During its golden epoch, MGM relished transforming time-honored and contemporary literature into lavishly appointed period spectacles. The 1930s had yielded a particularly formidable girth in these riches, thanks to Production VP, Irving G. Thalberg’s insatiable interests in best-selling novels; the studio mingling the likes of Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare with Eugene O’Neill, James Hilton and Vicki Baum. This cycle of ‘historic’ celluloid translations was to be briefly delayed, though never entirely denied its proliferation – first, by L.B. Mayer’s less than enthusiast reply toward any story not taking place within the white picket-fenced modernity of Carvel, U.S.A. – but also, by wartime rationing of badly needed materials necessary to build more grandiose sets to accommodate ‘period’ product. Nevertheless, Mayer had had the good sense to live up to the high ideals established by Thalberg after his untimely passing at the age of 36; the consignment of props, sets and costumes from Thalberg’s prolific prelude to this dry spell meticulously preserved and endlessly reassembled, a cost-cutting godsend during the cash-strapped forties. Due to Mayer’s begrudging adherence to Metro’s revered reputation within the industry for ‘period spectacle’ and Thalberg’s foresight, in amassing such a mind-boggling warehouse of relics from virtually every period in history, at war’s end MGM could boast an enviable position to pick up exactly where it had left off a decade earlier.
Alas, tastes had changed. The piss-elegance of a Louis XIII France or Victorian bric-a-brac that clicked so effortlessly with Depression-era audiences had been followed by a decade’s worth of much darker visions of the American dream; the make-believe turning inward, then downward with what would later be collectively lumped by Cahiers du Cinéma as ‘the noir style’. To be sure, Metro’s particular brand of brightly lit ‘escapism’ still ruled the roost in 40’s Hollywood. But now, it had to be cleverly calculated – masked, even - and cautiously fed in increments with a timely – and arguably, more relevant – narrative that connected with the unvarnished sense of realism returning vets had lived through during the war and were beginning to demand reflected back at them from their movie art. While the powers that managed 2oth Century-Fox and Warner Bros. sensed this aesthetic shift, and had, in fact, veered on the side of less extravagant artifices throughout the late 1930s to build their own in-house style, accepting that the present was irreconcilable with the past, MGM continued to reimagine the world on its own fairy-land terms, and insist of its audiences that they remain happily ensconced in these idealized ‘never-never-lands’ of rarified and diverting chic.
Part of the reason for – and the problem with – the enduring longevity of this artistic retardation was owed to Mayer’s obstinacy to move with the times. A showman of the old school, Mayer had practically reinvented America’s world view of itself. Now, he could no more surrender the belief his polished glamour had fallen out of fashion than convince himself of the truth his own life had been wedged into, and repeated gleaned from, an Andy Hardy dramedy. While profits were down, the overall slump had not yet egregiously impacted the studio’s bottom line; at least, enough for its parent company, Loewe’s Incorporated to insist on a change of pace. Still, company president, Nicholas Schenck did implore Mayer to find himself ‘a new Thalberg’; a quest that would ultimately lead to Mayer’s dethronement and the true beginning of the end for the studio’s glory days. Even so, Mayer, then the highest paid (and most heavily taxed) personage in Hollywood, could point with pride to the staggering profits derived from his ‘happy’ little movies; more clean-cut and antiseptically wholesome serials to an America that never was than wanton Marie Antoinettes and fiery Romeo and Juliets; more middling musicals, and the occasional ‘prestige pic’ tricked out in the very best finery Metro could afford; dappled in kilowatt star-power, heaped with increasingly weighty dollops at the screen – the cavalcade of headliners under one roof, assembled by royal command inside the studio’s biggest sound stage for a name-dropping luncheon to inaugurate Metro’s 25th year in showbiz in 1949.
Mayer’s flimflamming of the stockholders might have dragged on a little longer, except that by the end of the forties he had all but delegated the daily operations of a kingdom he intimately regarded as his own, to practically run itself with his casual ‘okay’ while he busied himself in a burgeoning romance with wealthy socialite, Lorena Danker; Mayer’s other great passion of the post-war period; horse-breeding/racing. Even as the klieg lights began to dim all over Hollywood, thanks to the tenacious proliferation of television, Mayer remained oblivious to the decline, turning a proud, if blind, eye in mere reflection from his box at the race track; reveling in his private competition with Harry S. Warner to see who would ultimately possess the most perfect stable of thoroughbreds.
