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    Désirée’s Alluring Charms

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Despite reviews of the Annemarie Selinko source novel by several book reviewers touting it as one of the most dazzling exercises in historical fiction since Gone with the Wind, the movie of Désirée (1954), which world-premiered 62 years ago tomorrow in San Francisco and opened the following day in New York, did not reach exalted heights of box-office success and critical approbation as the epic film of Margaret Mitchell’s beloved tome. But as a prime example of glittering Hollywood craft spectacularly designed (as evidenced by its Academy Award® nominations for Color Art Direction/Set Decoration and Color Costumes) and evocatively cast to show off the new ultra-wide CinemaScope screen to maximum advantage, it did turn a profit and engage moviegoers with a woolly but eventful story of an independent-minded Scarlett O’Hara-like heroine who becomes the great love of two powerful historical figures, France’s Emperor Napoleon and his soldierly ally, later Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, later to become King of Sweden. With the principal roles played by Marlon Brando as “the Little General,” Jean Simmons as the fiery seamstress who evolves into Désirée Clary, Merle Oberon as the manipulative Josephine and Michael Rennie as the stalwart Bernadotte, director Henry Koster’s lavish production would reek of Pageantry and Romance in boldface caps, if not True History. A closer look beneath all the on-screen trappings brings out the movie’s deeper virtues, especially when considering that neither Brando nor Simmons nor Koster were first choices of studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who originally envisioned Montgomery Clift, Audrey Hepburn and Anatole Litvak at the start. Nonetheless, reluctant star Brando, doing the film merely out of contractual obligation, fresh off his committed turns in Julius Caesar and On the Waterfront, couldn’t help but shape from his discomfort an Emperor that proved compulsively watchable and ultimately enthralling. Simmons’ innate sexuality and modernistic allure (this is the recent star of Angel Face, Young Bess and The Robe we’re talking about here) gave her title-role performance an admixture of vulnerability and canniness to invoke valid comparisons to the Scarlett of Vivien Leigh (a fellow Brit whose other colossal screen triumph would come opposite Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire). Koster, a veteran of many prior great films and performances (The Bishop’s Wife, My Cousin Rachel, Harvey, The Robe), boned up on the Napoleonic era (thanks in part to his history buff father’s Bonaparte bookshelf) and did a skillful job of making various sites around Monterey, California, including Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, The Lone Cypress (standing in for the isle of Elba) and the Seventeen Mile Drive, ably function as scenic surrogates for what would have been costlier actual locations. Strikingly shot by Milton Krasner and plushly scored by Alex North, Désirée may not be cinematically historic. But its attractive cast and stunning visual grandeur might cause some swoons while Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray spins. Find it here: