Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Au Petit Matin

MGM's 1938 Marie Antoinette is a film better known as the Widow Thalberg's last fling with the Grade-A Prestige Pictures she'd been making since she hit her stride at the top of the decade than it is as an actual movie-to-have-seen.*  I haven't, and so was all the more surprised to see, as above, how realistically - for a Norma Shearer picture - it plays the dénouement of the sad lady's life.  Would you know this was Norma Shearer, if you didn't know it was Norma Shearer?

All of which comes to mind because today marks the 219th anniversary of the onetime Austrian archduchess's death-by-guillotine.  It was an extreme end to a life of extravagance and so has remained a source of much fascination ever since. 

As a character, the indispensable IMDb tells us, the ill-fated queen has appeared in nearly 100 differents guises on the large and small screens, with a cavalcade of actresses joining Shearer, from silent pioneer Julia Swayne Gordon in 1916's My Lady's Slipper to Jayne Meadows as a guest on Steve Allen's faux/historico talk show, Meeting of Minds.  She has inspired at least one contemporary opera, The Ghosts of Versailles (I was at the premiere, but really almost all I remember is Marilyn Horne playing Samira the Turkish Entertainer in an interpolated star turn that really could be a Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion all on its ownsome).  She also crops up in La Révolution française, the 1973 rock opera by the team of Boublil and Schönberg, who went to on operatize, as it were other picturesque conflicts in Les Mis and Miss Saigon.   She gets to sing a very pretty song, "Au petit matin (16 October 1793)", which you can sample here.

All of which risks our losing sight of the two women really on my mind, the queens of France and MGM.  You can see Shearer's excellent work en route to the scaffold here, but it's best to turn off the execrable music.  The woman she's portraying certainly could never have dreamed how very wrong things would go in her once-charmed life, nor that her death and those of her family would set a dark pattern for so many to follow: her nephew (several times removed), Maximilian of Mexico; the Romanovs in their Ekaterinberg basement; the boy-king of Iraq and his family.  Shearer, of course, kept her head (although, in the end, not her mind), but lost her career. 

Both, I suppose, might be seen in different ways as object lessons of what happens to vain, silly women who suddenly find themselves defenseless after a lifetime of cosseting, but that seems unduly harsh to both.  How much nicer to remember the pretty girl, actress and archduchess alike, setting out on a great adventure that brought her, for a while at least, to the top...

* But oh, you say, what about The Women?  Well, it certainly was an A, even an A+, but it's an ensemble epic, by no means a star vehicle, and by no means a typical Shearer outing.  Actually, it should have been the picture that reinvented her, but after that there are just three pale copies of her earlier triumphs, over and out.  The Women is a treasure, but for Mrs. Thalberg, a dead end.

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