Madame Bovary (1949): Minnelli’s Oscar-Nominated Version of Flaubert Starring Jennifer Jones

Gustav Flaubert’s scandalous novel “Madame Bovary” was one of director Vincente Minnelli’s favorite books, which he first read as adolescent, and then kept going to it in later years. He kept his volume (with red velvet cover) on a cherished place in his large bookcase.  As a mature man, he felt emotional affinity with both Emma Bovary (her dreams and fantasies) and her dejected husband (his feelings of discomfort, rejection and ineptitude). 

“Madame Bovary” tells the story of a woman whose private phantoms made daily life unendurable for herself, her spouse, and their infant daughter. Minnelli was living a similarly hellish scenario, albeit in modern costume, at a Beverly Hills home. Minnelli later acknowledged that Judy’s periodic retreats into fantasy helped him shape his view of Flaubert’s self-destructive and capricious Emma.

Our grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Like Minnelli’s best work, “Madame Bovary” simultaneously exalted the style of Hollywood moviemaking embodied by MGM, the most prestigious studio, while slyly debunking the moral assumptions that it also made the most traditional company.

It could have been an Illustrated Literary Classic, a genre MGM excelled in before WWII, with its opulent tributes to Dickens, Tolstoy, Shakespeare and Dumas fils. Those pictures aimed to please provincial romantics with pretensions to refinement, whose vicarious movie thrills made their lives even more wanting in excitement.

Minnelli is attracted to the subversive elements of the central character and story, specifically to Emmas doomed infatuation with the idea of love, and her vanity, which was a form of narcissism. A faithless wife and negligent mother, Emma defies all the feminine ideals MGM movies were promoting in the Greer Garson vehicles after “Mrs. Miniver.” Minnelli argued that if Emma earns the sympathy of the readers, it’s due to her human lapses.

Screenwriter Robert Ardrey opts for a dramatic reduction of the novel. But due to censorship, producer Pandro Berman feared that even Emma’s suicide might be deemed insufficient punishment for her adultery. On screen, Ardrey suggests Emma’s promiscuity, but very little is actually shown. The chosen distancing device is voice-over narration. The story is bracketed with a reenactment of Flaubert’s trial for obscenity.

Pandro Berman initially planned to cast Lana Turner, the studio’s glamour-plastic woman, still described as “The Sweater Girl.” But Minnelli rejected the idea as both implausible and impractical. The Production Code censors had already warned that Madame Bovary was trouble enough, even without Lana Turner’s incendiary screen image. Minnelli refused to consider Metro’s other stars, British imports Greer Garson, who was established but boring, and Deborah Kerr, who was still new in Hollywood, because both were too refined ladies for the part.

David O. Selznick agreed to release Jennifer Jones, his wife-actress, for the film so long as MGM used some of his idle leading men. Hence Emma’s noble seducer, Rodolphe, was assigned to Louis Jordan, and James Mason was cast as Flaubert, affording the estimable Brit the opportunity to flaunt his impeccably musical and cultured voice. Only one actor, Van Heflin, as Charles Bovary, was chosen from the MGM’s stable.

Though Flaubert devoted only a few pages to the ball at the chateau, Minnelli turned it into the picture’s dramatic highlight, the occasion for Emma’s illusions and Charles’ forebodings to converge in music and movement. One of the last sequences to be shot, and the most complicated to orchestrate, Minnelli planned it as if it were a production number in a nig glossy musical.

For Minnelli, the picture’s standout scene is the Waltz dance. In that sequence, he conveys the giddiness that enveloped Emma at the ball. In dramatic films, music is usually added to the edited footage. Minnelli, however, shapes the ball scene to the pre-recorded strains of the neurotic Waltz he had commissioned from the noted Miklos Rozsa, known for his evocative scores for many films noir.

In the ball, Emma is a Cinderella-like figure, outshining everybody else, only briefly remorseful over her neglect of husband and child. The neurotic Waltz is done with an accelerated tempo, to accentuate the idea being that as Emma was swirling around, the baroque mirrors and chandeliers were swinging around with her.