From this vantage, 1949’s adaptation of Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is even more an anomaly in Metro’s pantheon, increasingly top-heavy in Esther Williams’ aquacades, Jane Powell musical programmers, and, the occasional flight into uber-extravagance a la prestige pictures like Green Dolphin Street (1947) and Vincente Minnelli’s failed attempt to musicalize and update the Douglas Fairbanks Sr. swashbuckler, with The Pirate (1948). Miraculously, no major Hollywood studio had attempted Madame Bovary. Part of the reason was likely the novel’s incendiary tone. For in Emma Bovary, here was a creature more heartless and relentless in her pursuit of happiness, virtually at the expense of everyone else’s, than Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara. These two ‘heroines’, separated by a century in literature, nevertheless share a distinctly tragic characteristic; a willful incalculability to throw happiness away with both hands while reaching out for some intangible joy never theirs to possess. Like Scarlett, Emma Bovary is invested in the futile pursuit of phantom pleasures, wholly imagined from picture books and other adolescent fancies – as Flaubert suggests, “…a reality that never was” and, thus very destructively a figment of the mind. Re-imagining the world on her own terms creates a malignancy in all of Emma’s earthly relationships; estrangement from her chronically doting husband, country doctor, Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), and their child, Berthe (Dawn Kinney); pursued by her male counterpart, Leon Dupuis (Christopher Kent) – a man faking his own success and prosperity to impress her – only to be spurned by the more aristocratic, Rodolphe Boulanger (Louis Jourdan).
Perhaps acutely aware of the provincial morality built into Hollywood’s enduring Production Code of Ethics, that had stifled a good many literary adaptations thus far, transforming them into elegantly tricked out moving tableaus of the ‘Illustrated Literary Classics’ ilk, doubtlessly popularized to appeal to the contemporary strain of romantics while simultaneously appeasing the code’s more pretentious refinements, Mayer gave his nod of approval to producer, Pandro S. Berman, who assigned Vincente Minnelli the task of preserving Flaubert’s incendiary intentions on the big screen. And Minnelli would prove himself exceptionally worthy of this task; subverting Metro’s brand of sentimentality and glamour to produce a remarkably subversive and haunting, noir-styled historical epic; framing the novel’s premise around the real-life trial of Gustav Flaubert in 1857, in which Emma Bovary was branded ‘a disgrace to France’ and ‘an insult to womanhood’ derived from Flaubert’s ‘monstrous and degenerate imagination’. In his own defense the cinema’s Flaubert, supremely realized by a stoic James Mason as the patron saint of all wretchedly flawed feminine ambitions, proposes a compassionate ‘justification’ for Emma Bovary. By counterpoint, he has illustrated the vicious to preserve the virtuous, adding that there are countless women like Emma Bovary, spared a similar fate – not by their virtue, but by their lack of determination.
Sadly, Minnelli could likely draw on his own marital quagmire for Emma Bovary’s darkest inspirations; his life with Judy Garland suffering the fitful highs and toxic lows of the star’s chronic addiction to studio-sanctioned barbiturates; Garland’s phantoms and hellish retreats into fantasy, increasingly making their lives unbearable. Perhaps Minnelli’s great respect for Garland as more than a star, his devotion and constant vigilance during her many crises, afforded him a certain empathy for Flaubert’s doomed heroine. And truly, the greatest curiosity to be unearthed in Minnelli’s impeccably lush adaptation is his ability to exude a genuine pity for this contemptuous and otherwise evil woman; her suicide from arsenic poisoning near the finale perceived as utterly tragic rather than mere escape from an impossible situation. Interestingly, the pinnacle of Emma Bovary’s blossoming into privilege – that is to say, the edifying moment that seems to justify her unbridled greed – comes barely twenty minutes into the picture; Emma, having successfully seduced and wed country physician, Charles Bovary, utterly elated to have been invited, along with her husband, to the mannered estate of the Marquis D'Andervilliers (Paul Cavanagh) for a grand ball. For this brief wrinkle in time, tricked out in one of Walter Plunkett’s ravishing gowns, Emma Bovary becomes the center of attention; suitors flocking to meet this ‘new edition’ to their social circle; the most amiable of the lot, Leon Dupuis, whirling her about the dance floor in a dizzying succession of pirouettes while, from the fringes her adoring husband quietly gets drunk.
