Marie Antoinette (1938)

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke

Let’s cut to the chase: dull, dull, dull. Throughout the entirety of Marie Antoinette (1938), all I could think was, “When does this damn thing end?”

Which is not to say it doesn’t have its merits. Really.

To begin with, the movie was a showcase for Norma Shearer, wife of big wig studio guy Irving Thalberg. And as Marie Antoinette, it certainly does showcase her.

It’s a lavish production by 1938 standards and also by contemporary standards. And she’s quite fine in the role.

However, as often happens in big productions, with so much attention spent on the lavish look and the spectacle of it all, smaller elements are often missed – like pacing, coherence, story.

In this case, almost every scene is excellent, from performance to lighting to camera work to costume. But when all these excellent individual scenes are strung together as a whole – well, it drags. And it drags. My God, how it drags.

The movie is also actually two movies. The film, being a big spectacular of the period, opens with entry music, pauses midway with an intermission, and closes with exit music. The intermission separates the movie in two (quite logical) and the two halves end up being two quite different movies. The first is essentially dramatic, biographical romance. The second is dramatic, historical suspense. (The terms biographical and historical are used quite loosely here.)

When the second half of the movie begins, I had to wonder – what happened? The pacing suddenly picked up considerably but by that time I had been lulled into the slower pace of the first half. In fact, had the film ended where part one concluded I would have been quite happy. It was a good, not great, film up to that point.

I just wasn’t ready for part two’s drama. Perhaps part of the problem was knowing where the film was going. We all know what happened to Marie and her family, so it was really just a matter of playing it out. Yes, it was extraordinarily well staged. But it seemed to me it went on and on.

And that’s my gut response to the movie. Perhaps seeing it at another time, another night, I might have enjoyed it more than I did. But I just found it way too long. Interestingly, it clocks in at 157 minutes. A film that came out the next year, Gone With the Wind (1939), comes in at 238 minutes. Yet Marie Antoinette felt to me like a much, much longer film.

I think, however, that had they kept Marie Antoinette down to two hours it might have been a great film – though I’m not sure what they would have cut. (Myself, I’d have cut a good deal of the second half, but that’ just me.)

Final notes: While Tyrone Power as Count Axel de Fersen pretty much plays the usual Tyrone Power – handsome guy/love interest – role, and he’s quite good at it. But the roles other than Shearer’s that really stand out are John Barrymore as King Louis XV. Even more outstanding is Robert Morely as Louis XVI. He’s a pleasure to watch in his performance, which may be why he received his first and only Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

Curiously, I received two films on DVD the other day. The one I was looking forward to, Marie Antoinette, was a disappointment. The one I had much lower expectations of, Mogambo, was quite entertaining.

Go figure.

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