Marie Antoinette (1938 film)

Last updated
Marie Antoinette
Theatrical release poster
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
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
1932 biography
by Stefan Zweig
Produced by Hunt Stromberg
Starring Norma Shearer
Tyrone Power
John Barrymore
Robert Morley
Anita Louise
Joseph Schildkraut
Gladys George
Henry Stephenson
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Edited by Robert Kern
Music by Herbert Stothart
Distributed by Loew's, Inc.
Release date
  • July 8, 1938 (1938-07-08)
Running time
150 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2,926,000 [1] [2]
Box office$2,956,000 (worldwide rentals) [1] [2]

Marie Antoinette is a 1938 American historical drama film produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. [3] [4] It was directed by W. S. Van Dyke and starred Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette. Based upon the 1932 biography of the ill-fated Queen of France by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, it had its Los Angeles premiere at the legendary Carthay Circle Theatre, where the landscaping was specially decorated for the event.


The film was the last project of Irving Thalberg who died in 1936 while it was in the planning stage. His widow, Norma Shearer, remained committed to the project even while her enthusiasm for her film career in general was waning following his death.

With a budget over two million dollars, it was one of the more expensive films of the 1930s, but also one of the bigger successes.


In 1769 Vienna, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria tells her daughter Maria Antonia she is to marry the Dauphin Louis-Auguste. Marie is excited to become the future Queen of France but grows dismayed upon learning her husband is a shy man more at home with locksmithing than attending parties. After countless attempts to please him, Louis reveals he cannot produce heirs, prompting Marie to associate with the power-hungry Duc d'Orleans.

On her second wedding anniversary, Madame du Barry, King Louis XV's mistress, gifts Marie with an empty cradle and a poem critical of her inability to produce an heir. Despite Marie's outrage, Louis proves to be too weak to stand up to his grandfather. Sometime later, Marie meets Swedish Count Axel Fersen at a costume ball, during which she wagers and loses an expensive necklace. Count Mercy, the Austrian ambassador, scolds her for her wanton behaviour, but she pays him little mind.

Marie then hosts a ball in an attempt to make amends with du Barry and please Count Mercy. However, the attempt fails when du Barry draws attention to Louis's absence, and Marie responds with reference to du Barry's past. The King decides to annul the marriage, prompting Louis to defend Marie. Meanwhile, Marie flees to Count Mercy's residence after learning she is to be sent back to Austria. While there, she reunites with Fersen, who professes his love for her.

Realising she too has fallen in love with Fersen, Marie goes to tell Louis but learns she cannot leave him as the King is dying of smallpox and Louis himself is still fond of her. She agrees to remain, and they ascend to the throne following the King's death. Despite Marie's attempts to continue their relationship, Fersen refuses to risk ruining her reputation and tells her to fulfill her duties as France's Queen. She goes on to give birth to daughter Marie Thérèse and son Louis Charles.

Years later, when the Dauphin has grown into a young boy, peasants throw stones at Marie's carriage while taking her children for a drive. She is shocked at the intense dislike displayed by the people of France. She blames d'Orleans for inciting them. Marie later rejects a jeweller's expensive and elaborate necklace. Still, she is framed by court insiders plotting to acquire the necklace for themselves, and the Affair of the Diamond Necklace erupts. Marie is outraged, but d'Orleans tells the royal couple to abdicate the throne in favour of the Dauphin under the regency of d'Orleans.

The French Revolution comes, and the royal family is taken prisoner. Fersen returns with a plan of escape, but when the Dauphin tells a guard that his father is a locksmith, the King is recognised and arrested after a former priest at Versailles identifies him. The King is put on trial and sentenced to death and spends his last night with his family, his children not realising this is the last night they will spend with their father. Marie is heartbroken but is then separated from her children, put on trial, and condemned to death. The Dauphin, too young to understand what is going on around him, is forced to testify against his mother. The night before she is executed, Fersen goes to the prison and pledges their love to each other, with Marie telling him that she will never say goodbye. The next morning she goes bravely to her execution, which Fersen witnesses from a distance.



William Randolph Hearst originally planned this film as a vehicle for Marion Davies as early as 1933. However, a clash with Louis B. Mayer after the failure of her film Operator 13 led to the couple switching to neighboring Warner Bros.

Norma Shearer was the wife of MGM studio head Irving Thalberg when this project was greenlit sometime before his death in 1936. This was reportedly Shearer's favorite role.

Originally to be directed by Sidney Franklin, the job was given to W.S. Van Dyke. Irving Thalberg originally planned for Charles Laughton to play the role of Louis XVI, but Laughton, after lengthy deliberations, finally declined.

