When we first got On Demand, I remember getting into a lot of trouble for running up large cable bills due to the amount of movies I rented. I would rent a movie or to whenever I was not feeling well, and this was how I watched a number of period dramas, such as Dangerous Liaisons and The Affair of the Necklace, for the first time. One of these movies was the 1938 film Marie Antoinette, which I decided to check out again since I have read a couple of Marie Antoinette related books recently.
Young Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette (Norma Shearer) is sent to France to marry its dauphin Louis (Robert Morley) in an attempt to join their two countries but her youth and inexperience and status as a foreigner make her ill equipped to handle life at the French court and the machinations of her rivals Madame du Barry (Gladys George) and the Duke d’Orléans (Joseph Schildkraut). Predictably, Marie Antoinette compensates for her unsatisfactory marriage through outrageous parties and out of control spending and falls in love with the dashing swede, Count Axel von Fersen (Tyrone Power). Unaware of the world outside the opulent walls of Versailles, Louis and Marie become the object of their impoverished people’s hatred.
This film version of Marie Antoinette’s life is best known for its elaborate costumes which are works of art in themselves. Although they are not a hundred percent historically accurate (a lot of dramatic license is taken), they evoke the frivolous excess of the rococo period. As is often the case with big budget epics of the golden age of Hollywood, this film relies heavily on spectacle.
Norma Shearer in the title role rings a bit false as the giddy carefree young Marie Antoinette but is much better as the dignified, tragic, older Marie Antoinette. Robert Morley as Louis XVI is a bit too buffoonish but is still sympathetic and endearing. Despite him being a schlubby introvert and her being a high spirited extrovert, the marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI was unusually close and affectionate. I almost prefer their relationship to Marie’s relationship with Axel von Fersen. Tyrone Power is good as the typical romantic lead but is little more than eye candy.
The style of acting in this film, and many others of this period, may come across as hammy and the plot slow and melodramatic to modern viewers used to a more fast pace and realistic type of movie but if you enjoy old costume dramas, this is definitely one you should watch, if only for the fabulous confections that Marie Antoinette wears.