Dancing on a Volcano
In 1938, moviegoers trying to survive in an impoverished world as it lurched toward war found themselves with two new movies on the French Revolution to choose from, La Marseillaise and Marie Antoinette. La Marseillaise is by French auteur Jean Renoir, the follow-up to his global box office and awards season hit, Grand Illusion (1937). Marie Antoinette came from MGM’s husband-and-wife power couple, producer Irving Thalberg (who did not live to see his film’s release) and movie star Norma Shearer. They adapted Stefan Zweig’s 1932 biography of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman.
As the dust settles on 2020, we can see these two films came out of a time not unlike our own: of record unemployment, fights over the relief for it, of desperation fueling extremist politics, of invidious mass media corporations deceiving the public and fighting their own unionization, of democracies challenged from within and without, of dictators emboldened abroad, of an American president talking about court-packing, violent riots at the U.S. Capitol, and a presidential election so divisive that FDR openly said of his opponents, “I welcome their hatred.”
Thalberg, Shearer, and Renoir all looked at the mid-1930s and saw a global disaster. They saw things going in a very bad direction and believed the French Revolution to be the ideal historical lesson with which to warn us. Same Revolution, same world on fire, and yet the two films and their makers could not be in fiercer opposition to one another.
In 1933, Thalberg bought the rights to Zweig’s book on Marie Antoinette and the Revolution, as he feared one coming to the United States. Born May 30, 1899, he grew up sickly, with bouts of disease that damaged his heart. Doctors told his mother he would most likely be dead by twenty. Instead, isolation from school, his mother’s constant care, and a home schooling focused on literature made him a cold, driven teenager who in short order spun a secretary job at Universal Pictures into one as the studio owner’s assistant and then top development and production executive.
In a decade of pro-business Republican rule, Thalberg was a genius of the 1920s-pre-union studio system. He brilliantly paired talent to movie projects and removed problematic creatives like defective machine parts. At twenty-three, his firing of director Erich von Stroheim during filming of Merry-Go-Round rattled the industry. His biographer Mark Vieira argues that in an era of auteurs like Chaplin and Griffith, Thalberg single-handedly shifted the balance of creative power to studio producers like himself. “That was the beginning of the storm and the end of the reign of the director,” recalls director Rouben Mamoulian, “and when the storm subsided, there was no D.W. Griffith, no von Stroheim, no Rex Ingram.”
Even this early in their careers, Renoir and Thalberg could not have seen the world more differently.
Thalberg soon joined Louis B. Mayer and the other producers who formed MGM, where he spent the rest of his career. In 1933, Thalberg saw his golden decade ending. In 1932, he suffered a heart attack and MGM reduced his authority at the studio. FDR was sworn in, setting in motion his pro-labor New Deal. By the time Thalberg assigned writers to adapt Zweig’s book that summer, the Screen Writers Guild (precursor to the WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild had both been recently founded, in April and June, respectively. Both won the right to collectively bargain under the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act. Sure, Thalberg could crush a Von Stroheim, but not unions of them. Not only did he have to suffer FDR as president (Hoover had personally intervened in Thalberg’s tax fraud case), he feared socialist Upton Sinclair’s plans to run for governor and redistribute property with his popular EPIC plan (End Poverty in California). All of this was on his mind in 1933 as he planned Marie Antoinette.
You can see Thalberg’s political dispositions appearing on screen as early as MGM’s Rasputin and the Empress (1932), a drama about the fall of the Romanovs. It stars the three Barrymore siblings, with Lionel playing Rasputin as a wild, bearded giant of a peasant. Through seduction and mysticism, Rasputin manipulates the czar and his family. He’s killed, but it’s too late; the Romanov family is lined up against a wall and executed by the Bolsheviks. Screenwriter Charles MacArthur was still writing it in July 1932 as the Bonus Army, made up of WWI veterans seeking early payment of their benefits, marched on Washington, D.C. At Third and Pennsylvania, they were pushed back by the Hoover Administration with tear gas, bayonets, and gunfire that left two veterans dead.
Charles MacArthur was baffled by Thalberg’s insistence on the czar as a sympathetic figure, whereas peasants and workers were portrayed as violent oafs. “The Romanovs kicked your people around for three hundred years,” MacArthur told Thalberg, who was Jewish. “Now you’re trying to make a hero out of that stupid Nicholas.” Thalberg refused to let his religion get in the way of depicting the czar, and even Rasputin, as preferable to communists. So, as MacArthur recalled, “Nicholas and Alexandra were rewritten as Mr. and Mrs. Hoover.”
