After walking away from his co-starring role in The Egyptian [M] (1954), Marlon Brando was slapped with a $2 million lawsuit which motivated him to reconsider his breach of contract position and agree to a compromise: he could skip the sandy epic, but must appear opposite Jean Simmons in Desirée, a most peculiar version of the Napoleon Bonaparte–Desiree Clary liaison.
The story of Napoleon’s one-time fiancée and later Queen of Sweden was previously dramatized by French director Sacha Guitry in Le destin fabuleux de Désirée Clary (1942), but for Fox’ 1954 production, the studio drew from the international best-selling 1951 novel by Annamarie Selinko.
Screenwriter Daniel Taradash (Golden Boy, From Here to Eternity, Picnic [M]) compacted the novel into a brisk 106 min. film with nearly each scene devote to the eponymous character. The story’s scope moves from Desirée (Jean Simmons) introducing her family to brothers Napoleon (Marlon Brando) and Joseph (Cameron Mitchell), her aborted engagement to the future Emperor of France, and her eventual liaison and marriage to Baptiste Bernadotte (Michael Rennie), an officer in Napoleon’s army who later accepts the position of Sweden’s Crown Prince – much to the disgust of Mons. Bonaparte.
Forever fond of Napoleon, her love dwindles when she sees him dumping barren wife Josephine (Merle Oberon) for a younger shiksa with swell child bearing capacity, but Desirée returns to Paris when her role as Sweden’s Crown Princess proved most disagreeable (Sweden + Snow = TOO COLD).
Never mind she abandoned her husband and son; Desirée remains a token diplomatic figure in the court of Emperor Napoleon, and is tolerated even when Sweden declares war on France, and wins – causing Napoleon to be banished into exile. When he finally agrees to stop trying to conquer Europe using the blood and flesh of more Frenchman, the film closes with Desirée depicted as a reluctant but necessary key player in Napoleon’s life, and aiding France in ridding itself of the egomaniacal emperor once and for all.
Taradash’s script focuses entirely on Desirée’s interaction with her two main suitors – Napoleon and Bernadotte – which means there are no battle scenes (rather, montages and music fill in the gaps), and a sporadic narration provides a bullet-point, wrap-up of major battles, such as Waterloo, where the Pompous One finally met his downfall.
That’s all fine, since the three-person story could work as a stage play, but in compacting historical facts and compressing Selinko’s tale in under two hours, some aspects of Desirée’s life are ill-paced. The film’s first third is choppy and spastic: the actors blow through dialogue and movements like wound-up toys, specific locations are sometimes muddy, and Taradash’s dialogue never establishes the characters beyond celluloid icons.
The film’s structural woes are worsened by Brando deciding to play Napoleon like a 3D version of his best official portraits and statues: donning a pointy nose and a perfectly glued hair swoosh across his forehead, he persistently poses, hand behind his arched back; Brando's head is perpetually angular to emphasize his deep-set eyes; and his movements always begin and end with a pose. It’s not quite caricature, but Brando plays the little despot like a pompous, ingratiating ass within a drawing room satire, so there’s never any belief we’re seeing an incisive take on history.
The lack of any tenderness, introspection, or loosening up means Napoleon never becomes a living creature, and the film feels mannered, melodramatic and dosed up in hysterics until the midsection, where Desirée returns to Paris, is wooed by Bernadotte, and embarks on a peculiar relationship which is far more intriguing that her tiffs with the diminuative egotist.
Had the story stopped in Sweden and focused on her difficulties with upper and lower class society, Desirée, as a film, would’ve been more interesting, but Desirée’s return to the court of France’s self-crowned emperor brings the drama back to flat scenes, and an increasingly contrived wrap-up where Napoleon finally says 'uncle', hands over his sword, and agrees to live in exile on the island of St. Helena.
The finale also feels rushed: Napoleon ‘pops by’ Desirée’s home after his defeat in Russia, then reappears for a surrender, re-emerges when he escapes from his first exile in Elba, and hangs around long enough to surrender to Desirée (and French authorities) prior to the End Credits. Taradash occasionally bridges these scenes with narration from Desirée’s diary entries and letter writing, but they add to the film’s innate staginess.
Director Koster was probably saddled with a hastily written script that needed to be filmed fast to make use of Brando after his Egyptian bail-out, but there are a few affecting scenes, such as Desirée’s shouting her distaste for the chilly Swedish palace in an empty hallway; and her one-night romantic reunion with Bernadotte in Paris, prior to Napoleon’s first surrender, which Koster covers with the camera trained on a smoldering fireplace, and love chatter off-screen. Also effective is a short scene where Napoleon convinces his former finacee to teach him the waltz; Brando loosens up to reveal Napoleon's sexual ego, but the actor seems to be undressing Simmon and not Desirée with his hungry eyes.
Being an early CinemaScope production, the lenses weren’t perfect, mandating a lot of wide shots and few closer images of the actors, which render the film stately, but static, if not visually dull. There’s also exceptionally sloppy continuity between dinner scenes at night, and the “garden” walks that are clearly taking place at noon: either no effort was made to feign day-for-night, or the lenses weren’t fast enough for night shoots (which isn’t true, since much of Night People, shot the same year, takes place after hours). Koster was probably brought on board because he had just completed the studio’s first CinemaScope film, The Robe (1953), and knew how to block scenes to accommodate the massive 2.55:1 ratio.
The only saving grace of the production are the rich costumes, lush set décor, and Alex North’s sleek score which offers up a lush romantic theme (written by Alfred Newman), and contrasting modernistic variations that suggest the depth neither cast, writer, nor director were able to create from what feels like a rushed production. Also a plus: small roles featuring Alan Napier (TV’s Batman) Cathleen Nesbitt, John Hoyt (When Worlds Collide), and perky Carolyn Jones - still giggling like her flirty-bird character from House of Wax.
Previously released by Spain's Vella Vision as a Region 2 DVD in Dolby 2.0 stereo, Twilight Time's swanky Blu-ray is the mandatory upgrade, boasting a sharp HD transfer and uncompressed DTS surround sound. The picture is so sharp one can notice the peculiar flaws of the early CinemaScope lenses, such as soft focus at the frame egdes, and moments when a rack focus creates a pulse of CinemaScope 'mumps,' smooshing the image a bit. Julie Kirgo's booklet notes provide some context to the film's casting, Koster replacing original director Anatole Litvak, and the film's small moments of creative ingenuity.
Brando’s next film for Fox would be The Young Lions (1958) – a vastly superior film, and career highpoint. Simmons, who had starred in The Robe and The Egyptian, would next co-star with Brando in Sam Goldwyn’s Guys and Dolls (1955).
After appearing in MGM’s Deep in My Heart the same year as Desirée, Oberon went into television, making only four feature films between 1956-1973.
Michael Rennie, who also appeared in the ‘scope epics The Robe, King of the Kyber Rifles (1953), Prince Valiant (1954), and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), was dead-centre in his heyday at Fox, co-starring in some of the studio’s biggest action & adventure films, including the upcoming Soldier of Fortune (1955), Seven Cities of Gold (1955), and The Rains of Ranchipur (1955). He's particularly strong in Desirée, giving Bernadotte a broad range of virility, insult, and heroism as the future Crown Prince of Sweden.
Films derived from the writings of Annemarie Selinko include Morgen gaat ‘t bête / Tomorrow it Will Be Better (1939), Desirée (1954), Ich war ein häßliches Mädchen (1955), Heute heiratet mein Mann / My Husband’s Getting Married Today (1956), and Es wird alles wieder gut (1957).
© 2011; revised 2012 - Mark R. Hasan