August 21, 2021: This post has been slightly edited to reflect new research.
MGM's lavish, expensive biographical film about Marie Antoinette had a long road to travel before it dazzled its star-studded audience at a gala premiere worthy of the film's titular queen. Marie Antoinette been in production since at least 1933, shortly after the publication of Stefan Zweig's bestselling biography.
At one point during the early production years, William Randolph Hearst campaigned for Marion Davies to star in the title role; however, the two had a falling out with MGM sometime before 1935 and ceased contact with the studio. Irving Thalberg, head of MGM at the time the film was officially greenlit, cast his wife Norma Shearer in the title role. Robert Morley was cast as Louis XVI after the studio could not get Charles Laughton--reportedly their first choice--to accept the role. Tyrone Power, at the insistence of Norma Shearer, was cast as Axel Fersen.
The film was originally conceived by Thalberg, Shearer and director Sidney Franklin to be a historical epic with a planned running time of over 4 hours. Naturally, Thalberg's plans for the epic period drama were hardly thrifty: actual 18th century antiques were sought out for the sets and costume designer Gilbert Adrian was called in to begin designing exquisite costumes worthy of what Thalberg planned to be the magnum opus of MGM's historical films.
Unfortunately, Thalberg's death in September of 1936 had a domino effect throughout the studio which would not only affect Shearer's place in the hierarchy of MGM, but the production of Marie Antoinette. Thalberg's first-choice director, Sidney Franklin, was replaced with W. S. Van Dyke; the director switch, according to Robert Morley, happened "almost the night before shooting was to start."
Van Dyke was known around Hollywood as "One Take Woody" for his fast-paced directing style and his reputation for keeping filming costs low. Several weeks before he was replaced, Franklin had been asked by Louis B. Mayer to accept a shorter shooting schedule for the film--which would have meant seriously trimming the script. Franklin refused, and MGM decided to look for other directors. It was Van Dyke who insisted he could shoot the film in less than 60 days, and Franklin decided to give up his post.
One of the reasons that Van Dyke may have been brought on board was his reputation for keeping films on budget. Production on Marie Antoinette had continued throughout the rest of 1936 and 1937, but not without frequent criticisms from the studio heads at MGM, primarily about the film's mounting costs. Gilbert Adrian was frequently on the receiving end of increasingly irate letters which complained at length about the increasingly high costs of creating the film's wardrobe, which were due to Adrian's insistence on creating highly detailed, luxurious gowns for the picture.
Unfortunately, the stunning gowns designed by Adrian were not fated to grace the scene in their glittering, full color glory. Although the idea of filming in technicolor had been floated at some point during pre-production, it was not seriously considered due to the cost. The decision was a financial one: with an already bloated budget, MGM certainly did not want to add expensive technicolor filming to the list. As producer Hunt Stromberg wrote to then-director Sidney Franklin in a letter discussing the possibility of scrapping technicolor: "Color would add a tremendous cost."
Although this was a practical decision for MGM, one must wonder if it did the film a disservice; costumes (and sets) for black and white films have to be specially designed to appear a certain way on film. If you have ever stumbled on an article promising to "shock" fans of old TV shows with pictures of the set (The Addams Family is a great example) you can get an idea of how color had to be used in order to make things look just right in black and white. Were the gowns designed with technicolor in mind? Without delving into the archives, it's difficult to say whether or not Adrian was holding out hope for a technicolor film.
In either case, the gowns as seen on the film sometimes make a stark contrast to the gowns as they were in real life.
Take as an example this gown worn by Anita Louise as the
princesse de Lamballe, during a scene where she tells Marie Antoinette
about the deathbed illness of Louis XV. On black and white film, the gown appears black--a reasonable color, given the nature of
Lamballe's conversation. But a recent auction of the gown revealed it
was actually a bright, vivid purple. Did Adrian intend to put Lamballe in somber black? Or did he intend for us to see Lamballe in a triumphant
purple when she tells Marie Antoinette--who has just been humiliated at
court by the snarky Du Barry, who has just been told she is going to be
sent to Austria by the decrepit king, who has just had an emotional
encounter with Fersen--about the king's illness?
