Napoleon and his age of opulence and violence stand revealed through the eyes of a woman spurned in Twentieth Century-Fox's dramatization of Annemarie Selinko's international best-seller, "Desiree." The story of Napoleon's back street love affair, mounted in CinemaScope had an inspired cast headed by Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Merle Oberon and Michael Rennie. The film was one of the early Cinemascope productions that took a turn from the western and the Roman genres. Beautifully filmed and produced, this is the inside story on the lavish production of Desiree, which is now available (in a limited edition) from Twilight Time.
The intimate revelations from the diary of one of history's most captivating women provides the basis for both the novel and its screen adaptation by writer Daniel Taradash, famed for his "From Here to Eternity" script. It is the story of Desiree Clary, young daughter of a Marseilles silk merchant who meets and falls in love with a young officer named Napoleon Bonaparte, and who from that moment on is destined to stand in the shadows of history in the making even though she eventually becomes Queen of Sweden. The complexity of Napoleon, the conqueror and man of destiny who did not hesitate to build his empire on the hearts of women, was interpreted on the screen by Marlon Brando. The film's producer, Julian Blaustein could see no other man in the role and in this the dynamic actor concurred. The master of "untamed individualists" in "Viva Zapata!", "A Street Car Named Desire" and "On the Waterfront" turned a burning romantic and despotic ruler of men in what marked his first appearance in a color film and on the CinemaScope screen.
Historians have depicted Napoleon as the Man of Destiny, military men have lauded his genius in warfare, and legislators have copied from his Code Napoleon, but for the first time, a motion picture producer and a director presented an intimate view of the man as seen through the eyes of a the young girl who loved him deeply. Henry Koster, who directed, presented the screenplay not as an historical incident but as an impassioned though hapless love story seen by someone who was actually around when it occurred. "Much of the material in the book 'Desiree,' was taken from the diary of a young girl who was in love and was jilted," Koster pointed out, "and I wanted to retain the poignancy and tenderness of that diary when the story is brought to the theater audiences."
An authoritative psychoanalyst and Napoleonic historian had solved the mystery of why Napoleon Bonaparte kept his hand that way. According to Dr. Carl C. Lonyay, who served as technical adviser on the film Desiree which tells of the General's back street romance, the hand-in-tunic stance he had was simply the result of there being no pockets in the man's uniform. "Also, it's typical of people who are not too sure of themselves—and strangely enough Napoleon falls into this category— to be uncomfortably aware of their hands. Today a man will put his hand in his pocket to get rid of it. Napoleon had no pockets so he stuck his hand inside his tunic when he felt awkward, as for
example, when he was posing for a painting."
The phrase "cleanliness is next to Godliness" might just as well have originated with Napoleon, said Dr. Carl Lonyay in an interview. The researcher produced evidence that Napoleon, in his heyday, seriously considered the possibility of taking a portable bathtub with him wherever he went, even into the battle fields. In an age when bathtubs were even more scarce in Paris, Napoleon took time out for a daily tubbing. Lest too many people entertain the idea that a very choice brandy was named after its most ardent enthusiast, researchers hasten to exonerate Napoleon as innocent of its existence. Research for the exact interpretation of the Conqueror by actor Marlon Brando showed that the military genius abstained at drink-quaffing parties of which there were many in the robust era just after the French Revolution. The best that they could offer.
Bernadine Eugenie Desiree Clary
Desiree by Austrian writer Annemarie Selinko was originally published in German in 1951. It was translated into English by Arnold Bender and E.W.Dikes and published by the Reprint Society in 1954
Desiree is a romance, and all the more romantic for being based on a true story, and although it is not exactly what one would describe as a great book, it captures the attention and one learns a huge chunk of European history without really trying. Bernadine Eugenie Desiree Clary was born in 1777. She was the younger daughter of a prosperous silk merchant in Marseille. When she was 16 or 17, after the death of her father, her older brother was arrested by the local branch of the Revolutionary Government, and the good offices of a young Corsican clerk called Joseph Bonaparte helped to secure his release. As a result, Joseph and his brother Napoleon met the Clary family, and quite soon Joseph married Desiree's sister Julie; Napoleon and Desiree fell for one another and when she turned 18 they became formally engaged. Napoleon then went north to Paris where he met and became involved with the charming and sophisticated widow Josephine de Beauharnais. Josephine's husband had been sent to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Napoleon jilted Desiree and married Josephine.
