Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Madame Du Barry (1934): A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Dolores del Rio.

"Du Barry was a lady, no matter what they may say. Du Barry was a lady, the fairest girl of her day". So goes the title song to the musical comedy Du Barry Was a Lady. The biopic Madame Du Barry was not going to take as lighthearted a look at our infamous royal courtesan as that song-and-dance romp. Time has not been kind to Madame Du Barry the film, showing the limitations of the time. Despite its brief running time the film is not terrible but one that might benefit from a remake.

King Louis XV (Reginald Owen) still misses his late mistress Madame De Pompadour. He yearns for another royal courtesan, but one who unlike the rest does not care about politics or him as His Majesty but as Louis, the man.

Enter the pretty Jeanette, Madame Du Barry (Dolores del Rio), a pretty young thing who is fun and frivolous. His Majesty is instantly charmed by our flirtatious vixen, one who wants to go for a sleigh ride in summer, causing the courtiers grief to make it come true. Disliked by Versailles courtiers who find in her an upstart, Du Barry also has friends like the Duc d'Aiguillon (Victor Jory). She is her own woman, unafraid to speak her mind. Louis is enchanted, but the new Dauphine of France, Marie Antoinette (Anita Louise) is not. Despite it all, and after Louis XV's death, the Comtesse du Barry is exiled but with her head held high, singing the ditty that so delighted the late King.

Madame du Barry (1934)As I watched Madame Du Barry, I was reminded of all things, Singin' in the Rain. In particular, I kept seeing flashbacks to the faux-film The Dueling/Dancing Cavalier in how despite being seven years into sound production, you still felt as though the actors had to gather in groups to get their dialogue in.

As a side note, I still await The Dueling Mammy, but that's for another time.

There just seemed to be an odd stiffness to the production, a sense that the actors still were trying to work through sound film technology. That hampers Madame Du Barry, making it very remote and creaky.

It is, however, not without some elements worth noting. Del Rio is surprisingly adept at the coquettish courtesan. I confess this is curiously the first time I have heard del Rio in English, my only experience with her work in Mexican films. She handles the language quiet well and is impish and amusing, if perhaps a bit exaggerated. However, as we are dealing with Ancien Regime decadence, I can let that go.

The real standout is Owen as our merry monarch. He is a fun-loving ruler who also wants to be loved for himself, and he makes for a fine performance balancing the regal with the roguish, from the scandal over Du Barry's court presentation to how he goes "hunting" at Deer Park, his unofficial school for potential ladies.

It's a pity that apart from del Rio, Owen and in smaller roles Jory and Osgood Perkins as the dueling courtiers the actors seemed rather farcical. To be fair though, Maynard Holmes' Dauphin came across appropriately as a dim kid, easily bullied by anyone around him.

Madame Du Barry could not as decadent as it could have been given the rise of the Production Code, but enough creeped out to make it a weak though still interesting film. Short but clunky, it might be time to revisit our lovely royal wench.



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