Devoid of words, the camera movement suggests Emmas dizzying breathlessness as well as to explain with no dialogue why the host ordered to break the windows. This is shown while Emmas husband is in the billiard room, getting drunk. The Waltz was among the most difficult sequences Minnelli had ever staged or shot. Minnelli devised a series of 360-degree pans to convey Emma’s perilous exhilaration. The scene represents one of the more audacious and spectacular epiphanies in a Minnelli movie.

Madame Bovary’s tragedy is the prototype for many of Minnelli’s subsequent dramas. At the center, there’s usually a hero/heroine-misfit whos maddened by life’s routines, norms, and rituals. Identifying with his protagonists, male or female, Minnelli experienced similar emotional struggles in his own private life.

Like Manuela, played by Judy Graland in Minnelli’s musical “The Pirate,” Emma Bovary is a woman stifled by the mores of her environment. For each woman, the main allure of her impending marriage is materialitsic. Both heroines are prey to erotic longings, born and shaped by literature and popular magazines. The difference between the two women is that, as befits a hopeful genre like the musical, Manuela is liberated by her imagination, while the gravity of daily life brings Emma’s fantasies to tragedy.

The film’s detached mode is also reflected in the way that Minnelli defines Emma visually, as an alien figure, ill matched with her surroundings. The interplay between the insider-outsider perspectives is what makes the film so intriguing.

The script of “Madame Bovary” compresses the richly dense source material. Thus, every episode in which the heroine doesn’t figure directly was omitted. For dramatic emphasis, Rodolphe enters the plot at an earlier phase, before initiating Emma to the intoxicating waltz at the gala ball. Certain characters, such as Bovary’s mother and his first wife, are eliminated completely from the film. Minnelli’s intuition and craft preserve Flaubert’s spirit, while at the same time translating it into a language and look that were understood by the mass public of the era.

“There are hundreds and thousands of women who wish they were Emma Bovary and who have been saved from her fate not by virtue but simply by lack of determination,” proclaims Flaubert (James Mason) in the prologue’s courtroom scene. Minnelli related to it viscerally.

Though her interpretation lacks depth, Jennifer Jones’s star quality, her frail beauty, and elegant poise, are important, accentuating Madame Bovarys fatal delusions. Madame Bovary’s life is sustained entirely on illusion and fantasy, and she imagines herself the center of glamorous fantasies. Minnelli’s Emma muses on “love in a Scotch cottage, love in a Swiss chalet.”

Minnelli draws a number of striking contrasts, such Emmas grand entree in the first reel. Graciously preparing breakfast for the young doctor who’s called to see her farmer father, she beams in her kitchen over her omlette pan, while wearing a long white gown! Viewers have been tipped off that this elegant domestic is not the “real” Emma, but a cameo turn to titillate her own vanity and dazzle Charles. Unseen by Dr. Bovary during his midnight vigil, in the previous scene Minnelli showed the girl in her usual guise, bustling in farmhouse kitchen, in a smock and kerchief under her chin.

Emma’s apprenticeship in her craft is shown in a flashback of her convent years. In her bedroom, we see the teenager musing–the camera spans to her reveries, a shrine as an eclectic collection of framed landscapes of enchanted woods, engravings of rapt lovers ripped from novels, copies of fashion magazines. They are described by Mason’s mournful voice-over as “images of beauty that never existed.” These fetishes accompany Emma for the rest of her life, placed in the attic to which she retreated from her bleak domesticity.

Significantly, in Minnelli’s melodrama, Bovary’s villain is an amoral interior decorator, shopkeeper/moneylender Lheureux, who furnishes Emma’s new home and adorns her. Minnelli indicts Lheureux’s malign influence on his heroine’s gullible whims with a vignette that’s absent in Flaubert’s novel. Of all his new merchandise, Emma gets excited over a plaster cherub of negligible merit, prompting Lheureux to remark, “you have unfailing taste.”