Costumes and set designs

The film boasted thousands of expensive costumes and lavish set design. The array of costumes created for the film are among the most expensive in film history. Costume designer Adrian visited France and Austria in 1937 to research the period. While there he purchased vast quantities of antique materials, French lace, and period accessories for use in the film. He studied the paintings of Marie Antoinette, even using a microscope on them, so that the embroidery could be identical. Fabrics were specially woven and subsequently embroidered with stitches sometimes too fine to be seen with the naked eye. The studio raged at the amount of money being spent on costumes for the film. The attention to detail was extreme, from the framework to hair. Some gowns were extremely heavy due to the amount of embroidery, fabric and precious stones used in their creation. Ms. Shearer's gowns alone had the combined weight of over 1,768 pounds, the heaviest being the 108 pound wedding dress created using hundreds of yards of white silk satin hand embroidered in gilt thread. Originally slated to be shot in Technicolor, many of the gowns were specially dyed. The fur trim on one of Ms. Shearer's capes was therefore dyed the exact shade of her eyes. [5]

The elaborate costumes were subsequently reused multiple times in other period films to offset the cost of their creation. Many have survived and exist in both museum and private costume collections internationally.

The ballroom at Versailles was built to be twice as large as the original to give the ball sequences a grander scale. Genuine French furniture from the period was purchased and shipped to Hollywood, some of it thought to have originally been from Versailles. The budget was a then-enormous $2.9 million. After calculating the huge expense of costume and set design, plans to render it in color were scrapped because of concerns it would cost even more to add Technicolor. [6]


The film premiered on July 8, 1938, at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles following a lavish outdoor red carpet ceremony for which the nearby lawns were transformed into an imitation of the gardens of the Palace of Versailles. The premiere, including the preparations of the grounds, is depicted in a short black-and-white newsreel film, Hollywood Goes to Town, produced by M-G-M.

According to MGM records Marie Antoinette took in $1,633,000 in theater rentals from the United States and Canada and an additional $1,323,000 from foreign rentals, [1] [2] but because of its enormous cost recorded a loss of $767,000. [7]

Home media

Sofia Coppola released her 2006 film version of the life of the queen at Versailles, causing Warner Bros. to release its 1938 vault version of Marie Antoinette on DVD. Extras are sparse, with two vintage shorts included on the disc: "Hollywood Goes to Town" provides a glimpse of the elaborate premiere for the movie, while a trailer is also included. [6]

Academy Award nominations

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marie Antoinette</span> Queen of France from 1774 to 1792

Marie Antoinette Josèphe Jeanne was the last queen of France before the French Revolution. She was born an archduchess of Austria, and was the penultimate child and youngest daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I. She became dauphine of France in May 1770 at age 14 upon her marriage to Louis-Auguste, heir apparent to the French throne. On 10 May 1774, her husband ascended the throne as Louis XVI and she became queen.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Norma Shearer</span> Canadian-American actress (1902–1983)

Edith Norma Shearer was a Canadian-American actress who was active on film from 1919 through 1942. Shearer often played spunky, sexually liberated ingénues. She appeared in adaptations of Noël Coward, Eugene O'Neill, and William Shakespeare, and was the first five-time Academy Award acting nominee, winning Best Actress for The Divorcee (1930).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Madame du Barry</span> Mistress of Louis XV

Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry was the last maîtresse-en-titre of King Louis XV of France. She was executed, by guillotine, during the French Revolution due to accounts of treason—particularly being suspected of assisting émigrés flee from the Revolution.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Axel von Fersen the Younger</span> Swedish count, Marshal and General

Hans Axel von Fersen, known as Axel de Fersen in France, was a Swedish count, Marshal of the Realm of Sweden, a General of Horse in the Royal Swedish Army, one of the Lords of the Realm, aide-de-camp to Rochambeau in the American Revolutionary War, diplomat and statesman, and a friend of Queen Marie-Antoinette of France. He died at the hands of a Stockholm lynch mob.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Affair of the Diamond Necklace</span> Scandal involving King Louis XVI of France and Marie Antoinette

The Affair of the Diamond Necklace was an incident from 1784 to 1785 at the court of King Louis XVI of France that involved his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yolande de Polastron</span> French aristocrat and courtier

Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac was the favourite of Marie Antoinette, whom she first met when she was presented at the Palace of Versailles in 1775, the year after Marie Antoinette became the Queen of France. She was considered one of the great beauties of pre-Revolutionary society, but her extravagance and exclusivity earned her many enemies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marie-Thérèse, Duchess of Angoulême</span> Madame Royale (1778–1851)

Marie-Thérèse Charlotte was the eldest child of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of France and briefly disputed Queen of France in 1830. She was the only child of her parents to reach adulthood. In 1799 she married her cousin Louis Antoine, Duke of Angoulême, the eldest son of Charles, Count of Artois.

<i>The Affair of the Necklace</i> 2001 film by Charles Shyer

The Affair of the Necklace is a 2001 American historical drama film directed by Charles Shyer. The screenplay by John Sweet is based on what became known as the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, an incident that helped fuel the French populace's disillusionment with the monarchy and, among other causes, eventually led to the French Revolution. The film received negative reviews from critics, but the sets, music and costume design were praised.

