Marie Antoinette is a 1938 American historical drama film produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.[2][3] It was directed by W. S. Van Dyke and starred Norma Shearer as Marie Antoinette. Based upon the 1932 biography of the ill-fated Queen of France by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, it had its Los Angeles premiere at the legendary Carthay Circle Theatre, where the landscaping was specially decorated for the event.

The film was the last project of Irving Thalberg who died in 1936 while it was in the planning stage. His widow Norma Shearer remained committed to the project even while her enthusiasm for her film career in general was waning following his death.

With a budget close to two million dollars, it was one of the more expensive films of the 1930s, but also one of the bigger successes.


In 1769 Vienna, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria tells her daughter Maria Antonia she is to marry the Dauphin Louis-Auguste. Marie is excited to become the future Queen of France but grows dismayed upon learning her husband is a shy man more at home with locksmithing than attending parties. After countless attempts to please him, Louis reveals he cannot produce heirs, prompting Marie to associate with the power-hungry Duc d'Orleans.

On her second wedding anniversary, Madame du Barry, King Louis XV's mistress, gifts Marie with an empty cradle and a poem critical of her inability to produce an heir. Despite Marie's outrage, Louis proves to be too weak to stand up to his grandfather. Sometime later, Marie meets Swedish Count Axel Fersen at a costume ball, during which she wagers and loses an expensive necklace. Count Mercy, the Austrian ambassador, scolds her for her wanton behaviour but she pays him little mind.

Marie then hosts a ball in an attempt to make amends with du Barry and please Count Mercy. The attempt fails, however, when du Barry draws attention to Louis' absence and Marie responds with a reference to du Barry's past. The King decides to annul the marriage, prompting Louis to defend Marie. Marie, meanwhile, flees to Count Mercy's residence after learning she is to be sent back to Austria. While there, she reunites with Fersen, who professes his love for her.

Realising she too has fallen in love with Fersen, Marie goes to tell Louis but learns she cannot leave him as the King is dying of smallpox and Louis himself is still fond of her. She agrees to remain and they ascend to the throne following the King's death. Despite Marie's attempts to continue their relationship, Fersen refuses to risk ruining her reputation and tells her to fulfil her duties as France's Queen. She goes on to give birth to daughter Marie Thérèse and son Louis Charles.

Some years later, when the Dauphin has grown into a young boy, peasants throw stones at Marie's carriage while she has taken her children for a drive. She is shocked at the intense dislike displayed by the people of France. She blames d'Orleans for inciting them. Marie later rejects a jeweller's expensive and elaborate necklace, but she is framed by court insiders plotting to acquire the necklace for themselves, and the Affair of the Diamond Necklace erupts. Marie is outraged, but d'Orleans tells the royal couple to abdicate the throne in favour of the Dauphin under the regency of d'Orleans.

The French Revolution comes, and the royal family is taken prisoner. Fersen returns with a plan of escape, but when the Dauphin tells a guard that his father is a locksmith, the King is recognised and arrested after a former priest at Versailles identifies him. The King is put on trial and sentenced to death, and spends his last night with his family, his children not realising this is the last night they will spend with their father. Marie is heartbroken, but is then separated from her children, put on trial and condemned to death. The Dauphin, too young to understand what is going on around him, is forced to testify against his mother. The night before she is executed, Fersen goes to the prison and they pledge their love to each other, with Marie telling him that she will never say goodbye. The next morning she goes bravely to her execution, which Fersen witnesses from a distance.


  • Henry Stephenson

  • Background