Herein, Minnelli takes petit-bourgeois elegance to the nth degree, debasing it into a fin de siècle demimonde; the axis gradually thrown off kilter; courtiers, as planetoids orbiting an all-consuming sun, suddenly possessed of Emma’s overindulgence, smashing French doors and windows to accommodate her with a breath of fresh night air. Those who would criticize Minnelli for this overpowering inanity (does no one share the presence of mind it would have been more prudent to casually open these panes than gleefully shatter them with wild abandonment?), are remiss of the supreme theatrics that strike at particularly resonant chord in perfect beat with Emma’s pounding heart. Are we actually witnessing the idle rich dismantling their world for a societal underline or is this idiocy imagined by the prima donna? If only Emma Bovary were of their class. Alas, she is not and therefore cannot maintain her status as its centerpiece. She shares none of their appreciation for the art of gracious living – only, ravenously seeking out that which she can exploit and take from it; moments cleaved to her caprice simply because they vaguely mimic pages in a picture book or fashion magazine, excised and pasted on the walls of her attic; stitched together by an insidious imagination into greedy little daydreams in lieu of reality.
Without a doubt, the ball is a tour de force for Minnelli’s fitful artistic expression, outwardly mirroring inward human suffrage, exercising – and exorcising – demons (both from without and within) soon to topple Emma Bovary’s perfect artifice as its self-anointed queen. The tragedy for Emma Bovary is no man of flesh and blood – not the least this Charles Bovary – can equal, much less conquer her demands for grandiloquence. Nervous and woefully out of step with the Marquis and his crowd, Charles indulges in too much drink instead, unable to circumnavigate the other dancers without disrupting their perfect trajectory around his wife. His interference in Emma’s supreme moment of triumph, so jovially obtuse to the fact he has made transparent fools of them both, wounds her sensibilities; all eyes drawn now for a very different reason as she hurriedly exits the ballroom in disgrace. It does not take long for Emma to recognize her blissful impressions of their life together are simply that – impressions – never to be satisfied. Charles’ genial nature, his blind respect and adoration, that had so appealed to Emma when she was but a country waif living on a farm, are now the terms of a life sentence to be spent miserably buried in the pastoral enclave of Yonville; not such a bad prospect for most women, but a veritable death sentence for Emma Bovary, because both its citizenry and opportunities available to her pale to those she might have known in Paris.
Despite Charles’ token salary, he allows Emma to indulge in a lavish makeover of their modest home; the changes presided over by a conniving moneylender, Lhereux (Frank Allenby) who, in time, will allow Emma’s greed to dig them both into an impossible debt. Alas, Emma is not after only such tangible commodities; also, prestige for her husband’s humble profession. To this end, she makes devious inquiries as to a cure for the simple-minded servant, Hyppolite’s (Henry Morgan) clubbed foot. Mind you, Emma cares not for the cure itself; only the status such a daring operation could bring to her husband’s practice and, by extension, to the name of Bovary she now shares. The apothecary, J. Homais (Gene Lockhart) and the mayor, Tuvache (John Abbott) are in agreement that such a surgery, performed expertly, would put Yonville on the map. They treacherously conspire to convince the terrified Hyppolite of partaking in this highly experimental operation without first gaining Charles’ confidence. Prudently, at the last possible moment, Charles retreats from making the biggest mistake of his life, instinctively realizing he cannot complete the surgery without permanently maiming his patient. While his refusal momentarily creates doubt about his skills amongst the townsfolk, it all but destroys Emma’s faith in him. From this moment on, Emma Bovary shall seek her distractions elsewhere; increasingly pursued by men of lesser character, who report the means to satisfy her passions, though ultimately bring ill-repute to both her name and character.
The first of these is Leon Dupuis, a clerk in a law firm who overextends his modest salary to satisfy Emma’s longing for riches and excitement. At some point in their clandestine rendezvous, Leon’s mother (Gladys Cooper) encourages her son to break off the affair. Leon is sent away to France to further his studies and advance his prospects. In his absence, Emma becomes entangled with suave sportsman, Rodolphe Boulanger; unquestionably, a man of means, who first met Emma at the ball and now, persists in reuniting for out of the way hunting jaunts, professing mad love until Emma reciprocates these affections. Confiding in Lhereux of this affair, Emma plots to leave Charles in the dead of night. Lhereux reasons Emma’s new love will be able to pay her debts. And Rodolphe has ensured Emma he has tipped the coachman to make an unscheduled stop in Yonville. He will be waiting for her in Paris. Alas, Emma discovers the cruel truth as she waits; the coachman pushing his team of horses hard as the carriage careens through the heart of Yonville without stopping. Humiliated and miserable, Emma returns to her husband’s home. While Charles is seemingly oblivious to his wife’s extramarital dalliances, the Bovary’s nanny, Félicité (Ellen Corby) sees and understands all; increasingly disenchanted with the mistress of the house because she continues to make a fool of its master and all but neglecting the child they share. Indeed, from the moment of her birth, Berthe is a source of constant disappointment for Emma; a reminder of her failure to produce a male heir, unencumbered by the protocols and expectations inflicted on women that bind Emma begrudgingly to her duty to Charles.
Unable to reason the source of his wife’s melancholia, Charles offers to take Emma to Rouen on a holiday. The trip proves fortuitous when Charles and Emma are accidentally reunited with Leon at the opera. Despite their disparate ages, Emma is lovelier than ever and Leon, now sporting a moustache, gentleman’s cape and top hat, appears to be living a more aristocratic lifestyle. As Charles is called back to Yonville, Emma elects with his blessing to remain in Rouen for a few more days; Leon wasting no time in rekindling his sentiments. Alas, unbeknownst to Emma, Leon has wasted these years. Despite furthering his education, he remains a meager clerk, now in the employ of Monsieur DuBocage (George Zucco) who cruelly advises Leon to rid himself of this female distraction. In the meantime, Lhereux has reentered the picture; this time, to collect payment for the mounting debts he has incurred. Lhereux threatens to expose Emma’s clandestine trysts if she fails to come up with the money. He slyly suggests that she deceive Charles by secretly gaining power of attorney over his late father’s estate, liquidating its assets and using the money to settle her creditor’s debts before Charles is any the wiser. Emma does indeed gain the power of attorney, hurrying to Leon in the hopes DuBocage will handle the sale. But DuBocage is no fool and casually sets the matter aside. The property is therefore worthless to Emma. She cannot sell it.
Returning to Yonville in disgrace, Emma discovers her husband is out of town. In his absence, Lhereux has posted creditor’s notes all over town, announcing the auction of the personal effects of Charles Bovary to commence at once. As Lehereux has settled his debts with the auctioneer, Guillaumin (Henri Letondal) Emma now appeals to him for clemency. Knowing of her past, Guillaumin instead hints Emma may wish to ‘work off’ her debts by extending to him sexual favors. Repulsed by his insinuations, Emma retreats to the apothecary and without his knowledge, consumes a considerable amount of arsenic from his laboratory. Reentering her own home already feeling the ill effects of the poison, Emma is confronted by an angry Charles who demands to know why their house is being repossessed. He quickly deduces something is terribly wrong; his suspicions confirmed when Homais frantically arrives to reveal the source of Emma’s seemingly rootless malady. Hurrying his wife to bed and sending for a more experienced physician in the hopes to ply his craft to save her life, Charles is too late to spare Emma from suicide. With the blessing of the church she quietly slips into a coma and dies as Charles looks on. In the final moments, we return to the court room with Flaubert still on trial, concluding his defense of Emma Bovary – not as a wanton, but a tragic figure of her own design. An epitaph declares Flaubert was exonerated of the crime of moral indecency; his novel, long since considered an inspired piece of great literature.
Today, Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary is something of an underrated masterpiece. The picture was not expected to make money – made more for prestige than profit. Indeed, when it managed to turn a tidy little profit as well as add to Metro’s cachet of celluloid art, Mayer was pleasantly surprised. Moreover, it confirmed that Minnelli could be counted upon as a formidable talent capable of crossing genres. While Minnelli would always consider Madame Bovary the movie that profoundly reshaped his career he could not entirely dismiss the epic hurdles endured while making it; one in particular – David O. Selznick. By 1949, Selznick’s reputation in Hollywood was on the downswing, thanks primarily to his overwrought – and over-budgeted – super-colossal western/drama, Duel in the Sun (1946), referred to by one critic as ‘Lust in the Dust’. By then, Selznick had managed to woo Jennifer Jones away from her marriage to actor, Robert Walker, convince her even to become the next Mrs. Selznick; a move that would be the brunt of a good many cruel jokes and deny Jones her place among the stars; Selznick’s overbearing star-making presence generally souring other studios from signing her to a long-term contract. After Jones’ breakout and Oscar-winning performance in The Song of Bernadette (1943) a decade’s worth of pretentious efforts had followed, capped off by the leaden fairy tale, Portrait of Jennie (1948).
