It's practically a given that when anyone goes bonkers, they tend to think that they'reNapoleon. Apparently this delusional disorder set off a mass epidemic at 20th Century-Foxin 1954 when the studio decided to filmDESIREE, based on a fake autobiography (actually the work of author Annemarie Selinko) of Bernardine Eugenie Desiree Clary, the promiscuous lass and one-time fiancée of the coarse Corsican. This lavish CinemaScoped eye-candy, the ultimate definition of a Fifties female-oriented date movie (what the older demographics refer to as “a woman’s picture”), is now available for perusal on a 3000-only Limited Edition Blu-Ray, courtesy of Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.The booby-hatch approach to casting Marlon Brando as Napoleon was actually more of a booby prize. Brando had originally agreed to star in the epic Michael Curtiz Fox spectacleThe Egyptian – but bolted soon after production began, citing the ludicrous script as a reason. Darryl F. Zanuck tracked the method man down in New York and threatened legal action unless he made good on his Fox contract. Brando, who thought it a hoot to play Napoleon, dangled that prospect in Zanuck's face, and responded with half shock/half delight when the mogul acquiesced.
It's practically a given that when anyone goes bonkers, they tend to think that they'reNapoleon. Apparently this delusional disorder set off a mass epidemic at 20th Century-Foxin 1954 when the studio decided to filmDESIREE, based on a fake autobiography (actually the work of author Annemarie Selinko) of Bernardine Eugenie Desiree Clary, the promiscuous lass and one-time fiancée of the coarse Corsican. This lavish CinemaScoped eye-candy, the ultimate definition of a Fifties female-oriented date movie (what the older demographics refer to as “a woman’s picture”), is now available for perusal on a 3000-only Limited Edition Blu-Ray, courtesy of Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.
DESIREEis a fascinating example of the rapidly-diminishing Hollywood machine at work. If I had to describe it, I'd say it's a B-movie done on a lavish scale. I mean it's not cheap by any standards; in fact, like its title character, it's ridiculously decadent. Yet, considering the subject matter – it's extremely mild. There are no mammoth battle scenes...or mammoth anything. To paraphrase Shakespeare, DESIREEis quill met by moonlight. All the events in Napoleon's life – before, during and after his rule (you know, little things likeWaterloo, his arrests, trials, exile, etc.) – are presented via unstoppable scribe Desiree, feather-tool in mitt, writing them down for posterity in her handy diary; basically, she’s theRona Barrett of the Madame Pompadour set. She’d have “killed” on Facebook.
Of course, knowing how Brando got the part adds to the behind-the-scenes intrigue of the picture; in effect, DESIREE(the movie and, from all accurate records, the woman) was made rather quickly, guaranteeing a 1954 release (the same year as The Egyptian, as well as two other seminal Brando titles, The Wild One and On the Waterfront).
Brando's bizarre approach to Napoleon can be instantly realized by his unique accent – a surreal hybrid of Oliver Reed and Reggie Van Gleason. He struts around offering advice on everything from war stuff to fashion design. His continual trumpet-accompanied entrances are just a tick short of encompassing announcements of “Hail to Rufus T. Firefly!” In short (no pun intended), Brando Bonaparte seems to be the successful equation of Napoleon Bonapug (the modern animated successor to the old Dogville two-reelers) and the after-dinner dessert treat, renowned for its flakiness.
Cinema has given us many kooky Napoleons, from Charles Boyer to Rod Steiger (Chaplin even wanted to do it, but was mercifully dissuaded at the last minute), none ever coming close to the one masterful portrayal, Albert Dieudonne in Abel Gance's 1927 triumph, appropriately entitledNapoleon. Brando's take is a loopy interpretation on the silent blockbuster – more fittingly along the lines of Gance in Your Pants of 1954. Marlon reveled in the role – dancing around the behemoth sets in his royal silk underwear and holding court in costume to such Fox foxes as Marilyn Monroe. Here the actor, who in Streetcar made such a big deal out of the Napoleonic Code, gets to relate with relish (mustard on the side) how that strange law came into being. Indeed Brando got most of the movie's publicity, yet, his on-screen time doesn't dominate the proceedings. This is, after all, the reputed story of Desiree Clary, the heiress to a French millinery fortune, the aforementioned jilted fiancée of Bonaparte and the eventual Queen of Sweden. Quite a tale by any account, but by all accounts, quite a tail in her own right. Desiree is more-than-ably impersonated by the great Jean Simmons, and, while the script takes liberties with her virtue, the actress does what she can to convey this amazing lady's lusty passion.