Bernadine Eugenie Desiree Clary
Some years later Desiree married one of Napoleon's fellow generals, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, and they had a son, Oscar. Napoleon appointed Bernadotte as a Marshal of France, a move he later came to regret. Bernadotte was an inspired military leader, but it meant that he and Desiree spent much of their married lives apart as he was always away on campaign. In 1809 the Swedish parliament offered him the role of heir-presumptive to the Swedish king who was old and childless. He and Desiree renounced their French citizenship and became Crown Prince and Princess of Sweden, though for many years Desiree continued to live in Paris. Eventually when the old King of Sweden died, they became the King and Queen, thus establishing the Royal house of Bernadotte who are the Royal Family of Sweden to this day.
According to a November 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item, Anatole Litvak was originally set to direct the picture, but on February 17, 1954, Daily Variety announced that "after a disagreement which couldn't be resolved over the process in which Desiree should be produced," Litvak and Twentieth Century-Fox "called off their multiple-picture deal." The news item also noted that Litvak had hoped to shoot the film abroad in a standard format instead of in CinemaScope. In September 1953, Daily Variety reported that studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck hoped to star Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in the film, and an March 18, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Jay Robinson was being tested for the role of Napoleon. Marlon Brando agreed to play the role in exchange for Twentieth Century-Fox dropping its $2,000,000 breach-of-contract suit against him concerning his failure to appear for the title role of its 1954 production The Egyptian. Brando later appeared on the October 11, 1954 cover of Time, dressed as Napoleon.
October 11, 1954 cover of Time Magazine
Annemarie Selinko, authoress of the best-seller, "Desiree," wholeheartedly approved Julian Blaustein's choice of cast for Desiree. The producer contacted the authoress with the working script and line-up of star power for the film. Miss Selinko, who was a Czechoslovakian by birth, was married to a Danish government official and made her home in Copenhagen. She had originally planned to visit the studio while Desiree was in production to act as a technical adviser, but personal matters interfered. The novel became a best-seller in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Norway, the British Isles and in Argentina as well as in the States, where here alone it had sold three-quarters of a million copies since its initial printing by William Morrow & Company. The firm planned a new popular-priced motion picture edition, timed with the national release of the film. In addition, Pocket Books, Inc. had also prepared an unabridged paper-bound Cardinal Edition of the Literary Guild Selection which was available to the public.
Publicity still of Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando
For the title role of Desiree Clary who had been described as "a kind of European Scarlett O'Hara whose real life exceeds imaginings,"'Jean Simmons was cast. The British star, holder of multiple international acting awards, possessed the vitality and versatility that Director Henry Koster deemed necessary for the woman who ruled an emperor. Merle Oberon, whose raven-haired beauty bore a remarkable resemblance to portraits of Josephine was chosen to be the paramour of Napoleon, with Michael Rennie cast in the role of Napoleon's able and disapproving strategist, Gen. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who eventually outmaneuvers the "little Corsican" in his two greatest objectives — Desiree and world conquest. Equally meticulous care was exercised in the selection of the supporting players in the cast with attention to resemblance to the historical figures they portray as well as to acting ability. Cameron Mitchell, as Napoleon's brother Joseph, and Elizabeth Sellars as Desiree's sister head the long list which includes Charlotte Austin, Cathleen Nesbitt, Evelyn Varden, Isobel Elsom, John Hoyt and Alan Napier.
Twentieth Century Fox, the studio which has established itself as a guarantee of accurate and detailed settings for its CinemaScope ventures which included "The Robe" and "The Egyptian," poured $4,000,000 into the film's production. A major portion of this amount was set aside for the staging of dramatic backgrounds. One camera crew visited the historic locales of France, while the home crew under the photographic wizardry of Milton Krasner, A.S.C., developed new camera devices to bring a documentary feeling of current history to the story. The results were reported "startlingly intimate."
The settings of palaces, the balls and Napoleon's coronation reflect the frivolity of the era garbed in gossamer as thin as its moral codes, but suitably tempered to the modes by Dr. Carl Lonyay, Napoleonic authority and Rene Hubert, French couturier.
Napoleon Bonaparte must have been a great hand with the ladies. He had affairs with many of the greatest beauties of his time, but historians are at a loss to know how he did it, because he apparently broke every rule in the how-to-make-out books. A scant five and a half feet didn't let him cut a romantic figure. He was sadly lacking in the "social graces" and had practically no memory for names. He wasn't the least bit poetic or gallant, in fact he's quoted as being downright insulting to women who didn't please him. The only explanation historians can offer is that Napoleon had a direct approach that took the girls off guard. As an example of this is Napoleon's first conversation with Josephine, as reported by Napoleon's secretary Bourriere: Josephine: "Tell me of your campaigns." Napoleon: "I cannot tell you here. Where do you live?"
The girl who portrays on screen one of the shadowy women in history, Desiree Clary, Napoleon's first love, was hardly a shadowy personality and, paradoxically, was perfect for the role. Jean Simmons took on the challenge to recreate the image of the woman to whom Napoleon surrendered his sword of conquest. It was just her zest for a flavorful life charted with happy extremes that made the British-born actress understand the complex actions of the young "Desiree." This versatility which enabled her to essay various and varied roles on screen was expressed even to her mode of dress offstage. Around the house, when there's no company, or traveling to and from the studio, she accentuated the casual and dresses in plaid shirts with slacks. When she was entertaining guests, or if she and her husband, Stewart Granger, were going out to dinner, she wore evening regalia.
Jean Simmons publicity still
Her first home in Hollywood was an enormous and impressive English-style mansion. It wasn't long before the star realized that huge piles aren't exactly her cup of tea and after house-hunting for a while, she located a new one—a modern curved shape around a huge patio with a modern swimming pool.
Since being in the United States for three years to meet film commitments, Simmons rounded out new interests, a love for baseball, an enthusiasm for newspaper comics and TV commercials and "there's nothing but nothing so joyous as getting around in a pair of old blue jeans." she would tell an interviewer on the set. Jean had also shown that she could get around to being first choice for plum roles. Desiree was ready and waiting for her upon completion of "The Egyptian," which had followed in the wake of "The Robe." Jean was a busy, ambitious star who really took it upon herself to make things happen.
Jean Simmons publicity photograph
Jean Simmons knew that the post-Revolution period in France was the only time in the history of fashion that women wore more to go to bed than they did to a party. The facts of the matter were clearly interpreted by Rene Hubert, French designer authority of the period who created thirty-five costume changes for the star in the title role. Filmed in De-Luxe color and based on Anna-marie Selinko's best-seller, the story recounts an early love affair of Napoleon Bonaparte, played by Marlon Brando. "In one of the early and key scenes in the picture," Jean pointed out, "I run out of my house in the middle of the night to meet Napoleon and I'm dressed in nothing but my nightgown. Desiree could easily have done it in real life with a nightgown like that. It's that full and the material that thick." On the other hand, she was startled by the evening gowns worn in the later Paris sequences. "Rene Hubert told me that in those days the girls competed with one another to see who could wear the lightest, flimsiest gowns. They're eye-openers all right." The only answer Jean believed was that during Napoleon's time, France had armies spread all over Europe and even in Egypt. The result was that with most of the men away to the wars, the ladies had to have some way of staying warm at night in those pre-electric blanket days. And the reason for the daring dresses at social events, she concluded "is the same reason that girls anywhere, anytime, wear revealing clothes during a man-shortage crisis."