Thalberg was a reactionary. In the summer of 1933, he and Shearer took a European vacation and visited Bad Nauheim in Germany. They saw Jews beaten in the street, and when they called the police, were told to mind their own business. And yet, at an Anti-Nazi League dinner hosted by Marie Antoinette screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, Thalberg downplayed Hitler to Prince Hubertus zu Löewenstein, a refugee from Germany. “When a dictator dies, his system dies, too,” Thalberg said of Hitler, “but if communism is allowed to spread, it will be harder to root out. What is at stake is our whole way of life, our freedom.” When Loewenstein brought up Hitler and the Jews, he was as surprised as MacArthur when Thalberg shrugged it off. “A lot of Jews will lose their lives,” he later said, “[but] Hitler and Hitlerism will pass.”
Stewart, a left-leaning writer who later joined the U.S. Communist Party, recalls a situation with Thalberg similar to MacArthur’s writing the Romanovs. He was stuck on an historical point: “the best way of explaining the French Revolution in terms that would not lose audience sympathy for Norma Shearer.” As art historian T. Lawrence Larkin put it, “since the radical republicans hijacked the French Revolution in order to bring about a more egalitarian system of government, he had difficulty seeing why Marie-Antoinette had to be represented as a victim.”
Like so many right-wing voters today, Thalberg tolerated fascism and racism because they did not threaten him personally. In 1934, as screenplay drafts for Zweig’s book came in, he also approved MGM’s covert cooperation in deceptively staged anti-Upton Sinclair newsreels for theaters, complete with bug-eyed crisis actors playing radical Sinclair supporters, not unlike the mobs Thalberg sent after the czar in Rasputin and the Empress. A Lord & Thomas advertising executive assigned to the anti-Sinclair campaign, Don Francisco, hired a boxcar full of men to play Sinclair voters and later recalled: “I got the fellows out of MGM studios to dress up a lot of hoboes, dummies, and have them sitting up on top of that car and that was to run around Los Angeles.”
A producer who saw the czar as a hero, shrugged off ethnic cleansing and extreme poverty, undermined unions, and lied to the public to win elections—this was the intellectual prism through which Marie Antoinette came to the screen. Thalberg worked on it until his death in September 1936, after catching pneumonia, ironically, on Labor Day weekend.
In 1937, the success of Renoir’s Grand Illusion gave the director a new prestige and box office clout. He then began to think of his movie about the French Revolution. A leftist, Renoir’s loathing of fascism was equal to Thalberg’s of communism. Renoir’s was based on a much more realistic threat, however, as fascism consolidated and expanded all round France in Spain, Italy, and Germany.
Born September 15, 1894, Renoir was the son of Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and grew up amongst France’s cultural elite. He served in WWI, was shot in the leg, then continued to serve as a pilot. After the war, he immersed himself in silent film. Even this early in their careers, Renoir and Thalberg could not have seen the world more differently. If Thalberg tossed Erich von Stroheim aside and mangled his work, the great director became a “god” to Renoir. He saw Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives ten times. It changed his whole conception of art, and he later cast Von Stroheim in Grand Illusion, becoming a lifelong devotee of his work. In the 1930s, Renoir gained attention for class-conscious comedies like Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and The Crimes of Monsieur Lange (1936).
Renoir actively supported France’s leftist coalition the Popular Front. Like Thalberg, he made propaganda films for his party, codirecting 1936’s La vie est à nous (Life Belongs to Us). Like Thalberg’s “newsreels,” it was compiled from documentary footage and fictional scenes. Unlike Thalberg and MGM, Renoir and the French Communist Party never hid that or their participation. It was shown at party meetings and clubs as the Popular Front reformed the government and named Léon Blum its prime minister in 1936.
From the communist left or the capitalist right, one truism of movies is that your backers almost always assume they’re creating the movie with you.
With the spirit of the Popular Front in mind, of opposing fascism and economic oppression, Renoir and his collaborators wrote La Marseillaise. Early script drafts focused on historical figures, with stars like Jean Gabin and Von Stroheim in mind to play them, but Renoir soon saw it as a clichéd approach to history on film. He began culling transcripts of the États-Généraux, minutes of clubs, and newspapers of the day to create citizen characters from the period. Renoir chose to focus on a trio of men from Marseille who, after the fall of the Bastille, join a march to Paris. It’s not the story of a romantic revolutionary, it’s the story of an idea taking hold in the French people: they were citizens, with rights, not subjects of a monarch, with none. That journey is depicted on the Arc de Triomphe, and the marching song they adopted remains the French national anthem today, “La Marseillaise.”
