laws and a bank of France, Bernadotte agrees, but warns that while Napoleon will have his loyalty, he will never have his affection. Several years later, Napoleon engineers to have himself proclaimed emperor, and stuns the crowd at his coronation when he takes the crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII and crowns himself. Five years later, desperate to have an heir, Napoleon divorces Josephine, and Désirée comforts her former rival, before Napoleon's upcoming marriage to the eighteen-year-old Marie Louise of Austria. As time passes, Napoleon involves France in more wars, and Bernadotte is lavished with medals and honors for his heroic acts. After he is wounded and sent back to Paris, Bernadotte is approached by representatives of the king of Sweden, who wishes to adopt him and make him the heir to the throne. Désirée is stunned by the news that she will one day be a queen but supports her husband, who understands Sweden's need to have a ruler capable of maintaining independence from Napoleon. When Bernadotte petitions to give up his French citizenship, however, Napoleon explodes with rage and demands that Bernadotte remain loyal to him. Bernadotte maintains that Sweden's interests will always be his first concern, and eventually Napoleon allows him and Désirée to leave Paris. In Stockholm, the independent Désirée fails to fit in with the convention-bound royal family and, realizing that she is an embarrassment to Bernadotte, asks to go home so that he can continue with the vital business of repulsing Napoleon's hostile advances. Eight months later, Désirée attends a ball in Paris, and there Napoleon shows off his new son by Marie Louise. As he dances with Désirée, Napoleon makes veiled threats about Bernadotte's alliance with Russia, and when Désirée supports her husband's politics, Napoleon announces to the crowd that she will be held hostage to ensure Sweden's support while his army marches through Russia to Moscow. Later, after Napoleon's army has been defeated, he visits Désirée and asks her to write a letter to Bernadotte, requesting his help. Désirée realizes that Napoleon, who still loves her, came to see her more than to seek her husband's support. Soon after, Bernadotte leads one of the armies that overwhelms Napoleon, and the triumphant general reunites with Désirée before returning to Sweden. Napoleon's exile to Elba is short-lived, however, and after the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon retreats with his personal army to Malmaison. Hoping to avoid further bloodshed, representatives of the allied armies ask Désirée to speak with Napoleon, in the hope that she can persuade him to surrender. Napoleon agrees to speak with Désirée alone, and muses on what his destiny would have been if he had married her. Napoleon proclaims that he has given his life to protect France, but Désirée gently tells him that he must do as France asks and go into exile on St. Helena. Commenting on how strange it is that the two most outstanding men of their time had fallen in love with her, Napoleon gives Désirée his sword in surrender, and assures her that her dowry was not the only reason he proposed to her many years ago in Marseilles.
Richard Van Cleemput
Sven Hugo Borg
A. Cameron Grant
Paul S. Fox
Thomas Brown Henry
Dr. Carl C. Lengay
Father Louis Pick
Edward B. Powell
Walter M. Scott
Best Costume Design
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.
I want my family to be well established. Joseph, particularly. The rest must wait until the victorious culmination of my campaign in Italy.- Napoleon Bonaparte
And you think you can do with people precisely what you want? That life is as you say it is?- Desiree Clary
Have you ever heard of a thing called destiny, Desiree?- Napoleon Bonaparte
Marlon Brando's nose is faked (make-up).
Voice-over narration by Jean Simmons is heard intermittently throughout the film as her character "Désirée Clary Bernadotte" writes in her diary. Annemarie Selinko's bestselling novel and the film are loosely based on the life of Eugenie Bernadine Désirée Clary (1777-1860), who was described by Napoleon Bonaparte as his first love. Désirée's older sister Julie was married to Napoleon's brother Joseph, as depicted in the film. In 1798, Désirée married Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763-1844), a longtime French soldier who was made a marshal of France in 1804. Bernadotte's relations with Napoleon were strained and became more so after 1810, when Bernadotte was adopted into the royal family of Sweden and became the crown prince. Bernadotte arranged an alliance between Sweden and Russia, and helped to defeat Napoleon in the Battle of Nations in 1813. In 1818, he was crowned King Karl XIV Johan, and in 1829, Désirée, who had been living in Paris, returned to Sweden and was crowned Queen Desideria. Bernadotte and Désirée's son Oskar succeeded to the throne, and the reigning monarchs of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Belgium are their direct descendents.
According to a November 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item, Anatole Litvak was originally set to direct the picture, but on February 17, 1954, Daily Variety announced that "after a disagreement which couldn't be resolved over [the] process in which Désirée should be produced," Litvak and Twentieth Century-Fox "called off their multiple-picture deal." The news item also noted that Litvak had hoped to shoot the film abroad in a standard format instead of in CinemaScope. In September 1953, Daily Variety reported that studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck hoped to star Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in the film, and an March 18, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Jay Robinson was being tested for the role of Napoleon. Marlon Brando agreed to play the role in exchange for Twentieth Century-Fox dropping its $2,000,000 breach-of-contract suit against him concerning his failure to appear for the title role of its 1954 production The Egyptian (see below). Brando later appeared on the October 11, 1954 cover of Time, dressed as Napoleon.
Although Cathleen Nesbitt (Napoleon's mother) and Larry Craine (Louis Bonaparte) are listed on the CBCS, they did not appear in the released picture. Hollywood Reporter news items include Paul Glass, Anna Cheselka, Buddy Bryan, Tony De Mario, Robert Pike, Gloria Rhoads and Cosmo Sardo in the cast, but their appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. As noted by numerous Hollywood Reporter news items, cinematographer Edward Cronjager and director Fred Fox led a second unit to film backgrounds in Paris and the "Napoleon Country" around Fontainebleau, Malmaison and the Parisian suburbs.
According to the film's pressbook, Selinko had intended to serve as a technical advisor while the picture was in production, but was prevented from doing so by personal matters. The Hollywood Reporter review mistakenly lists the film's running time as 118 minutes. A modern source notes that Philip Rhodes served as Brando's personal makeup man. Lyrics to "The Song from Désirée (We Meet Again)," which is performed as an instrumental waltz in the film, were later added by Ken Darby, and the song became a hit for Jane Froman, Bing Crosby and other recording stars. The picture's San Francisco world premiere was a benefit for the San Francisco Newspaper Guild, while the New York gala opening was a benefit for the March of Dimes. Désirée received Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction (Color) and Best Costume Design (Color).
Released in United States Fall November 1954
Released in United States on Video March 1988
Released in United States on Video March 1988
Released in United States Fall November 1954