Saturday, August 10, 2013

Marie and Toilette: Trivia about MGM's Marie Antoinette

credit: my collection

Opulent. Extravagant. Grand.  Just a few words that easily described the 1938 film Marie Antoinette, starring Norma Shearer as--who else?--the titular queen. But did you know that the production was once nicknamed "Marie and Toilette" by once of its supporting players? Or that the film's youngest actor was hired before he was even born? To find out more, dive into some delightful trivia about MGM's Marie Antoinette!

  • The film, which is an adaptation of Stefan Zweig's biography, was in the planning stages as early as 1933. William Randolph Hearst campaigned for the film to be a starring vehicle for Marion Davies, but Norma Shearer was ultimately cast. 
  • Over 11,000 photographs of Versailles were sent to the film's art department to help them design the production sets.

credit: [original images from IMDB!]

  • Among the many actors considered for the role of Louis XVI were Charles Laughton, Emlyn Williams, Peter Lorre and Roger Livesey.
  • Gary Cooper was in the running to play Axel Fersen, but Norma Shearer insisted on Tyrone Power for the part.

credit: ebay (defunct link) 

  • Robert Morley, who was making his first foray onto the silver screen with the picture, was reportedly so annoyed with the process of filming that he nicknamed the production "Marie and Toilette."
  • A special "Marie Antoinette" exhibition was held for the public at the Astor Theater in New York city to help promote the film. Among the 174 pieces on display were costumes, jewelry, props and furniture from the movie.

Image: A comparison between the gown worn by Marie Antoinette in the film and an Austrian portrait of a young Marie Antoinette.
credit: my screencapture & Gallica.BNF.FR

  • Gilbert Adrian, the costume designer for the movie, visited France and Austria to research portraits of Marie Antoinette and other court figures as inspiration. Many of the film's gowns are directly or partially inspired by the elaborate court fashion worn for formal portraits.
  • The combined weight of Norma Shearer's gowns in the film was over 1,700 lbs--her wedding dress alone was reporting as weighing a massive 108 lbs! The gowns were so heavy that specially made hangers had to be constructed to hold them.
  • The idea of filming in technicolor was considered at some point during the film's production, but was not seriously considered and ultimiately was not taken. August 21, 2021 Note: A previous trivia point incorrectly suggested that the "confrontation gown" was light blue; based on additional research, I believe that the light blue confrontation gown as designed by Adrian and shown in concept art for the film was not used for the film. Instead, the film gown was almost certainly white, based on its reuse in Two Sisters from Boston, whose costume manifesto lists it as "white," and based on the replica gown made for a promotional marionette show which did not use a blue gown.
  • Although W.S. Van Dyke had been handpicked by Louis B. Mayer to direct the film, his quick-paced directorial style was not free from criticism. Producer Hunt Stromberg's reports on the first cut of the scene in the gaming house, for example, read that it was "without any fine points," "badly timed,"and that closeups of Marie Antoinette and Fersen were "lacking." The scene was reshot with attention to Stromberg's notes.

image: Anita Louise as Marie Antoinette in Madame du Barry (1934)
credit: unknown source
  • Anita Louise, who played the princesse de Lamballe in the film, played the role of Marie Antoinette just four years earlier in Madame du Barry (1934).
  • The first cut of Marie Antoinette clocked in at 170 minutes. Preview cards from an early screening included praise such as: "One of the finest productions I have ever witnessed," and "The most beautiful production that has ever come out of Hollywood." After this preview screening, some scenes were reshot and ten minutes were cut from the film.
 credit: my screencap 
  • The delicate bird cage hairpiece worn by Shearer during the garden party scene still survives. It was displayed in 2009 at an Irving Thalberg exhibition hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 
  • It only took about 12 to 15 minutes to get into the elaborate gowns created for the film, thanks to modern zippers and fasteners.
image: The execution of Louis XVI, a scene which was cut or otherwise not used in the final film
credit: LIFE Magazine
  • Before the film was released to the general theater-going public, it was cut down by 21 minutes. (Making it a total of about 30 minutes cut from the film's initial preview.) Stromberg was advised to shorten the film for general audiences due to the events in the second half, which made it "too heavy or tragic for popular consumption." 
  • The gala premiere of the film at the Fox Carthay Circle Theater was an extravagant affair which featured a scale replica of the gardens of Versailles, complete with fountains, a 30 piece orchestra, antique statues and hundreds of flowers. 
image: Seamstresses working on embroidery and bead work for the costumes
credit: Adrian:Silver Screen to Custom Label by Gilbert Esquevin
  • A team of seamstresses experienced with beadwork were hired specifically to hand-embroider the countless numbers of beads and other embroidered pieces needed for the film's extravagant costumes.
  • The film received four Oscar nominations: Norma Shearer (Best Actress); Robert Morley (Best Supporting Actor); Cedric Gibbons (Best Art Direction); and Herbert Stothart (Best Music, Original Score)
credit: my screencapture
  • The young baby who appears briefly in the film as the newborn Louis Charles was contracted for the part before he was born. The competition for the role was fierce--one mother-to-be even sent in her family's genealogy in the hopes of approving her chances!
  • Antique furniture and decor, including an 18th or 19th century copy of a portrait of Louis XVI by Callet, were purchased or rented to help with the authenticity of the film's sets. An entire floor of MGM's prop building was dedicated to housing the valuable antiques when they were not being used. 
  • Roughly 5,000 wigs were used in the film. Most of the wigs were made by hand and took approximately 48 hours of work to finish.
  • The pair of earrings worn by Norma Shearer in the gaming house scene were purchased by Debbie Reynolds; they were later sold during the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Auction for $4,000.
 credit: my screencap
  • Norma Shearer had a slight cast in her right eye (camera left); during the prison scene between Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen, her right eye can be seen to wander slightly. According to Performances Secrets of Norma Shearer (from the now defunct Divas: the Site) Shearer may have allowed her eye to cast in order to evoke Marie Antoinette's loneliness and mental deprivation during her captivity.


  1. Excellent post! Learned some new things. Is 'Performances Secrets of Norma Shearer' still available on the web anywhere? I'd love to read it, but sadly the Divas site was defunct before I ever found it.

    1. Unfortunately, I believe it's been wiped off the internet along with the website... such a shame!