Unlike the Thalbergs, who were deep shareholders in the biggest studio in the United States with easy access to lavish funds, Renoir had to find the money—and this time he was determined to avoid what he called the “bastards,” the capitalist French studios. “In the USSR, filmmakers don’t have to put up with the shackles of these mercenaries. They’re free,” he said, with a naïveté about the Soviet Union equaling Thalberg’s. “Such freedom of existence is the guarantee of the new Renaissance happening in the USSR.”
Where Thalberg fought unions, Renoir and his producers turned to them for funding. He got fifty thousand francs from the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), and the unions in turn crowdsourced the movie. They sold two-franc subscriptions, which gave you two francs off at the box office when you saw the movie. In a move Thalberg could only dream of, the unions also allowed their members to work for free as extras. Renoir’s idea of the workers’ paradise for filmmakers was short-lived, however: when he and his producers met their backers at the Salle Bonvalet, where three hundred union leaders had notes for them. One insisted “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” must be recited at the beginning of the film, preferably by a member of the Comédie–Française. Another didn’t like Renoir’s title. Another insisted the movie “end well.” From the communist left or the capitalist right, one truism of movies is that your backers almost always assume they’re creating the movie with you. Renoir eventually turned to his Grand Illusion producers to raise international money on the power of his name. He began filming on August 23, 1937.
In September 1937, Norma Shearer returned to work on Marie Antoinette. Like Renoir, she immersed herself in the era. She read period memoirs, studying court etiquette, learned the minouette, and rereading Zweig’s book. It had been a tumultuous year since Thalberg died. Besides adjusting to life without him, she had gone through an icy financial fight over his profit-sharing deals with his partners at MGM. Having won his divisive 1936 reelection, where he fended off the far left and the right, FDR and his supporters set about remedying their defeats at the Supreme Court with the introduction of The Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937, i.e., FDR’s court-packing plan. His critics saw this as a path to dictatorship, with FDR usurping the judicial branch. While we cannot assume that Shearer held all her late husband’s extremist views, she did remain an active Republican into the Eisenhower years, and the script she finalized has echoes of 1937 running all through it. By the time she was ready to shoot Marie Antoinette, the film would be more hers than anyone’s.
Marie Antoinette and La Marseillaise came out of a moment, not unlike our own, when opposing ideologies could present the same historical setting as unrecognizable.
Shearer was born on August 10, 1902, in Montreal, Canada. She arrived in New York in 1920 to act. Florenz Ziegfeld agreed to see her and reportedly called her a dog. While working as an extra in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, she told Griffith of her acting ambitions, and he matter-of-factly told her that she would never make it because blue eyes like hers always registered blank in close-up. Despite those two giants telling her to quit, she kept on, and later that year, won a part in The Stealers. It led to small roles in small movies until 1923, when she got a job offer from Louis B. Mayer’s studio in Los Angeles. Shearer would go on to make her name in movies like Pleasure Mad (1923), Broadway After Dark (1924), and He Who Gets Slapped (1924), but after marrying Thalberg in 1927, he cast her in prestige Noël Coward and Eugene O’Neill adaptions. A gifted actor, she racked up six Oscar nominations from 1930-1939, winning for The Divorcee (1930). It was never lost on her rivals at MGM, especially Joan Crawford, that marrying Thalberg had made her “queen of the lot,” and she always got MGM’s best scripts and directors.
After Thalberg died, that began to change. Before she could shoot Marie Antoinette, she had to negotiate with her husband’s partners, Louis B. Mayer and Nicholas Schenk, to preserve the profit-sharing deals they wanted to end. Shearer responded by quitting MGM, leaving them on the hook for over $400,000 (millions today) in Marie Antoinette’s preproduction and screenplay costs. From November 1936 until April 1937, they were at a standstill, until David O. Selznick began talking to her about playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Shearer famously said she’d rather play Rhett Butler, but the prospect of losing her (and their enormous Marie Antoinette pre-production costs) was enough to make MGM push Mayer to settle with her, which he did.