“Madame Bovary” is a tale of the misguided nineteenth-century housewife, who is rushed down the primrose path to ruin. Metro had actually put it in the form of an open defense. James Mason plays the author on trial, for writing this infamous novel, as indeed Flaubert actually was. Though it was not his choice, Minnelli abided by the restriction of having James Mason speak a preface to the work and offer occasional commentaries off-screen voice as the story unfolds.

By using this device, Minnelli suggests that Emma Bovarys tragic life is not the result of willful sinning by a selfish, licentious woman, but the consequence of her environment, her upbringing and her childish dreams. We had taught her to believe in Cinderella, Mason tenderly remarks.

In Minnellis version, Emma is the victim of hopeless illusions, a sheer product of the romantic age and its ideals. She doesnt find the man of her dreams in her poor loving husband, or in her dazzling lover, or in the pitiful law clerk. In the end, it is ruin and despair, shame, desolation, and death.

Minnelli keeps the story moving with smooth directorial touches. As noted, the high point of his work is a ballroom scene, which spins in a whirl of rapture and crashes in a shatter of shame. In this sequence, Minnelli the stylist fully visualizes his theme in a way that he is not successful in other sequences. A better performance of Emma could be wished for than the beaming and breathless one Jennifer Jones gives. Minnelli though that Jones was too light for playing the anguish of this tormented soul. Given the choice, he would have preferred an actress like Vivien Leigh in the part, and that was before he saw “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

None of the men in the cast is distinguished, either. Louis Jordan is not quite electric as Bovarys phony and elegant lover Rodolphe. Van Heflin is moderately appealing as her trusting small-town spouse, but the script neglected to give him long scenes, mostly allowing him reaction shots; it was a passive role. A better portrait of the weakling lover is given by Christopher Kent. The only actor to approximate Minnellis vision of the film is Frank Allenby, as the shrewd and manipulative merchant Lhereux.

Madame Bovary draws on Minnellis rare sensitivity to its source material and his vivid sense for melodrama. The movie was too gloomy and fatalistic for the broad public, though it performed respectably at the box-office. It’s Minnelli’s first dramatic film since “The Clock” in 1944 (with Judy Garland in the lead) to fulfill his expectations and meet his high standards. The movie demonstrates Minnellis breadth of talent, proving that his stylistic flair could enliven the most demanding and bleakest of subjects.


Oscar Nominations: 1

Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith; Edwin B. Willis and Richard A. Pefferle

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner was The Heiress.





Emma Bovary (Jennifer Jones)

Charles Bovary (Van Heflin)

Gustave Flaubert (James Mason)

Rodolphe Boulanger (Louis Jordan)

Leon Dupuis (Christopher Kent)

J. Homais (Gene Lockhart)

Lhereux (Frank Allenby)

Madame Dupuis (Gladys Cooper)

Mayor Tuvache (John Abbott)

Hyppolite (Henry Morgan)

Dubocage (George Zucco)

Felicite (Ellen Corby)

Roualt (Eduard Franz)

Guillaumin (Henri Letondal)

Madame Lefrancois (Esther Somers)

Pinard (Frederic Tozere)

Marquis D’Andervilliers (Paul Cavanagh)

Justin (Larry Smith)

Berthe (Dawn Kinney)

Priest (Vernon Steele)




Produced by Pandro S. Berman

Screenplay: Robert Ardrey, based on the novel by Gustav Flaubert

Cinematography: Robert Planck

Art Direction: Cedric Gibson, Jack Martin Smith

Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis, associate Richard A. Pefferle

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Editing: Ferris Webster

Special Effects: Warren Newcombe

Costumes:  Walter Plunkett, Valles

Choreography: Jack Donohue

Recording engineer: Douglas Shearer

Makeup: Jack Dawn

Hair stylist: Larry Germain, Sydney Guilaroff


Running Time: 115 Minutes



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