Publicity still Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando
With each successive visit of Marlon Brando to Hollywood to fulfill his motion picture contracts, the film capital opened its collective ear for new Brando-isms. The actor had indeed spiked the atmosphere with observations and asides that had earned for him in turn accusations of nearly everything from being antisocial to just plain zaniness. Brando, who traveled west to play the role of Napoleon Bonaparte actually spent less time joking and more time studying his lines. Portraying the "Little Corsican," to whom he bears a remarkable resemblance, was a long-desired challenge for the determined Brando, so he stayed pretty much away from the public during the filming of the movie. However, he did try to straighten out a couple of things for the record. "I don't think most of the stories they make up about me are true," he said. "Anyway, I don't want to get into a position of defending myself against such stupid tales. But I would like to state how I feel about Southern California versus New York."
Marlon Brando taking a break on the set
In the maroon and gold Emperor's uniform he had just worn in a scene with Miss Simmons, Brando said that one of the things he liked about Southern California was the climate.
As for Los Angeles, Marlon said he found it a little too spread out and he heartily disliked the smog. When he was in "residence" he took to the San Fernando Valley. And Los Angeles was not nearly as stimulating as New York. "I just feel that New York offers me so much more in the way of stage, concerts, art exhibits and interesting people. I guess it comes down to the fact that most of my friends are in New York."
Rare shot of Marlon Brando on the set
Marlon Brando copped the cover story of Time Magazine. In the feature the star of Desiree, was quoted as saying, "I am sick to death of being thought of as a blue-jeaned slobbermouth and I am sick to death of having people come up and say hello and just stand there expecting you to throw a raccoon at them." He went on to observe that this country needed, in addition to a good five-cent cigar, a little five-cent investment in tolerance for the expression of individuality." Following Desiree, Brando pulled another "first" when he sang and danced in the screen version of the Broadway musical, "Guys and Dolls."
Marlon Brando laughs at needed underclothing
There was a time when Merle Oberon would have tried to convince her friends that she was, say, Josephine Bonaparte whom she portrays in Desiree. But, she commented later, "I have found that staying in character twenty-four hours a day was just a little too tiring. Besides, I found that it confused my friends." She went on to explain that "I used to take my movie roles with me everywhere, trying to stay in character no matter what I was doing after work, but I eventually learned that the results weren't what I expected." After each day's work inDesiree, which was her first CinemaScope film, Merle shed her role of Empress as soon as she left the sound stage to go home to the modern luxuries of her Bel-Air estate. She felt that these evidences of modern living had proven all the inspiration necessary to study her next day's dialogue. Born in the Island of Tasmania, she spent her girlhood in Bombay and Calcutta where her uncle was stationed as a British Army officer. She visited England when she was seventeen and stayed to realize her acting ambition but she never cared for London's damp winters and tepid summers. She's happiest working in Hollywood where she established her enviable reputation in such films as "Wuthering Heights," "A Song to Remember" and "Lydia.
Michael Rennie (Gen. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte)
From wool manufacturer to stand-in to star marks the rise of this tall, distinguished Englishman. Michael Rennie left his father's woolen mill to tread the boards in itinerant theatricals. After a stint in the R.F.A. during World War II, came the turning point and recognition as a star. He, too, was eventually lured to Hollywood where he appeared in several successful films. Desiree offered him his choicest role yet as the strategist who eventually became King of Sweden and the power to break Napoleon's dream of world conquest.
Swedish stage and radio actress Siw Paulsson traveled 6,000 miles to portray Swedish Princess Sofia Albertina. The willowy, English-speaking blonde had arrived on a Hollywood visit just at the time Henry Koster was casting the film. She made a bid for the role and was signed immediately for important scenes. Cameron Mitchell, then a young star, added to his stature in the Hollywood firmament with his portrayal of Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon. The difficulties of the assignment involved not only acting the part, but looking the part. The studio, a stickler for accuracy of detail, subjected him to many wearying tests to make the husky actor bear a more than slight resemblance to Marlon Brando. Ben Nye, head of the make-up department, experimented with several types and sizes of nose shapes to get the Bonaparte profile but Mitchell's nose, once flattened out by a baseball, wouldn't shape up right. Finally they recalled the nose that the young actor wore in "Pony Soldier" when he had portrayed an Indian chief. It proved perfect for the new "Bonaparte" look.
