Marie Antoinette (1938): Van Dyke’s Opulent Historical Drama, Starring Norma Shearer in Oscar Nominated Performance, Robert Morley, and Tyrone Power

M.G.M.’s opulent costume drama directed by Van Dyke, Marie Antoinette, stars Norma Shearer in the title role.

She plays the Austrian princess who is married off to Louis Auguste (Robert Morley), the Dauphin of France, and was later executed, in 1793 after the French Revolution.

MGM advertised the movie as “The Life, The Sins of a Royal Bad Girl!”

Our Grade: B+ (***1/2 out of *****)

Marie Antoinette

Theatrical release poster

Marie, by becoming the Dauphine, finds herself plopped smack in the middle of French palace intrigue between Louis’s father King Louis XV (John Barrymore) and his scheming cousin, the Duke of Orleans (Joseph Schildkraut).

Louis is unable to consummate his marriage, and so Marie compensates with parties, gambling her fortune away. In a casino, she meets the handsome Count Axel de Fersen (Tyrone Power) and the couple embark on an affair.

When Louis XV dies and Louis becomes King Louis XVI, Fersen takes his leave; he cannot carry on an affair with the Queen of France.

Marie vows to be a great queen and remain loyal to her king, but the Duke of Orleans is plotting against Louis XVI with some revolutionary radicals.

The monarchy is overthrown, and Louis and Marie are thrown into prison, awaiting execution. But when word gets back to Fersen, he travels back to France in an attempt to rescue Marie.

Production values are lavish, especially cinematography by William Daniels and costumes by Adrian.

This was the last Best Actress Oscar nomination of Norma Shearer, and one of her last good films; she would retire from the screen three years later.

Robert Morley received an Oscar nod for his first screen role, which originally was intended for Charles Laughton.

Well received by critics, upon initial release, the movie was popular at the box-office, but due to its exceeding budget (close to $3 million), MGM declared it a loss.

The movie began to acquire larger following in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was shown on TV, and in retrospectives of Norma Shearer.  Shearer’s performance is considered one of her very best, alongside that in the 1939 comedy “The Women,” which also became a cult item.

Oscar Context

Oscar Nominations: 4

Actress: Norma Shearer

Supporting Actor: Robert Morley

Interior decoration: Cedric Gibbons

Original Score: Herbert Stothart

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Bette Davis for Jezebel.

The Supporting Actor Oscar went to Walter Brennan for Kentucky.

The Adventures of Robin Hood won the Art Direction (Carl J. Weyl) and the Score (Erich Wolfgang Korngold) Oscars



Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
Produced by Hunt Stromberg
Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, Ernest Vajda, Claudine West, F. Scott Fitzgerald (uncredited), Talbot Jennings (uncredited dialogue), based on “Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman,” the 1932 biography by Stefan Zweig
Music by Herbert Stothart
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Edited by Robert Kern
Distributed by Loew’s, Inc.
Release date: July 8, 1938
Running time: 150 minutes

Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette
Tyrone Power as Count Axel von Fersen
John Barrymore as King Louis XV
Robert Morley as King Louis XVI
Anita Louise as Princesse de Lamballe
Joseph Schildkraut as Duc d’Orléans
Gladys George as Madame du Barry
Henry Stephenson as Count Mercey
Cora Witherspoon as Countess De Noailles
Barnett Parker as Prince de Rohan
Reginald Gardiner as Comte d’Artois
Henry Daniell as La Motte
Leonard Penn as Toulan
Albert Van Dekker as Comte de Provence
Alma Kruger as Empress Maria Theresa
Joseph Calleia as Drouet
George Meeker as Robespierre
Scotty Beckett as The Dauphin
Marilyn Knowlden as Princesse Thérèse
Harry Davenport as Monsieur de Cosse (uncredited)
Nigel De Brulier as Archbishop (uncredited)
Walter Walker as Benjamin Franklin (uncredited)