Despite Selznick’s constant meddling from afar, inflicting Minnelli and producer, Pandro S. Berman with a litany of memos how to ‘improve’ upon their efforts (virtually all of his suggestions ignored), Minnelli nevertheless managed to get the most credible performance out of Jennifer Jones since The Song of Bernadette. Jones’ sense of self, often distilled through Selznick’s rubric as an elegant clotheshorse, is fittingly reshaped by Minnelli as the epitome of Flaubert’s superficial and preening ‘heroine’. There are moments imbedded in her performance where she completely disappears into the part; her most outstanding scenes played near the end of the picture when her alter ego’s nerve is at low ebb. Herein, Jones emanates the sad-eyed fragility of a woman worn to the bone by the disillusionment of a life thoroughly wasted in spite of every reason she once had to be happy. Jones plays the outcome of this revelation, having come too late to make any difference, with absolute surrender; Emma’s greed beaten into submission, its maleficence gone from her glazed over stare. While no one could confuse many of Jones’ prior and subsequent career choices as evolving her art and talents, at least with Madame Bovary she stems the tide that generally relegated her contributions to cheap seat chuckles from the more artsy critics. It is Jones’ performance that sustains and occasionally nourishes the picture, giving it stamina and scope as a compelling – even lasting – adaptation of Flaubert’s masterwork.
That Madame Bovary is rarely listed among the truly outstanding literary classics is a tragedy in and of itself; particularly since audience response to the picture in its own time was uniformly very enthusiastic. Robert Ardrey’s screenplay is a miracle of concision, omitting virtually every incident from Flaubert’s novel in which our heroine does not figure directly, while Minnelli’s direction telescopes the essence of Flaubert’s epic tragedy into a cinematic language all its own. Part of the collective amnesia that continues to afflict the picture’s reputation today may stem from the fact that even in its own time, Madame Bovary came at the tail end of Metro’s cycle in period costume dramas. While the studio would make – and remake – more costume dramas throughout the 1950's; the pull and push of these was decidedly toward glossy Technicolor swashbucklers and adventure/dramas rather than philosophical tomes about dire and self-serving cruelties within the human condition. Minnelli’s approach to Madame Bovary is tinged with an ominous strain of self-destruction. Having offered a plausible defense for Emma Bovary’s despicable behaviors both at the start and later, to cap off his adaptation, Minnelli manages a wholly unanticipated and thoroughly unsettling empathy for her otherwise diseased and unforgivable madness.
This effect is amplified most effectively by Van Heflin’s superb performance that gives credence and respectability to Charles Bovary’s ever-understanding. Charles can forgive Emma virtually anything. But as it turns out, he is not a weak man; Minnelli and Heflin never allowing the audience to confuse the character’s own virtues, his awkwardness and kindness with that oft played out ineffectual strain of usurped masculinity. Instead, Heflin emanates a quiet rectitude, nobler because it is repeated tested, yet never broken. Charles Bovary does not tolerate his wife’s behavior so much as he sympathizes with the afflictions of her mind that continually sabotage their chances at marital happiness. And yet, his empathy never devolves into pity. As for the rest of the cast: Louis Jourdan offers yet another variation on the cultured cad he would continue to be typecast as until Gigi (1958). The rest of the supporting players are uniformly solid and memorable; the best of the lot, the virtually forgotten Frank Allenby; his Lhereux a delicious variation a la George Sanders: cool, calculating and decidedly up to no good. In the final analysis, Madame Bovary is an exquisitely heartrending masterpiece in which Vincente Minnelli’s formidable skills are brought to bear against the statesmanlike craftsmanship of Metro’s celluloid homages to great literature.
Warner Home Video’s DVD incarnation is good but not perfect. If the film ever makes the leap to Blu-ray via the Warner Archive we should expect some truly great things to emerge. In standard def, the gray scale is generally solid; tonality good and close-ups satisfying in their fine detail, Robert H. Planck’s glorious B&W photography looking almost immaculate - save the occasional age-related artifact, some minor and sporadic dirt and a few obvious – if negligible – moments of gate weave and water damage. There is really not much to complain about here, a few long shots looking less than razor sharp and also film grain occasionally appearing less than authentic, but never veering into digitized grit. The audio is mono and except for a very slight hiss during quiescent moments, flatters the visuals as expected. The one regret herein is the lack of an audio commentary. Warner gives us a few unrelated shorts and the original theatrical trailer, looking decidedly more careworn than the feature, but that is about it. Bottom line: while we wait in the hope of better things in hi-def, Madame Bovary on DVD is recommended. A great film in need of a marginally better transfer!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)