Rare photos of James Dean on the set
Michael Rennie wears genuine badges of power as the founder of Sweden's present royal line in Desiree. The British-born actor portrays General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte. Rennie, in his role as the French general who becomes King of Sweden, was originally one of Napoleon Bonaparte's best strategists and a personal friend to the "Little Corsican," played by Marlon Brando. When in 1812 King Frederick of Prussia gave Bonaparte five grand crosses of his highest order to distribute, Napoleon awarded the most important one, the Black Eagle, to Bernadotte. It consisted of both a badge and chain bearing the two-headed black eagle. Later, when Bernadotte realized that the ambitions of the Emperor Napoleon were not to the best interests of France, he left his homeland to become a Swedish prince and heir to that country's throne. At that time he was given all the orders of Sweden. These medals were loaned to the studio and include in addition to the chain and badge, the Black Eagle of Prussia, the Order of the Seraphim, the Order of the Sword, the Order of Vasa and the Order of the North Star, which were the four highest ranking orders in Sweden. By wearing the true orders, Rennie had the distinction of being the first in film history to be uniformed with decorations strictly according to regulation instead of wearing a handful of medals without regard to their value or country of origin.
Michael Rennie and Marina Koshetz
As bells ring out the news that a ruler has been crowned, witnesses to the event will be living one of the glorious moments of the 19th century not the 20th, when Napoleon crowns himself Emperor through the wonderful you-are-there medium of CinemaScope. This scene signifies the extent that the film company extended itself to insure the authenticity of an important motion picture property. The first film in Cinemascope, "The Robe," introduced the new concept of widescreen motion picture entertainment; the second launched improvements of better lensing and sound; and Desiree advanced a more immediate feeling of participation through photography. Milton Krasner, director of photography for the production had contributed a new technique in shooting and lighting that created a newsreel effect. According to him, this effect gave audiences a truer feeling of actually being present as the action unfolds, to such a degree that the film's producer Julian Blaustein hoped it wouldn't embarrass the audience to be looking in on some of Brando's love scenes with Jean Simmons and with Merle Oberon. Krasner said on the set, "This medium is very exciting. I can now open the scenes so much more that before, to portray a sense of field and distance that could not be previously achieved. I do intend to try, and will be most happy, to be employed for other Cinemascope productions."
U.S. Cinemascope poster
Those who are acquainted with the novel know that Miss Selinko and screenwriter Daniel Taradash had fashioned the thrilling account of Napoleon's greatest romance from Desiree Clary's diary. More than fifty different sets were needed to follow this love story from the Clary home in Marseilles to the famed palaces of Fountainebleau, Malmaison and the Tuileries. Of these sets, the coronation scene at Notre Dame in Paris required the costliest. For the interiors of Napoleon's beloved Malmaison, the studio went all out for the plush furnishings of the day, and an exact duplicate of the grand salon in the Tuileries was done in gold and white at a cost of $55,000.
This is the oil-on-canvas painting of Marlon Brando as Napoleon. The painting was used for publicity purposes but never made it into many of the posters worldwide. It was 48" x 66". Many paintings were commissioned by the studio to use for publicity, including all those seen on any poster pre-1970.
This set is used for the famous "Waltz Scene" in the film when Napoleon gives a New Year's party for 300 people and 50 couples at a time take to the waltz. Jean Simmons dances with Marlon Brando to the tune of a $20,000 music box which once belonged to Marie Antoinette. The ornate gold device, made in the shape of a bird cage with a golden bird on a perch inside it once graced the Antoinette apartments in the Palace of the Tuileries in Paris. For this occasion it supplied the beat as Jean Simmons in the role of Desiree teaches Brando as Napoleon the "newfangled" waltz step which was sweeping Europe at that time.