<i>Madame Du Barry</i> (1934 film) 1934 film by William Dieterle

Madame DuBarry is a 1934 American historical film directed by William Dieterle and starring Dolores del Río, Reginald Owen, Victor Jory and Osgood Perkins. The film portrays the life of Madame Du Barry, the last mistress of King Louis XV of France. While this film does not serve accuracy to Madame Du Barry, it does feature antiques and jewelry that came from the actual days when Madame Du Barry lived. This film was released just as the Hollywood Production Code was taking full swing, and faced many problems with censors of the time. Scenes of this film had to be removed before its release or else it would have not been approved for release.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy</span> French con woman

Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, self proclaimed "Comtesse de la Motte" was a notorious French adventuress and thief; she was married to Nicholas de la Motte whose family's claim to nobility was dubious. She herself was an impoverished descendant of the Valois royal family through an illegitimate son of King Henry II. She has been known for her prominent role in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, one of many scandals that led to the French Revolution and helped to destroy the monarchy of France.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Madame Adélaïde</span> Princess of France

Marie Adélaïde de France,, was a French princess, the sixth child, and the fourth daughter of King Louis XV of France and his consort, Marie Leszczyńska.

<i>Marie Antoinette</i> (2006 film) 2006 film directed by Sofia Coppola

Marie Antoinette is a 2006 historical drama film written and directed by Sofia Coppola. It is based on the life of Queen Marie Antoinette, played by Kirsten Dunst, in the years leading up to the French Revolution. It won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design. It was released in the United States on October 20, 2006, by Sony Pictures Releasing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marie Joséphine of Savoy</span> Countess of Provence

Marie Joséphine of Savoy was a princess of France and countess of Provence by marriage to the future King Louis XVIII of France. She was regarded by Bourbon Royalist Legitimists as the titular queen of France' when her husband assumed the title of king in 1795 upon the death of his nephew, the titular King Louis XVII of France, until her death. She was never practically queen, as she died before her husband actually became king in 1814.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Maria Theresa of Savoy</span> Countess of Artois

Maria Theresa of Savoy was a French princess by marriage to Charles Philippe, Count of Artois; he being the grandson of Louis XV of France, and younger brother of the future Louis XVI of France. Nineteen years after Maria Theresa’s death, her spouse assumed the throne of France as King Charles X. Her son, Prince Louis Antoine, married Marie Antoinette’s daughter Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, they being the King and Queen of France for approximately 20 minutes on 2 August 1830.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sophie of France (1734–1782)</span> Duchess of Louvois

Sophie Philippine Élisabeth Justine de France, was a French princess, a fille de France; she was the sixth daughter and eighth child of Louis XV of France and his queen consort Marie Leszczyńska. First known as Madame Cinquième, she later became Madame Sophie. She and her sisters were collectively known as Mesdames.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cultural depictions of Marie Antoinette</span>

Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, is best remembered for her legendary extravagance and her death: she was executed by guillotine during the Reign of Terror at the height of the French Revolution in 1793 for the crime of treason. Her life has been the subject of many historically accurate biographies and the subject of romance novels and films.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marie Thérèse Louise of Savoy, Princesse de Lamballe</span> Princess of Lamballe

Marie Thérèse Louise was a member of the Savoy-Carignano cadet branch of the House of Savoy. She was married at the age of 17 to Louis Alexandre de Bourbon-Penthièvre, Prince de Lamballe, the heir to the greatest fortune in France. After her marriage, which lasted a year, she went to the French royal court and became the confidante of Queen Marie Antoinette. She was killed in the massacres of September 1792 during the French Revolution.

<i>Versailles of the Dead</i> Japanese manga series

Versailles of the Dead is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Kumiko Suekane. It was serialized in Shogakukan's Hibana from 2016 to 2017, and in Ura Sunday website and MangaONE app from November 2017 to November 2020. Its chapters were collected in a total of five tankōbon volumes.

<i>Marie Antoinette and Her Children</i> Painting by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Marie Antoinette and Her Children, also known as Marie Antoinette of Lorraine-Habsburg, Queen of France, and Her Children is an oil painting by the French artist Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, painted in 1787, and currently displayed at the Palace of Versailles. Its dimensions are 275 by 216.5 cm.


  1. 1 2 3 Glancy, H. Mark (1992). "MGM film grosses, 1924-1948: The Eddie Mannix Ledger". Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 12 (2): 127–144. doi:10.1080/01439689200260081.
  2. 1 2 3 Glancy, H. Mark (1992). "Appendix". Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television. 12 (S2): 1–20. doi:10.1080/01439689208604539.
  3. Variety film review; July 13, 1938, page 15.
  4. Harrison's Reports film review; August 27, 1938, page 138.
  5. The Costumes of Marie Antoinette | The Movies and the Woman
  6. 1 2 DVD Verdict Review - Marie Antoinette (1938)
  7. Scott Eyman, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Robson, 2005 p. 257