A plethora of DESIREE’s narrative glosses over major personal happenings; for instance, how her marriage to Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (Michael Rennie) ended in an elongated separation...and culminated in many love affairs. It's common knowledge that she and Bonaparte were carnal, and, it's furthermore documented that while ensconced in Italy she rivaled Venice for busy canal traffic. Yet, in this movie version, it's all swept under the chemise; Desiree in DESIREEremains purer than 30 years of Doris Day dalliances (on-camera that is).
Occasionally the Remington quill of screenwriter Daniel Taradash comes to the rescue, brazenly attempting to add some goose to the gander. When Napoleon orders all wives to refer to their husbands as “Marshal, my Lord,” Simmons is chided by her sister Elizabeth Sellars for her refusal to do so. Desiree seductively replies that prefers to save that accolade for the bedroom. Taradash also has some fun with French court's difficulties in locating twelve virgins. There are some strange (albeit rewarding) anachronisms, primarily Brando's referring to his staff as “chuckleheads,” an insult that’s more Moe-naparte than Bonaparte – and sadly not followed by a multi-slap capper, replete with sound effects.
Taradash was a highly-regarded writer during this period – celebrated for his work on 1953'sFrom Here to Eternity and 1956's Picnic – but he always had at least one awkward instance that somehow got by the studio proofreaders. In DESIREE this occurs when the now-single Bernadotte mutters the maladroit “It's so lonely to be alone.” Huh? This is reminiscent of the equally WTF moment in Eternity prior to the famous beach scene: Deborah Kerr telling lover Burt Lancaster, “Well, sergeant, I am wearing a bathing suit under my dress,” to which Lancaster replies, “So am I.” Taradash it all!
In a historical movie – or, more precisely, a Hollywood historical movie – it's always a howl to hear world-changing milestones and the people who shaped them relegated to triviality, the “just plain folks” factor. DESIREE has this in droves: Simmons' brother (Richard Deacon) fusses about certain passe fabrics in his shop, “We haven't sold a yard of that since the Revolution!” When an apartment needs a do-over – who else does one call but Josephine (Merle Oberon), the powerful woman for whom Bonaparte tosses Desiree over to gain control of France, and, apparently, the country's crack interior decorator. When Robespierre’s guillotining is given its one-line mention, viewers can be assured that it’s merely a preamble to discuss that year’s plunging necklines. Hey, like we said, it’s a woman’s picture. Simmons herself cited that the hardest part of DESIREE was being able to keep a straight face. The actress said likewise about the 1953 filming of The Robe.
It thereby comes as no surprise that the director of both these movies, Henry Koster, ended up making a mint for Fox during the 1960s, helming a series of comedies starring Jimmy Stewart – the most notable being 1962's Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation.
Not to belittle Koster, he achieves some incredible CinemaScope compositions in DESIREE – then again, he was the guy who spearheaded the format with The Robe, the first official scope picture.
This, at last, brings us to the Twilight Time Blu-Ray; calling it a stunner is an understatement.DESIREE is a BR demo-disc if ever there was one. As one might expect, the picture quality is crystal clear. The movie could be the crowning glory of veteran cinematographer Milton Krasner's lengthy career. The use of color and lighting is exquisite; if DESIREE doesn't deliver the goods per big budget action sequences, it makes up for it in opulent production design, set decoration and a clothes-horse array of Rene Hubert costumes. Thus, deservedly, DESIREE was nominated for two Oscars – Costume Design for a Color Motion Picture (which it understandably lost to Gate of Hell) and Art Direction and Set Design For a Color Motion Picture (which it unfairly wuz robbed by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).
Of additional note is Alex North's sumptuous score, chock full of romantic themes and melodies (only slightly hampered by a little Max Steiner-esque Mickey Mousing); as with all TT titles, North's soundtrack (faithfully rendered in dynamic 4.0 stereo surround) can be accessed as an IST (Isolated Score Track).
If you're looking for that title to impress friends forthwith as to the attributes of Blu-Ray,DESIREE is it. If you pass it up, you might as well dress up like Napoleon!
DESIREE. Color. Widescreen [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition]. Limited Edition of 3000. SRP: $29.95.
Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.
Available exclusively at Screen Archives Entertainment (www.screenarchives.com).