Rare photographs of Marilyn Monroe visiting the set
Rene Hubert, French couturier and recognized fashion authority designed the costumes, which for Miss Simmons alone numbered 35, while Dr. Carl Lonyay, historian of the Napoleonic era, supervised the manners exercised by the players. It had been the watchful care of just such fine detailing by Producer Blaustein and Director Koster that together with CinemaScope enabled Desiree to plunge its viewers into its age of opulence, violence and conflict; you are there in the pleasure houses, grand salons and boudoirs where the destiny Of a continent was molded by the dazzling woman behind the man of the age. The job of costuming for the film was quite the task. Hundreds of costumes from the period had to be developed and the studio went into research for six months, talking with historians and visiting museums in the United States and other countries, taking photographs of actual clothing left over from the period, which were few.
"I had quite a challenge when I did the film. Though I thoroughly enjoyed it," was the opinion of Rene Hubert. "I was so busy that I hardly had any time at home. Many night I would stay at the studio until the wee hours of the night working with my team to develop authentic clothing. We also had more costumes to make due to the Cinemascope process. When you have a frame of film as wide as that, you find yourself with more people in the backgrounds, so while Cinemascope was a true advancement in entertainment for audiences, it proved to be a real challenge for all of the departments who had to fill in the sides of the frames. In the end, I think we did a fantastic job with the film, and the sets and costumes really make the era come alive."
Photographs of some of the elaborate costumes made for Desiree. (top row r-l)) Merle Oberon's silver lame gown; one of Napoleon's sister's gown in heavy satin with lace collars; (bottom row r-l) Michael Rennie's military jacket and Jean Simmon's Rose silk dressing gown, worn when Napoleon returns from his defeat in Russia. (left click to enlarge)
Hubert predicted that the late winter and spring fashion silhouette of 1954-1955 would be greatly influenced by the release of Desiree. Noting that during the past few seasons there had been a gradual trend toward the Empire styles of the Napoleonic era, the setting for the film. He said it would not surprise him at all if the trend would advance to the extreme, adapting the "wet style."The "wet style," interpreted to mean lightweight, transparent evening gowns, worn over flesh-colored tights, and dampened so as to cling revealingly to the wearer's curves may be all the rage soon. He believed such a fashion could become a stiff contender for popularity over the threat of the "flat front" styles that were being suggested. Hubert, rated as an expert in the costumes of the post-Revolutionary France when the young and ambitious Napoleon first envisioned his dream of world conquest, said that during that period the people exhibited their new-found freedom in many ways, including manner of dress for the ladies. In a reaction from the cumbersome clothing of the Louis XVI era, they went back to the Greeks for the simple toga-like gowns.
More Desiree costumes, showing Rene Hubert's expertise. Cathleen Nesbitt's chiffon ball gown and Michael Rennie's formal 4-piece uniform with heavy gold braid, cream wool on the trousers burgundy satin wraparound sash. (left click to enlarge)
"But being French," he said to Photoplay Magazine, "they went a step or two further in simplicity and had their togas made of sheer material, often slit up to the knee, and with nothing beneath but pink tights." It seemed the nouveau rich ladies of the time made a contest out of seeing who could wear the least and lightest clothing. When they reached the limit in this direction, some of the fashionable Napoleonic beauties including Desiree Clary, the "little Corsican's" first love, and Josephine, his unhappy Empress, took to soaking down their gowns before slipping into them so as to make them more diaphanous and revealing, referred to as the "wet style"! According to M. Hubert's observation during his time in California to design the Desiree wardrobe for Producer Julian Blaustein, this minor revolution had begun with Hollywood's figure-conscious beauties who had already discovered the secret of Empire styles. "It's a rare month," he pointed out, "when we don't read of some voluptuous starlet 'falling' into a swimming pool during a gala party."