As she returned to Marie Antoinette, Shearer found she had major disagreements with Thalberg’s plans. “He thought it a classic tragedy,” recalled producer David Lewis. “He believed that great tragedy was illuminated by characters who, through their own folly, brought themselves to ruin, but who, in the face of their enemies, rose to great dignity and honor and paid for their sins with true nobility of spirit.” In other words, he saw Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette much as he had the Romanovs and the Hoovers. “Norma’s instant reaction was that she had no intention of playing Marie Antoinette as a foolish woman or as an unsympathetic character.”
Shearer wanted her Marie seen as an active ruler (not historically untrue), and the script was revised. Mayer got one large concession, which was replacing her slow, perfectionist prestige director, Sidney Franklin. His choice was W.S. Van Dyke, whose classy sounding name belies why MGM valued him so highly. He was known on the lot as “One-Take Woody” because of his speed shooting, and he had launched two goldmine franchises for MGM, the Tarzan series starring Johnny Weissmuller, and the Thin Man movies, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. Van Dyke said he could make the movie in two-thirds the time Franklin could, saving MGM hundreds of thousands, even though Van Dyke was known to sip three tumblers worth of gin while shooting (his office water cooler was filled with it), and his deal stipulated he went home at 6 p.m. every night. Two French directors with big career ahead of them, Julien Duvivier (Pepe le Moko) and Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Out of the Past), were brought in to take up where he left off.
It meant that if Shearer was going to get the movie she wanted, she had to step up. She supervised her own camera and lighting with cinematographer William Daniels. As her costar Joseph Schildkraut (the Duke of Orléans) recalls, she directed them as much as Van Dyke: “She actually ran the whole show, had her own part down pat, and was wonderfully resourceful at getting us all to play back to her on her own terms and on her own level.”
At this point, Marie Antoinette’s life—as a queen surrounded by a backbiting bitchy court of rivals, powerful men who sought to undermine her, and weak men forcing her to do things herself—hit home with Norma Shearer now more than ever. Shearer began shooting Marie Antoinette on January 4, 1938.
La Marseillaise debuted on February 9, 1938 in Paris, and Marie Antoinette on July 8, 1938 in Los Angeles, two films about the Revolution from its antagonists’ original points of view, the public and the aristocracy. These economic realities exist today as much as they did 1938 and 1789, and both films are blunt in their politics.
Shearer’s gives us the view almost exclusively from the palace, a biopic of Marie Antoinette’s life from the age of fourteen, when she learned of her arranged marriage to Louis XVI, to her death on the guillotine at thirty-seven, on October 16, 1793. The chief villain is the silky Duke of Orléans, who chides Louis XV (John Barrymore) at court for his absurdly lavish lifestyle paid for by peasant labor. Barrymore, stealing every scene he’s in as the debauched, aging Louis XV, tells him: “I’m not afraid of you, nor of the nobles, nor the people, nor ideas. . . . take care cousin, the liberals you encourage for your ends may destroy you for theirs.”
Like Thalberg’s Rasputin, Orléans is a seducer of the queen and allows the masses to rise up. A steely upper-class dandy, it’s not hard to see him as what FDR’s critics called him, a “traitor to his class.” In a nod to Roosevelt, he even wears a pince-nez. Later, as poverty ruins France, we see a Slavko Vorkapich Soviet-style montage of workers narrated by a hissing Orléans. “You furrow the soil in the heat of the day, but the soil isn’t yours. It has never been yours. Why, you work like rats in the bowels of the Earth,” he says over images of the peasants. “Will you not listen? Will you not rise? Will you not demand the abolition of the aristocracy and its privileges? . . . Liberty. Equality. Fraternity. People of France, demand it.”
Such was the reactionary nature of MGM in 1937 that this was the villain’s monologue. It does not quote Sinclair or FDR’s polices directly, but EPIC’s calls for the redistribution of land and guaranteed reward for labor are all there. “There are things they don’t understand,” Marie Antoinette sighs when she hears the peasants want more. As she tells her husband, “Those pale faces full of hatred, shouting what’s being shouted all over France . . . Words put in their mouths by our noble cousin, Orléans.” The idea that their grievances have and deserve remedies is never taken seriously; it’s all just Orléans stirring up “the dregs of Paris.” The MGM wardrobe department, as it did for Rasputin and the Empress and the Sinclair newsreels, makes the poor out to be crazed ogres. Marie Antoinette ends at the Reign of Terror, as Marie is paraded through the streets of Paris to her beheading.
