L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Illusion upon illusion - Norma Shearer in color photographs from Marie Antoinette, 1938

Gown by Adrian, coiffure by Sydney Guilaroff, jewels by Joseff of Hollywood.

It's been widely written that M-G-M's lavish 1938 production of "Marie Antoinette" was originally planned to be shot in Technicolor. The late head of production, Irving Thalberg, had already greenlighted the project for his wife Norma Shearer before his death two years previously. But it's said that when the time came to begin filming, with production costs booming, the decision was made to shoot the film - one of the most expensive of the Thirties - in black and white rather than color. Mark Alan Vieira‎ disputes this, though. Photographer, filmmaker, and Hollywood historian, and the author of an authoritative biography of Thalberg, he ought to know. Having reviewed the production memos for the film, he states that there was never any intention of filming "Marie Antoinette" in color.

So what of these color photographs? The story goes that the costume designer, Adrian, asked to have color stills taken to record his work, but that might just be "collector talk." What is known is that these images were restored from 4x5 Kodachrome transparencies by Vieira, himself. Apparently there are hundreds of such slides, though some are so faded as to be beyond restoration. (The two portraits of Norma Shearer were included in Jay Jorgensen's 2015 book, "Creating the Illusion.")

The gambling house scene, with Joseph Schildkraut, Tyrone Power, Anita Louise, Shearer, Reginald Gardiner, and Albert Dekker.
The beginning of the film, with Shearer and Cecil Cunningham.


It should also be noted that on the evening of 8 July 1938 - exactly twenty years before my birth; please don't do the math - "Marie Antoinette" had its very opulent, star-studded Los Angeles premiere at the Carthay Circle. The gardens around the theater has been restructured and decorated to evoke a resemblance to the gardens at Versailles, and movie fans waited for hours in the summer heat for a glimpse of the film stars. (Most of these images are screenshots taken from "Hollywood Goes to Town", a featurette made to promote the film.)

Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power signing the guest registry.
Some well-known names here. Adrian, who designed the film's costumes, added his distinctive signature at top left.


  1. COLOR?! I had no idea...love seeing these. One of my favorite movies -i must have seen it at least 25 times if not more and own on DVD. As much as I always say I don't mind B&W and once it starts I forget any color is missing- this is one movie I would DIE To see in color! Thank you for sharing!

    1. After I posted this, G asked me if I would rather have had it filmed in color and, after thinking about it I said, actually, no. Because so many of the wonderful visuals wouldn't have been possible in color. So many scenes wouldn't have had the wonderfully lit atmosphere that they do. I think particularly of the first meeting on the staircase of the gambling house. The indirect lighting is exquisite, subtle; Norma's gown and jewels and hair ornaments softly sparkling. The state of color photography in 1938 would never have captured anything like that. Even today, using color film would demand a totally different visual style. So I love the - idea - that it was planned for color (which appears to be just a myth), but I think much of the MAGIC of this film is a product of the period's absolute mastery of B&W. : )

      That said, I love seeing the color images that were taken. I'd love to see more!