MGM was the stylish studio. If you know nothing else about Hollywood in the 1930s, that is the thing to know: when it came to the most glamorous stars wearing the most opulent clothes on the most richly detailed sets, acting out the most robustly dramatic scenarios while the most emphatic strings wept on the soundtrack, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had your back. When we think of the '30s as a decade of grand escapism in reaction to the the Great Depression, we are really thing of this studio and its remarkable ability to graft Cinematic Magic on an industrial scale rarely witnessed anywhere else. Watch an MGM production from the '50s, the '40s, but above all the '30s: you are, it is guaranteed, watching a god-damned Spectacle.

For a studio founded on such an aesthetic, a lengthy (149 minutes without overture and exit music, absolutely monumental for a film of its era) costume drama about the causes and early actions of the French Revolution could only turn out to be one thing; and 1938's Marie Antoinette is, indeed, largely the movie one might suppose it to be sight-unseen, particularly with MGM's First Lady, Norma Shearer (the widow of the studio's wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg, who'd died in 1936) playing the title role. Shearer was, in those days, in the declining period of her career, having made only a scattered handful of films in the preceding years (just three between 1933 and 1937, the last of them being the notorious 1936 Romeo and Juliet, in which 34-year-old Shearer and 43-year-old Leslie Howard played the most geriatric star-crossed teenaged lovers in cinema history), and the path that led from being one of MGM's most white-hot stars in the late silent and early sound era to being simply another '30s actor that nobody but classic movie buffs much remembers was already clear. But in this, the last project Thalberg put into motion for his wife before his death, she got one of her last chances to truly shine: Marie Antoinette is, in general, giddy nonsense as history and lumpy and overcooked as drama, but it is an excellent showcase for Shearer, in one of the rangiest and most convincing and ultimately most moving performances of a career that deserves better than it gets today.

Let's put off cooing over Shearer for a little bit, even if Marie Antoinette was received in '38 and remains primarily an excuse for watching her do her thing. For there's still a lot going on besides that, some of it good and much more of it loopy in the extreme. The idea behind it is obvious enough: a biopic of the famous and infamous French queen from her learning, in her homeland of Austria, that she was to wed the Dauphin and future king Louis XVI (Robert Morley, in his film debut), all the way up to her death by guillotine in the French Revolution. The expected stops along the way: rivalry with Madame du Barry (Gladys George), mistress of Louis XV (John Barrymore); a too-friendly relationship with the handsome Count Axel de Fersen of Switzerland (Tyrone Power), when her husband seems permanently incapable of generating any kind of emotion towards her; embroilment in an utterly stupid scandal surrounding a fabulous diamond necklace that has her unfairly accused of frivolousness by an increasingly hostile nation. No "let them eat cake", since this film is hellbent on making its Marie Antoinette a good figure, and while it lets some nastiness in at the edges, there's no room for anything that would make her quite that unsympathetic.

First things first: it's laughably bad history. But it's a Hollywood star vehicle from the '30s, and any real attempt to grapple with such matters would never have met with much success, especially at MGM of all places, so I bring this up more out of a sense of duty than of shock, or of a real desire to deal with it. Anyway, that would never be the biggest flaw of the film: the script by Claudine West & Donald Ogden Stewart and Ernest Vajda is a dense monster of a thing that attempts to include just about everything possible: political intrigue, romantic comedy, romantic drama, family melodrama, cloak-and-dagger thrills, and spectacular 18th Century parties. The writers (and those are merely the ones who got credit) never really manage to come up with one single tone, and director W.S. Van Dyke only makes things worse - a generic chameleon who made everything from documentaries to thrillers to, well, this, Van Dyke only ever really stood out, to my mind, in his light-touch comedies (his masterpiece, in this mode or any other, is The Thin Man), and he's not up to handling the sheer volume of different styles required by this project; not until the Revolution comes does the picture find a tone and stick with it, and this has far more to do with Shearer and Morley than anything else, though William Daniels's cinematography, which grows increasingly shadow-dominated as the film proceeds, does quite a lot to keep things deep and grim.

That being said, most of Marie Antoinette is parties and snarking rich people and Marie Antoinette herself oscillating from self-indulgence to social consciousness and back, and being constantly terrified that everyone around her thinks she's just some dumb flit from Austria, and frequently, Van Dyke gives up on trying to make sense of this and just makes sure that the staggering array of gowns designed by master costumer Adrian are properly accentuated. This is, above all things, an exercise in poshness, one that the Revolution happens at sort of arbitrarily - there's no apparent attempt to suggest that the poshness might itself be responsible for the raging violence of the citizenry, since the filmmakers know so clearly that they're selling lifestyle porn and not political history, so any twinge of awareness that maybe this actually is madcap indulgence and wanton extravagance has to be kept offscreen.

The whole thing is resolutely shallow, then, propped up only because the production is so very lavish. I suppose I can imagine a viewer being unmoved by the sheer mass of the set and costume design, though I am pleased not to have to switch places with them. And there's that one other thing: in the middle of all this finery, Norma Shearer is acting her ass off, finding ways to underline Marie Antoinette's essentially childish, self-focused behavior without making her any less appealing a heroine (and as far as childish goes, it's impressive how much the 36-year-old convinces as the teenage and grown-up Marie Antoinette alike, particularly since it went so badly for her in Romeo and Juliet). And then, when imprisonment and the guillotine hit, she reaches heights found nowhere else in her career: eschewing makeup, the actress adopts a kind of flat, staring intensity that's half wild animal, half pathetic human, and her tiny twitches where her desperate attempt to seem resolute breaks down - her last meeting with Louis is an obvious example - find Shearer engaging in far more minute and focused physical acting than the typically gesture-loving actor usually gave us. She's not the single highlight of the cast - Morley is a fantastic king, bland and doughy but fully able to suggest a feeling, sensitive human beneath that, and George's du Barry is an exqusitely sharp schemer with some brilliant line readings and expressions - but she's the only person who could have saved the film from its own excesses, and by God, if she doesn't do just that. Marie Antoinette, the movie, has nothing to say about history, class, violent revolution, or dynastic politics, but Marie Antoinette, the woman and character, has a full rich life and wide mix of feelings. Shearer makes sure of that, and it's enough to make this dodgy, obese slab of prestige moviemaking turn into something sparkling and engaging, the highlight of her entire career.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1938
-Michael Curtiz directs the glorious Technicolor epic The Adventures of Robin Hood at Warner Bros.
-Screwball comedy reaches its most demented extremes with Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby at RKO
-Mickey Rooney makes the leap from child actor to movie star with Boys Town, also starring Spencer Tracy

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1938
-The British Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, gives the play a new, infamous "happy" ending
-Sergei Eisenstein completes Alexander Nevsky, his first extant, complete sound film, in the U.S.S.R.
-French director Marcel Carné releases his first major works, Port of Shadows and Hôtel du Nord