Entertainment’s Great Family has arrived.
Turbulence seems to run in the Barrymore clan. Drew Barrymore’s grandfather, John, was an incredibly respected actor (even his profile was highly renowned). He also suffered from alcoholism, to the point that he began to forget lines and gain weight. His relationship with his wife, Delores Costello disintegrated–she finally called him a “hopeless alcoholic”–and Barrymore traveled constantly in case she decided to have him declared mentally unstable. Many in the film industry also avoided Barrymore, but he did manage to get some roles, including a plummy supporting part in 1938’s sprawling and brilliant Marie Antoinette.
The film was the last one approved by Irving Thalberg in 1936, and it took enormous amounts of preparation and planning, especially the gowns. The designer, Adrian, went to France and Austria to study paintings of Marie Antoinette and reproduce the designs of her gowns right down to the stitching, and people today still talk about them. Also, the filmmakers were allowed to shoot footage in France, on the grounds of Versailles, which was unusual at a time when backlots were usually the place to be.
The cast of Marie Antoinette is as lavish as the production design. To name a few, Norma Shearer played Marie Antoinette, Robert Morley was Louis XVI, Tyrone Power played the Swedish Count Fersen, and Joseph Schildkraut was the Duke of Orleans (On a side note, Schildkraut wore pretty vivid makeup in the film, which was not uncommon for aristocratic men of the pre-Revolutionary period). The film follows the lives of the doomed king and queen, right up to their deaths. The acting in the film is pitch-perfect, especially Norma Shearer, who has unfairly been given a bad rap by some. She puts forth a very nuanced performance as Marie Antoinette, going from a silly, airhead-y teen to a wise but hapless woman. She carries on a sweet friendship and partnership with her husband Louis, who is good-hearted but incredibly shy and inarticulate, and she is genuinely interested when he shows her his work. As times get tougher, their bond grows stronger, and Shearer’s scenes with him towards the end of the film in particular are heartrending.
But we’re not here to talk about Norma Shearer, even though she is the whole film. John Barrymore plays Louis XV in Marie Antoinette, and shows us just a few of the perks of being a monarch. A really cantankerous, bow-before-me-lowly-peasants monarch.
1. Presiding over many an awkward meeting.
As king, Louis knows most and sees most–the good, the bad, and the very uncomfortable. He has the joy of a ringside seat when Marie Antoinette meets Louis XVI. Or when Marie Antoinette confronts Madame du Barry. Or when Madame du Barry has it out with the Duke of Orleans (and it’s a toss-up as to whose makeup looks better). Whether one chooses to referee these meetups is another matter.
2. The absolute absence of anyone with less than top-drawer status.
That’s right. Louis gets to sit in his fabulous chair in his fabulous palace doing fabulous things while the peons work in the fields and bread costs a month’s wages. But never mind that. Louis is too cool for school, and says “the people” are nothing to him.
3. Unless, of course, one chooses to make an exception.
It doesn’t matter if someone is a laundress…ahem…milliner like Madame the Comtesse du Barry reportedly was. If she manages to catch the eye of a ‘crat, she’s in. Equality in action, people.
4. Peaceful mealtimes.
There are only about a hundred other people standing around watching His Majesty eat, but what of it? The food’s the thing, and it’s all good.
5. Peacocks have zilch on kings.
Really, what’s the fun of being king if you can’t outshine everyone else? Work it, your Majesty.
6. God-like powers of election (most of the time).
If Louis doesn’t like someone, if they’re not living up to his expectations, or he just feels like showing someone the door, he can. The Austrian his grandson married isn’t providing an heir to the throne? She’s gone. Unless, of course, his soon-to-be equally powerful Dauphin of a grandson has other ideas.
7. Going out with a drum roll.
Monarchs don’t go quietly when they die, and they don’t die alone. As is fitting for a royal, an army of priests and altar boys must be on hand to mark the occasion, and a solemn drumbeat is essential. When a king’s life is all pomp and circumstance, it’s no big shock that his death must be the same way. Too bad Louis left too big a mess behind him for anyone to clean up.
Marie Antoinette may never have said, “Let them eat cake,” but I wouldn’t put it past Louis to sneer out something similar. Except in his mind, cake would have probably been too good for the people. Stale bread, maybe, but not cake. Wowzie, wowza.
What’s ironic about Barrymore’s performance in Marie Antoinette is that we see both Barrymore and His Majesty deteriorate onscreen. Barrymore’s character starts out looking heavy but still robust, but as time goes on he’s increasingly infirm, croaking out his lines and glowering at the other actors. Louis XV ended up dying of smallpox, and at the moment it happens in the film, one of the servants turns off the light in his room. In a way, it was a symbol of Barrymore’s own deterioration both professionally and personally.
Even though Marie Antoinette was hugely successful, Barrymore’s career didn’t improve much. He still had trouble remembering his lines, was called a nuisance on the set, and his last film was 1941’s Playmates, in which Barrymore played a hammy Shakespearean actor, named, painfully enough, John Barrymore. Barrymore was able to work steadily in radio, however, putting in many, many hours on Rudy Vallee’s SealTest Theatre. He succumbed to cancer in 1942, but has still more than earned his place in Barrymore lore and entertainment history.
That wraps up my Day One of The Third Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, and of course, Crystal has more for you at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Hope you enjoyed reading, and see you tomorrow!