Whether they were intended to be seen in color or black-and-white, Adrian's brilliant designs allowed for the aesthetic of the costumes to shine; we can still see the evolution of Marie Antoinette through her wardrobe; going from the playful, sweet dresses she wears when she is the 'innocent' dauphine, to the increasingly outlandish and excessive dresses she wears after being taken in by the duc d'Orleans, to the mature and elegant gowns she wears after becoming queen and having children. We may not be able to marvel at how her golden 'gambling party' dress would have shined in color, but we can still appreciate the twinkle of sequins and beads as she ascends the staircase, Fersen in tow.
MGM, not wanting to waste the expensive costumes, allowed them to be reused in several films (most notably Scaramouche and Ice Follies of 1939, where they appear in color); today, some of Adrian's budget-defying gowns are still around in varying conditions, in the collections of both museums and private collectors.
But the costumes were not the only element of Marie Antoinette to receive the axe (or shall we say, the guillotine) from the heads at MGM.
The original draft scripts of the film underwent serious revisions even before Thalberg's death in 1936. The conference notes for one early draft noted that "a reforming queen is so much less interesting than a hectic one," which was referencing the fact that the earlier drafts of the script emphasized Marie Antoinette's charitable nature, even going so far as to imply that she was the humanitarian driving force behind Louis XVI's attempted reforms. This particular emphasis may have been written to contrast Marie Antoinette's character more sharply with that of the duc d'Orleans, who is portrayed as wanting social change not for the good of the people but for his own personal gain.
In the final film, Marie Antoinette is portrayed as reformed, rather than a reformer. She goes from a 'wanton' party girl who thinks of nothing but pleasure to a calm, caring loving mother who shows great courage in the face of her trials. Yet it is only after she begins her passionate--yet appropriately chaste--affair with Axel Fersen that she actually matures as a character.
In her early years as dauphine, she is innocent but sad, stuck with Louis who is sweet but not physically intimate nor willing to stand up to the people at court who torment her. After she sparks a friendship with the sly, cunning and much more decorated duc d'Orleans, her behavior spirals out of control; she is throwing lavish parties, flirting openly with men even in public, and engaging in heedless behavior that leads to a reputation in ruins. And this is where Axel Fersen--depicted without wigs or any ornamentation--comes into play. It is Fersen who chastises Antoinette out of her bad behavior, it is Fersen who inspires her to be a good queen, and it is Fersen who brings about the mature, reformed woman we see at the opening of the third act.
In addition to changing the nature of Marie Antoinette's character, the revisions to the film resulted in the almost complete removal of two characters from the script: the duchesse de Polignac and Gamin, the locksmith. The duchesse de Polignac, shown only in the background and offhandedly mentioned by name in the gambling party scene, originally had a much larger role in the story. She was the contrast played against the princesse de Lamballe--whereas Polignac ditched the queen at the first sign of trouble, it was Lamballe who stayed behind, remarking poignantly that her "place was here." Gamin, again only mentioned in the final version of the film, had several scenes establishing his unique friendship with Louis XVI--who he ultimately sacrifices his life for during the scene where the mob invades the palace.
The revisions--cuts, reshoots, and added scenes--did not cease until the film was given a wide release in the fall of 1938. The first finished version of Marie Antoinette premiered in the spring of 1938 and had a running time of 170 minutes. This early screening was well received by test audiences; one comment card called the early cut "the most beautiful production that has ever come out of Hollywood." After this early screening, about 10 minutes were removed from the film and several scenes were reshot.
The film's gala premiere in July of 1938 was an extravagant affair which included a scale replica of the Versailles gardens, a 30 piece orchestra, and hundreds of fresh flowers. According to attendees who were lucky enough to be at the celebrity-packed premiere, the audience gushed over the film, reportedly bursting into applause several times throughout the night. But before the film was released to the wider public in the fall of 1938, producer Hunt Stromberg was strongly advised to reduce the running time--not because of the length as one might expect, but because scenes in the second half of the film which were called "too heavy or tragic for popular consumption." Stromberg ultimately cut about 20 more minutes from the film, for a total of about half an hour of material removed from the first finished print.
