Produced and Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Premiered: July 8, 1938 (Carthay Circle Theatre, Los Angeles)
Released: August 26, 1938
Featured cast: Norma Shearer, Tyrone Power, John Barrymore, Robert Morley, Anita Louise, Joseph Schildkraut
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Director: W.S. Van Dyke; Julien Duvivier, Jacques Tourneur (Second Unit)
Screenwriters: Claudine West, Ernest Vajda, Donald Ogden Stewart; Talbot Jennings (contributing dialogue)
Source: the 1932 biography by Stefan Zweig
Cinematographer: William Daniels; Leonard Smith, George Folsey (second unit)
An innocent Austrian princess is sent to the decadent court at Versailles to marry the future king of France.
“Tyrone Power has been given the role of Count Axel de Fersen in Marie Antoinette by M-G-M.”
- “Tyrone Power Is Cast,” Film Daily, December 29, 1937
Note: Twentieth Century-Fox loaned Power to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in order to secure Spencer Tracy for Stanley and Livingstone.
“Miss Shearer returns to the screen for her first part since she played Juliet two years ago. Her performance is lifted by skillful portrayal of physical and mental transitions through the period of a score of years. Gaiety and frivolity are followed by impressive fortitude towards the end of the film where she stands with her back to the wall fighting for the lives of her children. Her moments of ardor with Count Axel de Fersen (Tyrone Power) are tender and believable. Despite handicaps of the artificialities of costumes she maintains character. In every respect Miss Shearer shows progress as an artist and reveals certain capabilities heretofore kept from view.”
- Variety, July 13, 1938
“Marie Antoinette belongs to the ancient school of things. Big crowds, fancy clothes, and the lovers—they are all here, and I guess they have their enduring appeal. Long as it is—two hours and three quarters—the action holds up well. One is impressed by the sudden boldness with which Miss Shearer portrays the final tragedy and without any nonsense whatsoever becomes the woman on the guillotine. That guillotine moment is director Van Dyke's most courageous detail—an ending to be commended in a film of an old fashion, big, costly, perhaps negligible.”
- John Mosher, The New Yorker, August 10, 1938
“The splendors of the French monarchy in its dying days have not simply been equaled, they have been surpassed by Marie Antoinette, which is now in imperial, two-a-day residence at the Astor Theatre. And as far as Metro has surpassed her surroundings (the ballroom set has already been advertised as considerably bigger than the one at Versailles) Norma Shearer has surpassed the queen herself, whose tragic and ineffectual figure was probably not nearly so much the dramatic center of all stages, especially with old Louis XV and the du Barry still extant, as Miss Shearer invariably contrives to be.
“To say that the Habsburg minx as Miss Shearer plays her is spotlighted would be to express it feebly; she casts so deep a shadow, not only over France and Europe but on the rest of the cast, that at times it is necessary to look again in order to verify their familiar visages. Even John Barrymore, skulking in the general penumbra of self-effacement, is hard to recognize as the brilliant and domineering old tyrant whose reign was a practical endorsement of his great-grandfather's much-plagiarized epigram: ‘I am the State!’ Only Tyrone Power as the romantically rather far-fetched Count Axel de Fersen is permitted to approach the luminous bounds of that divinity which hedges the Shearer throne, and he does so timidly, with due deference, and with the tender consciousness not so much of love as of second-billing in his eyes.
“But after all, it's the queen's story, and Miss Shearer seems to have been stuck with it as much as anybody. Her sincere efforts to breathe life into a weak script and to discount a marked unsubtlety of direction are everywhere apparent, and it would not be fair to assume that any other screen actress could have made this particular Antoinette more real than she has done. She laughs, minces, coquettes, sheds tears and at last ages with such courageous thoroughness that, after the rapid execution sequence, it was only by a process of deductive reasoning that we managed to determine the startling fact that it must have been she. What more could any actress do?”
- B.R. Crisler, The New York Times, August 17, 1938
LETTERS FROM REGIONAL THEATER OWNERS
“Excellent box office material. Miss Shearer tops all her previous performances in this one, and the efforts of the entire cast were appreciated by our audiences. However, Robert Morley walks away with the picture.”
- Charles Rossi, Strand Theatre, Schroon Lake, New York, Motion Picture Herald, November 5, 1938
“A picture like this brings out people who seldom go to movies. Wonderful acting, but not for the masses.”
- C. Bolduc, Majestic Theatre, Conway, New Hampshire, Motion Picture Herald, November 5, 1938
“What a picture! Words cannot describe the lavishness and the acting of Miss Shearer and Robert Morley. Miss Shearer surpasses any of her former roles. After all this is said, we are finished, as the picture is a terrible flop at the box office. Sunday night was the lowest draw we have had this fall. In other words, our audience does not like costume pictures, and, when Hollywood gets this into its vast void of skull, we will all be satisfied."
- A.J. Inks, Crystal Theatre, Ligonier, Indiana, Motion Picture Herald, November 12, 1938
“This is an unusually depressing picture, we believe. If it were not for the beauty and strength of Miss Shearer’s performance, there would be very little to entertain one. Robert Morley does splendid work also, but Tyrone Power seems out of it in some way.”
- L.A. Irwin, Palace Theatre, Penacook, New Hampshire, Motion Picture Herald, December 3, 1938
“Well, it’s the same old story. Wonderful production, grand acting, morbid story, empty seats. Small towns and rural communities will not go for this type of picture, yet the buying code says we must buy it and pay a big price.”
- A.H. Record, Majestic Theatre, Hebron, Nebraska, Motion Picture Herald, December 17, 1938
“One of the most perfect films I have ever seen. Art and class was this. Everyone thought it the best picture yet. My lady patronage cried so much that I had to go to the expense of buying handkerchiefs. Tie this up with schools or PTA. They will do the work!”
- Ouida Stephano, Grove Theatre, Groveton, Texas, Motion Picture Herald, December 24, 1938
Marie Antoinette cost $2.9 million and reported a loss of $600,000.
(These figures have not been adjusted for inflation nor do they include profits from reissues, television syndication, and home entertainment formats.)
Note: The film’s huge preproduction budget and a dwindling European market made a profit impossible, despite excellent big-city box office and an immense ($200,000) publicity campaign.