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Désirée (Blu-ray Review)

7 May, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Merle Oberon, Michael Rennie.

By the time he got around to helping dramatize what we’re told here was Napoleon’s big-time consternation with his extended in-laws, Marlon Brando had blasted out of the big-screen gate with a consecutive streak of movies that were all rebellious or against-the-grain works of one kind or another: The Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar, The Wild One and On the Waterfront. The law of averages was working against him, so next in line came 1954’s Désirée, which was pure Hollywood and about as rebellious as an Eddie Fisher 45.

In many ways, this is an ideal title to be any distributor’s “limited release” because there’s a limited but enthusiastic coterie of fans out there (and they know who they are) likely to covet the latest modest-in-number offering from Twilight Time (it’s limited to a run of 3,000 units). These would include Napoleon junkies, those who like the “bodice-ripper” genre in general (though unless I missed something, no bodice gets literally ripped here) and Brando completists, some of whom have always cut this onetime box office hit a break. Interestingly enough, Twilight Time had a tough go of it last month when it released a less than ideal studio-source print of Demetrius and the Gladiators, which also was from 20th Century-Fox in 1954. Only five months separated these two films, but the print here is staggeringly good — one of the best Blu-ray renderings of a vintage color title I have ever seen. If you eliminate such fundamental essentials as camera placement, camera movement and close-ups — and simply concentrate on the décor — even Vincente Minnelli would have been proud to have a movie this sumptuous on his resumé.

Otherwise, the cardboard here is pretty crinkly, and Brando (no fan of the movie) apparently only made it as restitution to Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck for having walked off 1954’s The Egyptian (another TT release of smashing visage). Based on a popular novel of the day, Désirée not only observes still-studied world events solely through the eyes of the title-designated lover or lover wannabe (played by Jean Simmons) but also conveys key information to us through one of the hoariest devices there is: voice-overed passages from her diary. 

We first meet young General Napoleon in France when his career is about to ascend — which is not to say that he would turn his distinctive nose up at a dowry when seeking a mate. One woman who catches his eye (this is before we get to the pesky distraction of Merle Oberon’s Josephine) is Simmons’ Désirée, a headstrong young employee of a clothing shop who has initially caught the eye of brother Joseph Bonaparte (Cameron Mitchell, in seemingly the billionth time he played someone’s bro). Thanks to episodes given far more weight than events that were making international history, Désirée ends up with fellow Gen. Jean-Baptise Bernadotte. What is it about Michael Rennie, who has the role, that made him so great when cast as an asexual alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still or asexual Biblical characters in The Robe and Demetrius — yet made him such a stiff playing flesh-and-blood? Well, he did have a magnificent speaking voice.

Then it gets complicated. Brother Joseph marries Désirée’s sister, making Désirée a sister-in-law who then accompanies husband Bernadotte to Sweden when the latter becomes not just the country’s king but also a king who’s willing to cross his old buddy Napoleon. All this is conveyed in a lot of gorgeous-looking scenes where — in Fox style of the mid-1950s — Robe director Henry Koster (who’d been a pretty simpatico director of Deanna Durbin and Danny Kaye) statically plants the actors in large groups to fill the frame. When critic Andrew Sarris says in his landmark book The American Cinema that fellow Fox director Jean Negulesco was good before CinemaScope and not so good after, the framing woes on display here are what he meant.

With a putty nose and a Bill Haley spit curl, Brando is obviously uncomfortable. But he does try, and he is also the screen subject toward which viewer eyes always gravitate (Simmons’ beauty notwithstanding) at any given moment. The two actors play off each other decently — and for some reason, this movie enhances my enjoyment of their follow-up pairing one year later in Guys and Dolls (a movie with its own problems but more compensations). 

According to Julie Kirgo’s always-astute Twilight Time program notes, Désirée was Fox’s biggest grosser of the year after Three Coins in the Fountain (which got their mutual cinematographer Milton Krasner an Oscar). The real shocker, per Kirgo, is that it also out-grossed 1954 Oscar winner On the Waterfront on the latter’s first theatrical go-round by a substantial margin (wow, you just can’t buy that kind of audience taste). In my hometown, the well-named RKO Palace strengthened its Thanksgiving bill by pairing the first-run engagement of Désirée with Bowery to Bagdad, starring Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and the rest of the Bowery Boys. When I think of the number of ways the movies have deteriorated over the decades, I start with a trillion — but the fact that they no longer offer this brand of surreality for only a couple quarters is one of the big ones.

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