It's unclear exactly what scenes were cut in between the gala premiere and the wide release, namely because it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what material made it into the gala premiere cut in the first place. There is a lot of material in the shooting script I own, which contains revisions through early 1938, that are missing from the final version of Marie Antoinette. But was this material present for the premiere version? It's difficult to say without having access to further shooting scripts or early prints of the film.
There are several scenes in my shooting script that, if they were included in the gala premiere cut, were likely removed to make the film more suitable for 'popular consumption'. Most notably the death of the princesse de Lamballe, which I've discussed previously; the scene as written in the shooting script is longer and more visceral than the quick scene in the film as it appears on DVD.
Although the studio was not at all happy with the expense that Marie Antoinette incurred during production, they did not hesitate to use that expense to their advantage when marketing the film for the wider public release. Posters, campaign books, articles, advertisements frequently flaunted the film's expenses in statistical lists, noting the amount of money MGM had spent, the total number of wigs, costumes, extras, and even claiming that Van Dyke refused to yell "action!" until he was sure everyone in the frame was dressed in their 'historically authentic' best. The New York Times described the film's luxury as surpassing Versailles--and given the fact that the historically based sets had to be expanded in order to compensate the hundreds of extras wearing massive gowns, the Times may not have been too far from the truth.
Advertisements for the film also frequently emphasized the fact that it wasn't a "stiff" historical drama; one particular ad read that "... the greatness of 'Marie Antoinette' lies in its humanness. Here are no cold, stuffy historical manikins giving lackluster imitations of past personages." Another promised audiences that the film would show them "Marie Antoinette the woman," rather than a formal, lifeless portrait.
Critical reviews of the film were generally favorable, although they somewhat more reserved than the gushing audience members, star and non-star alike, who filled countless comment cards and telegrams with praise for the picture.
Shearer's performance was consistently picked out for high regard, which is hardly surprising; her performance in the film is often called the best of her career. Shearer shines so brightly during the last act that it's nearly impossible to recall some of those more emotional scenes without shedding a tear. The intense performance she gives during the scenes where Louis XVI tells her about his impending execution, and her raw, heartbroken reaction as she numbly listens to the drum-rolls leading up to the deed itself, is unforgettable; especially so when you consider that Shearer may have been incorporating her own grief into those scenes, having lost her husband not quite 2 years earlier.
The New York Times review was a notable exception which remarked rather scathingly on the film's poor handling of certain historical characters:
"As a whole, though, the script must be blamed for what, with the history of an era to draw from, is a surprising ineptitude of characterization. By whose authority do the authors treat a Barrymore (not to mention a Bourbon) like a nonentity? Dare to show us du Barry, the most amusing woman in France, as a middle-aged bore? Paint Louis XVI even blacker than history does as a neurotic imbecile, and force the conniving Duke of Orleans to appear as a roughed caricature of Joseph Schildkraut?"Some of these criticisms might have been dampened if the script had not been trimmed of scenes which added more personality and nuance to certain characters, particularly to Madame du Barry and the duc d'Orleans. For example, this scene introducing Madame du Barry being banned from attending the dauphine's welcoming ceremony due to her social background would have made her resentment towards Marie Antoinette less random; particularly since the final version of the film does not show Du Barry until 2 years after Marie Antoinette's arrival.
The depiction of Louis XVI in the film may have not been salvageable without Robert Morley's fine performance. The script frequently depicts Louis XVI as an overgrown child, even going so far as to include a scene where he watches a magnificent ball from above, eating and apple and hiding like a naughty child up past their bedtime. Eventually his feelings for Antoinette overcome his childishness, which fortunately gives Morley some better material to work with.
Despite MGM's extensive advertising campaigns and the generally favorable reviews of the film, Marie Antoinette was a financial loss for the studio. The film earned four Academy Awards nominations, including Best Actress for Norma Shearer and Best Supporting Actor for Robert Morley, although both lost to other stars that year.
The film is currently available on DVD through Warner Brothers.
THE SCREEN; MGM's 'Marie Antoinette,' in Terms of Norma Shearer, at the Astor [New York Times, August 17 1938]
Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince [Mark A. Vieira, 2009]
Hollywood 1938: Motion Pictures' Greatest Year [Catherine Jurca, 2012]
Norma Shearer: A Biography [Gavin Lambert, 1990]
Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years 1928-1941 [Howard Gutner, 2001]