A GREAT deal of handsome decoration and two talented and attractive stars have been put into the Cinemascope production of the historical romance "Désirée." The only essential missing is a story of any consequence.
For almost two hours there is paraded in measured paces on the Roxy's panel screen, where this picture opened last evening, a vast and varied display of famous figures and courtly behavior in the time of Napoleon. Most of the major stages in the Little Corporal's spectacular career are mentioned in conversation or covered in elegant scenes that flow as diary entries from the point of a feather-pen.
There is a stunning sequence, for instance, showing a party at the home of Mme. Tallien, wherein the rising Napoleon is first seen in the company of Josephine, There are whimsical scenes briefly tagging the transition through the directory. And there's a fine, full-scale tableau of the great general crowning himself Emperor of France.
This is a panoramic picture—panoramic in pictorial style and in the material it embraces — which is mainly a chronological review of a famous reign. What there is of personal drama in it is built wholly and very flimsily upon a wild assumption that there was an abiding affection in the heart of Napoleon for a woman whom he wanted to marry when he was a youthful general and then abandoned for the sake of his career.
There is an element of truth in this notion. Napoleon did love a girl named Désirée, whose sister was married to Napoleon's brother, Joseph. Désirée herself later was married to General Bernadotte and thus became Queen of Sweden when her husband was "adopted" as the successor to that nation's throne. But how much, if any, feeling Napoleon later had for her is a matter of pure speculation, attractive mainly to romantic minds.
Unfortunately for the impact of this picture, the speculating done by Daniel Taradash, inspired by a novel by Annemarie Selinko, is, if anything, a little too restrained. Mr. Taradash's script is quite positive in indicating that Napoleon loved the girl in the first flush of his ascendency. But then it permits the amorous passion to appear to die, and there is not much in this line to intrigue the viewer until the end of the film.
Then, out of a long series of tableaus and out of the passionless progression of Napoleon and the girl along separate ways—he to become the Emperor and a loveless husband and she to become Sweden's indifferent Queen—the script again brings them together for a wistful tête-à-tête. During it Désirée persuades him to surrender and to St. Helena, which is absurd.
The consequence is a static story, so far as the emotions of the individuals are concerned, and a strangely unrevealing presentation of two potentially exciting characters. Only twice in this lengthy progression does the great Napoleon emerge as anything but a beetle-browed buster and a usually pompous poseur. Once when, he is dancing briefly with the guarded Désirée and again when he is sadly telling her, during an unexpected midnight call, of his terrible retreat from Moscow does the glint of a human being appear. For the rest, Marlon Brando's Napoleon is just a fancy (and sometimes fatuous) facade.
The same must be said for Jean Simmons' performance as Désirée. It is a pretty but pointless demonstration of a hollow woman getting along without love. Between her and Michael Rennie, in the role of Bernadotte, there appears not a trace of genuine feeling to suggest a matrimonial bond, and certainly there is no sense of passion toward Napoleon.
The others in the cast are mostly robots—Merle Oberon as Josephine, Cameron Mitchell as Napoleon's brother, and John Hoyt as Talleyrand. They merely fill out the plushy décor of this Twentieth Century-Fox spectacle, which at times Henry Koster has directed as though it were a satire on suburbia. For the most part, however, he has made it what it is—just a colorful vehicle for a pseudo-Napoleonic outing, a streetcar named "Désirée."
DESIREE, screen play by Daniel Taradash, based on the novel by Annemarie Selinko; directed by Henry Koster; produced by Julian Blaustein for Twentieth Century-Fox. At the Roxy.
Napoleon . . . . . Marlon Brando
Desiree . . . . . Jean Simmons
Josephine . . . . . Merle Oberon
Bernadotte . . . . . Michael Rennie
Joseph Bonaparte . . . . . Cameron Mitchell
Julie . . . . . Elizabeth Sellars
Paulette . . . . . Charlotte Austin
Mme. Bonaparte . . . . . Cathleen Nesbitt
Marie . . . . . Evelyn Varden
Mme. Clary . . . . . Isobel Elsom
Talleyrand . . . . . John Hoyt
Despreaux . . . . . Alan Napier
Oscar . . . . . Nicolas Koster
Etienne . . . . . Richard Deacon
Queen Hedwig . . . . . Edith Evanson
Mme. Tallien . . . . . Carolyn Jones