Monday, October 22, 2012

Madame Du Barry (1934) : An undiscovered gem

Just saw this little known semi-masterpiece on the TCM channel. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy but it hardly matters; the picture is an absolute delight from start to finish. Nonetheless, some historical background : Madame Du Barry (Dolores del Rio) was a courtesan extraordinaire in Seventeenth Century France and eventual companion of King Louis XV, but alas became a victim of the guillotine during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. 

Interesting that the present film was followed only a few years later by the much more serious, even pretentious, Marie Antoinette, with the great Norma Shearer in the title role. Anyway both films have a similar look with lush costumes and sets and a certain flair for period authenticity, but there the similarity ends. Specifically, Madame Du Barry is much more a sex farce and comedy of manners than historical epic, though its broad historical outlines seem reasonably correct. 

Speaking with a French/Mexican accent, the incredibly beautiful Dolores Del Rio gives an irresistibly energetic, exuberant performance in the title role, and what’s more she seems to be having a great time immersing herself in the part. I’ve seen snippets of her films but didn’t know she was this good; she had a real flair for comedy, and to be sure, probably Madame du Barry wasn’t as madcap as Dolores’s intensely physical, manic performance implies but who can say. 

Dolores is wonderful but so is the supporting cast, especially Anita Louise as Marie Antoinette and Dorothy Tree, Helen Howell & Joan Wheeler as Louis' scheming daughters. But scene-stealing honors have to go to Reginald Owen as the befuddled King Louis XV. In Owen’s marvelously sympathetic portrayal Louis comes across as a real human being, composed of equal parts lecherous hedonist, practical - and sometimes devious - politician, and, not least of all, infatuated suitor.

Moreover, everything else in Madame Du Barry is first-rate : sets, camerawork, lighting, costumes. But the thing that breathes life into what could have been a shallow historical romp is the sparkling, pitch-perfect script which bubbles like vintage Dom Pérignon. The principals all chirp away on court gossip without ever lapsing into caricature; the actors’ rapid-fire, almost sing-song delivery is such that one expects Gilbert & Sullivan melodies to erupt any minute. It’s a fine balancing act, and the film pulls it off brilliantly. The other crucial element in the film’s success is the fine work of director William Dieterle, whose smooth, brisk style brings to mind Michael Curtiz. 

Information is unclear whether this was a Code or pre-Code movie, but in any case it’s all pretty risqué for the 1930s : lots of knowing, suggestive dialogue and bedroom scenes; Dolores flouncing about in a sheer, more or less see-through nightgown; but most of all the banquet scene which includes near-to-the-buff dancing beauties which Louis ogles with lustful approval. 

A thoroughly wonderful film. Highly recommended.

style ***
substance ***

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