The Reluctant Emperor

The Reluctant Emperor

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Nov 17th 2017

Being the most acclaimed and in-demand actor in movies didn’t sit well with Marlon Brando in his banner year of 1954. Although his iconic performance as On the Waterfront’s New York longshoreman Terry Malloy dazzled critics and audiences that summer, he felt encumbered, by grief from the death of his mother that spring, and by being ensnared in the massive, expensive Cinemascope Biblical epic The Egyptian, for which he felt the material was slipshod and the creative collaborators assembled (he would cite co-starring ingénue Bella Darvi and director Michael Curtiz as examples) were an insufferably ill-suited fit. So the emotionally fraught actor bolted the project, throwing it into disarray and precipitating a legal crisis. As Brando: The Biography author Peter Manso describes, Twentieth Century Fox “had been sitting on its Brando option since Viva Zapata!, and with its [$2-million breach-of-contract] suit in federal court, the studio upped the ante and by pointing out that the 10-week period [for Brando’s recuperation for ‘being under a mental strain and facing a personal crisis’] coincided exactly with the scheduled completion date of the picture. ‘Brando was under treatment by the same psychiatrist during filming of Viva Zapata! and Julius Caesar,’ a Fox spokesman commented, ‘and if he is confused now, he must have been confused then, too, but he made out very well.’” Thus, the role of one of the most dynamic influencers and precedent shatterers in world history, France’s Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, in another big-stakes historical romance called Désirée (1954), a Cinemascope epic which premiered in New York 63 years ago today, was a penalizing make-good project instead of what another actor might have seized as an opportunity for the ages. 

There would be friction with director Henry Koster, who considered himself a Bonaparte aficionado, and there would be horseplay and bad behavior on the set. Manso chronicles the recollections of a tough-love talk producer Julian Blaustein had with his reluctant star, telling him “We can’t run a production this way. I know you didn’t want to do this picture, but you’re doing it and we’re going to finish [it]. For Christ’s sake, don’t get into the same trouble you got in before. Forget the lawyers, you don’t want lawyers. Look, aside from the fact that you’re a good liberal and you’ll fight for causes, how can you deal with those people out there. Let’s forget [co-stars] Jean Simmons [in the title role as the younger Bonaparte’s abiding love] and Merle Oberon [as the general’s later wife Josephine] – they can take care of themselves. They’re stars. But those extras who feel like cattle so much of the time, they have children to support. How can you make them feel so demeaned? Let them stand around under hot lights because the big movie star isn’t ready?” Brando conceded, and in his own idiosyncratic way, behaved professionally for the remainder of the shoot, somehow channeling his discomfort and dislocation with the responsibilities of the role into a brooding, British-accented and ultimately compelling portrait of a military man at odds with the aristocracy, his own sense of destiny, and unfulfilled romantic longings. Ever the renegade, Brando would later say he let the makeup do the work, but the gloriously ornate production, a box-office success that also featured Michael Rennie (as a one-time Bonaparte colleague who becomes an adversary and marries Désirée), Cameron Mitchell (as the Emperor’s overshadowed brother), Cathleen Nesbitt, Elizabeth Sellars, Norma Varden and Isobel Elsom, plus gorgeous Academy Award®-nominated Color Art Direction/Set Decoration and Color Costume Design, deserves recognition as well, along with a powerful score by Alex North, whose music also powered Brando’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Viva Zapata! Like its mercurial leading man, Désirée still commands a glamorous fascination, and its Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray offers its thespic and visual splendors at a limited-time 67% discount off original list price through December 1 here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/17535/DESIREE-1954-SPECIAL-PROMOTION/. (Other memorable Brando performances in TT’s The Chase (1966) and The Young Lions (1958) can also be savored at 50% off during the current promotion; while at full price, don’t ignore November’s new release of 1957’s Sayonara either.)