More photographs of the Desiree costumes, developed by Rene Hubert and his team. The most elaborate of the costumes. (l-r) Jean Simmon's satin gown with gold embroidery running down the front; Napoleon's (Brando) cream-satin tunic with crimson velvet and white fur and gold bullion tassels; and Merle Oberon's coronation ensemble with real ivory satin jewels. (left click to enlarge)
Marlon Brando was cornered in 1954 on the set by an avid press. The actor who had become notorious for his T-shirt-and-slacks casualness, had finally been ensnared by a hard, tight, uncomfortable collar.
"If newspaper people would write about me as Napoleon, it would be all right. But about me as Marlon Brando, nobody gives a damn." A Napoleon Brando! Who could resist. Especially when the indestructible actor found himself confronted by seventeen changes of costume—and all but three of the uniforms with the rigid, clamp-like collars of the post-Revolution period in France. In "The Wild One," he wore a motorcyclist's soft, silk scarf. As a longshoreman in "On the Waterfront," the Brando neck was conspicuously free of cravats, and of course, his most famous scene in "A Streetcar Named Desire" found him almost wearing a shirt. The one costume in Desiree which doesn't collar him is the coronation robe which is a satin Roman tunic but for this he needs assistance to move. Thrown casually over this garment is a red velvet robe twenty yards long completely lined and providing a cape collar for it with twenty-five yards of ermine. Brando, who was to swelter under 110-degree heat of thearc lamps in the costume, was the only one who seemed singularly unimpressed by its beauty. His only comment was: "Sure killed a lot of weasels for this."
Some of the final props used in the film, researched for months prior to production. On the left is Empress Josephine's royal bed made of carved wood with silk upholstery. Center top is a gold-plated two-pot inkwell and below it a 14" pillow with gold brocade bead. (left click to enlarge)
Julian Blaustein (Producer) and Henry Koster (Director)
One of Hollywood's younger and more daring film makers, he had, in only a few years, produced a considerable variety of pictures. Some of the more notable included Bret Harte's classic, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"; the Indian poem-legend, "Broken Arrow," and the Marilyn Monroe-Richard Widmark drama, "Don't Bother to Knock." Desiree was his first CinemaScope venture as well as historic romance, but conforms in being a similarly off-beat story. He said, "This film was a tremendous but extensive job for everyone involved. This was the first time we had to create on the Cinemascope screen this era in history. Rome had already been done several times, so we had to obtain all new sets and costumes, and do so much research on the project. For Demetrius and the Gladiators, Fox was able to use many things that were used in The Robe. But here we started anew.
(l-r) Henry Koster and Julian Blaustein
The European director, Henry Koster, made an American debut directing the film "Three Smart Girls" which introduced Deanna Durbin. This initial success sent him on a directing binge of six or so films a year which was responsible for his "reformation." Following Desiree, he planned to direct one, two at the most, a year because of the risk. He argued that if a young director turned out a "flop" it didn't matter. No one knew of him anyway, he would say. It's tough after he becomes established. Once a reputation is made, he constantly has to uphold it. Desiree was his 1954 effort. "I was really challenged by The Robe. We were shooting in a completely new format and everything was new. Shots, angles, you name it. We even had to plan the filming with the soundtrack in mind." Director Henry Koster was an amateur Naopleon scholar, something that Darryl F. Zanuck did not know when he assigned him to the picture.
The period of the Fifties brought notable changes in the world of Hollywood him music. The concept of lush romantic film scores was gradually abandoned and replaced with more contemporary musical approaches. The expressionistic musical treatment became convenient for the new type of realistic dramas produced after World War II and in the Fifties. Dissonant, and even atonal music gradually became acceptable within certain film genres. The new generation of American composers brought more contemporary, as well as popular sounds to the film composition. These new tendencies were already initiated during the Forties in the works of several composers, such as George Anthcil, Miklds Rozsa, Bernard Herrmann and David Raksin. The American folk music was popularized through the film music of Aaron Copland whose contribution to the world of film includes several musical scores: Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), The Red Pony (1949), and The Heiress (1949). Although Copland composed music for only a few films, he showed that a film score does not necessarily have to be an ultimate symphonic piece, and that other musical styles, besides European romanticism, can also be convenient and appropriate for film scoring.
