Thursday, July 12, 2012

Norma Shearer as "Marie Antoinette"

Bastille Day is celebrated this weekend.  One Bastille Day years ago back in New York City, I went to my favorite video rental shop -- Alan's Alley in the Chelsea section of Manhattan -- and rented a DVD of the lavish 1938 MGM Hollywood spectacle, Marie Antoinette.  The studio spared no expense mounting this vehicle for its top star near the end of her glory days on the lot -- Norma Shearer.
She received a Best Actress of 1938 Oscar nomination for playing the doomed monarch of France.  She'd have two fine films for 1939 -- Idiot's Delight with Clark Gable and The Women.  After that, she'd go from Camembert to Limburger cheese in the script aroma department.  The studio was easing out its actors who became big stars in the silent era.  Stars like Shearer, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo.  They all left MGM in the early 1940s.  With Marie Antoinette, you have to keep in mind that this is history as written by folks in Culver City, California.  In other words, count on entertainment more so than accuracy.  And it has one of my favorite clunky lines of dialogue in a good classic movie.  Longer than the standard Hollywood release of that time, it ran about 2 hours and 20 minutes yet it's lively.  The narrative takes a couple of detours but the movie isn't dull.  In fact, all the royal intrigue and gossip make that Real Housewives franchise on cable TV look like a kiddie squabble in a day care center.  Young Marie wants to be a royal.  She's like an Austrian version of The Bachelorette -- willing to wed a man she's just met.  She enters into an arranged marriage after getting hooked up with plump young Louis XVI played by Robert Morley.  When a girl sings "Some Day My Prince Will Come," this is not what she has in mind.  But a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do if she wants to play the main room at the palace.  Marie longs to live of life of privilege and romance.
Marie will have plenty of free time on her wedding night.  Does Louis even know that he has a penis?  Morley gives you serious Kathy Najimy face (see the movies Sister Act and Sister Act 2).  He got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.
The future King Louis is Marie's big ticket to Paris...and the Paris sights.  She sees them all.  She lives the glamorous life while the peasants starve.  She has to deal with a new social circle, with new rules and manners, with backstabbing and bitchery.  Versailles is full of queens and only one of those queens is a real woman -- Marie Antoinette.
There won't be any French kissing with King Louis so Marie's needs to finds something on the side.  That comes in the very handsome, physically fit form of Tyrone Power.
I can't remember the name of his character but he sure looked good.  That's really all he had to do.  Look good, kiss Norma, leave, come back years later, repeat.  Tyrone Power was on loan-out from 20th Century Fox studio.  MGM was loaning Myrna Loy to Fox to star opposite Tyrone in The Rains Came.  He doesn't have a whole lot to do because,'s not his studio and it's not his picture.  It's Norma's.  But he sure looks good.
He and Marie have this sort of Same Time, Next Year love thing going on for a long time.  While he's gone, Marie takes up with a palace fixture played by Joseph Schildkraut.
This part of the movie confused me.  How Marie could get hot for a guy who looked like he was doing the Jean Harlow role in a Versailles production of Dinner at Eight was beyond me.  But this is all because King Louis is unaware of his penis and his queen is focused on a royal life of glamorous excess.  Marie's biggest and most vicious opponent is Madame du Barry, played by the always excellent Gladys George.
Mme. du Barry was practically the bicycle of Paris.  She'd been ridden by just about every count, duke and coachman.  She had designs on the throne.  So, you know what that means -- verbal cat fight.  She and Marie really want to snatch each other's powered wig off, but they can't.  So they spar with clever dialogue and sophisticated insults.  Not like on Real Housewives.  This has better dialogue, better costumes, better sets, better hair.
In Marie's world, it's all about the parties, the pretty clothes, the jewels and a little sexual jest on the side because...yes.  Louis is still unaware of his penis.  She has kids but I'm not sure who the royal baby daddy is.  You feel sorry for Louis.  He's good but he's so clueless.  If he did have an erection in bed with his wife, he wouldn't know what to do with it.  He'd think something was wrong.  He'd probably just sit on the edge of the bed and wait for the swelling to go down.  Meanwhile, the peasants are rightfully pissed.  Marie doesn't realize how serious this is.  These people are pissed and French.  They've had it with trying to stuff a dead rat for Christmas dinner while she spends more a week on hair care than the average Frenchman earns in a year.  She gets a reality check when a hungry, angry mob storms Versailles.  The party's over for the French monarchy.
Now her palace home has become her prison.  We're in the last 15 or 20 minutes of the movie and my favorite "What the heck were they thinking?" line is coming up.  Marie's nerves are shot and she's trying to make a nighttime getaway with the kids.  A faithful palace guard is helping her.  Heaven forbid she just throw on some used clothing and haul ass down the back exit.  No.  The anxious guard has to wait outside her  room while she puts on her matching getaway outfit (costumes by Adrian). Typical Queen Behavior.  She's terrified and flitting around the room as she nervously opens closets.  The guard tells her to hurry up..  She's freaked out because she can't recall where the she hid the outfit.  He says something like "Your Highness, did you look in the trunk?" and then comes my favorite line.

A frantic Marie Antoinette says in her state of confusion, "Oh, where is my head?!?"

Three credited writers on this screenplay and they came up with a line like that.  For Marie Antoinette.  I giggle every time I see this scene.  You know how the story ends.  The angry French find her and throw her in prison without her pretty clothes and her wigs.  She's sentenced to the guillotine.  Her hair's a mess.  Marie looks raggedy near the end.  But guess who shows up?  Tyrone Power obviously finished shooting an Alice Faye musical over at Fox, so he drove back over to MGM for one last love scene.  Broken down Marie looks like Carol Burnett as the charwoman.  He looks just as good as he did in the first act.  Only a little gray at the temples.  Let's face it, he was basically loan-out eye candy in this picture.  Norma's Oscar nomination came for the last 20 minutes of Marie Antoinette.  She did some of her best screen acting in that section, especially in the prison scenes leading up to the queen's horrible fate.  We hear an audio montage of things Marie Antoinette said in happier times as she's transported to her execution site.
We do not hear "Oh, where is my head?!?"

Here's some Hollywood trivia for you:  If it wasn't for Norman Shearer, Janet Leigh would never have received an Oscar nomination for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.  When Shearer was happily in retirement in the 1940s and no longer a Hollywood movie queen, she met a young woman whom, she felt, had screen charisma.
She arranged for Janet Leigh to meet with MGM studio executives and the rest is movie history.  Norma Shearer discovered Janet Leigh.  Both women got Academy Award nominations for playing a character who got an unkind cut after coming into big money without considering the consequences.

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