Renoir tells La Marseillaise from the opposite point of view of Marie Antoinette in every way. His is a “history from below,” a “histoire des masses et non de vedettes” (history of the masses and not of starlets). Meaning, no Marat, no Robespierre, and only supporting roles for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Renoir begins after the fall of the Bastille, which we never see, and ends on the eve of the Battle of Valmy, which we never see. It’s not a story of battles and great leaders, but everyday people claiming themselves as citizens with human rights, which Renoir felt was the true legacy of the Revolution.
If Renoir omits the Terror that most French Revolution films wallow in, he does not deny the Revolution’s violence. He sees it as a cycle. After a peasant escapes a death sentence for poaching a pigeon on the grounds of an aristocrat, he joins other fugitives living in the mountains, a bricklayer and a clerk. They see plumes of black smoke rising up from burning chateaus. “The nobles have taught us bad habits,” says Arnaud, the clerk. “They made us cruel in their image. They’re reaping. Reaping what they sowed.”
To Renoir, the masses that Thalberg feared have just as much to fear from their rulers. After showing us their economic oppression, Renoir shows us exiled French aristocrats in Prussia, adoring its strongman king. Renoir himself had once seen right-wing Parisians sieg heiling Hitler during a movie newsreel, the types that would run Vichy France during the war. They come to mind as one aristocrats says of the King of Prussia, “Now there is a man! A true Achilles, an Agamemnon! He weighs at least two hundred pounds! Seeing him, even Jacobin bigots can’t say all men are created equal. Long live Prussia and the Prussians!”
La Marseillaise won no awards but earned two badges of honor, being banned in both Austria and Germany.
Its allegorical themes of wealth disparity, Nazis, and native sympathizers to fascism are made clear early. If there is a central character to La Marseillaise, it is Jean-Joseph Bomier (Edward Ardisson), the bricklayer from Marseille. An everyman and a believer in revolution, he’s greeted with suspicion by political purists because he’s too bourgeois (he has debts and a family). While his friend, the intellectual Arnaud, goes to the Jacobin Club to hear Robespierre, Bomier and his girlfriend go to a shadow play that acts out the revolution as entertainment. It’s Bomier who complains about his boots, how bad the food is, and that “La Marseillaise” is annoying and too jaunty a song. Renoir keeps momentous events off screen, showing us only their impact on people like Bomier. When he does participate in the historic Battle of Tuileries, he jovially tries to recruit Swiss soldiers, but is the first man shot, and he dies in the street. Renoir treats this citizen’s death as tragically as Shearer does the queen’s. Bomier is the embodiment of history from below.
Marie Antoinette has been called a “resplendent bore” by Pauline Kael, but it still received four Oscar nominations and (appropriately) a nomination for the Venice Film Festival’s Mussolini Cup. As its primary auteur, it was also the most personal film Shearer ever made. Renoir’s film received tepid praise from the French left, which had wanted more of a people’s thrashing of the aristocracy. The right hated it, of course, but it was the left’s response that killed it with its intended audience. It only became a hit in the Soviet Union, where it is said to have played to seven million Muscovites in two weeks. It won no awards but earned two badges of honor, being banned in both Austria and Germany.
Marie Antoinette and La Marseillaise came out of a moment, not unlike our own, when opposing ideologies could present the same historical setting as unrecognizable. By 1939, the existential threat of fascism aligned Shearer and Renoir’s worldview. On the eve of a by then inevitable world war, they both made comedies about an era spent looking the other way. Shearer starred in Idiot’s Delight (written by FDR speechwriter Robert Sherwood), about a group of wealthy vacationers stranded at an exclusive Alps ski resort as the war breaks out. Renoir made The Rules of the Game, his satire about a weekend house party of aristocrats filmed as France’s new, more conservative prime minister recognized Franco’s Spain and adopted the appeasement policy of Chamberlain (and, tacitly, FDR).
In interviews, Renoir could have been speaking about both films when he said of Rules of the Game, “It was shot between Munich and the war, and I shot it absolutely impressed, absolutely disturbed by the state of mind of a part of French society, a part of English society, a part of world society,” adding later:
You know what the expression is, it’s a historical expression that may have led me to do this film, a historical expression that, I believe, originated during the reign of Charles X. I forget who said it, whether it was a general, a lawyer, or a poet. It is: ‘We’re dancing on a volcano.’ My goal in undertaking this film was to illustrate ‘we’re dancing on a volcano.’