Alex North, Composer
While Copland initiated a different approach toward film composition in the Forties, Alex North continued his efforts in the Fifties. His film scores enriched the contemporary sound of symphonic Americana and showed that the use of dissonant musical language could increase the dramatic impact of music in films. North was one of the few composers whose different style and approach toward film composition were immediately accepted by Hollywood. His score for A Streetcar Named Desire was the first functional, dramatic jazz score ever composed for a film. By that time jazz was used only as source music. North's new approach greatly influenced Hollywood musical trends, indicated the end of the Golden Age era, and marked the beginning of a new wave in the history of film music. His sophisticated use of jazz in film scoring influenced the scores of many other composers.
North's knack for coming up with the most heart wrenching and poignant melodies is on grand display here. Desirée is of strikingly different character than North's other historical epics such as Spartacus, Cleopatra and The Agony and The Ecstasy. This is, by far, the most intimate of them. North's score also features a wonderful waltz by Fox music head, Alfred Newman.
Original lobby cards
Born in Pennsylvania, Alex North's parents were of Russian descent and later he was to attend the Moscow Conservatory for two years of study. Yet his upbringing, his outlook on life and his music were entirely American in nature. On returning to the US he studied with Aaron Copland and in Mexico with Silvestre Revueltas (which experience perhaps germinated certain musical ideas for his later score to "Viva Zapata!" featuring some Mexican dances). With this musical education behind him he spent the war years creating music for documentaries for the Armed Forces while working on his own concert works.
Soon after WWII his first symphony received its first public performance, and Benny Goodman played North's commission "Revue for Clarinet and Orchestra" at a concert attended by Leonard Bernstein. North was no stranger to Jazz but this performance signaled a lasting relationship with this form of expression. North went on to compose much classical and ballet music before carving out a niche for himself as a composer of incidental music for the theater, including Shakespeare and many contemporary plays. One of these was "Death of a Salesman" for Elia Kazan, and that partnership moved together into film when North wrote his first film soundtrack for Kazan's film version of the Tennessee Williams play "A Streetcar Named Desire". Then soon afterwards North was to score the film version of "Death of a Salesman".
The jitterbug fever that swept the country in the early 1950's and 1954's square dancing craze were both small peanuts when compared with the waltz craze that swept the era depicted in Desiree. During that post-Revolutionary period when Bonaparte was planning his empire, there were dozens of fancy dress balls held every night in Paris, the capital of high society and one such at the Tuileries palace is staged in the film. These balls were no nine-to-midnight, pink tea affairs either. The dances usually started at about seven or eight in the evening with children from ten to fifteen years old getting the ball rolling. The kids danced for several hours, while the "old folks" quaffed the bubbly and discussed the latest affairs d'amour. Sometime around midnight the young ones were taken home by governesses and their elders waltzed onto the floor. Every ball ended with a breakfast served to all the guests and no ball was considered a success if it broke up before six or seven in the morning. As part of the score, it was Alfred Newman who composed in waltz style for the film.
Brando on the cover of Bolero Magazine
Grace Kelly arriving at the premiere. Photographs from the film's premiere are rare
After months in post production following a shoot that took place at Cypress Point and Lone Cypress in Pebble Beach, California and others scenes filmed in Monterey, Seventeen Mile Drive and Stage 4 of the Fox studios, The film premiered on November 16, 1954 in San Francisco, and followed on the 17th with a New York premiere. It earned $5 million in rentals. It out-grossed On the Waterfront, today the more popular of the two films. The film has historical significance and was beautifully staged with the Cinemascope cameras. The Blu-ray is available as a limited release of 3,000 copies from Twilight Time.