Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons in Désirée (1954)


(director: Henry Koster; screenwriters: Daniel Taradash/from the novel by Annemarie Selinko; cinematographer: Milton Krasner; editor: William Reynolds; music: Alex North; cast: Marlon Brando (Napoleon Bonaparte), Jean Simmons (Désirée Clary Bernadotte), Merle Oberon (Josephine de Beauharnais), Cameron Mitchell (Joseph Bonaparte), Michael Rennie (Jean Baptiste Bernadotte), John Hoyt (Talleyrand), Richard Deacon (Etienne Clary), Elizabeth Sellars (Julie Clary), Alan Napier (Despreaux), Carolyn Jones (Mme. Tallien); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Julian Blaustein; 20th Century-Fox; 1954)

“A dull costume romantic/drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Lightweight director Henry Koster (“Three Smart Girls”/”My Cousin Rachel”/”The Robe”), a Napoleon history buff, makes the well-researched but fictionalized rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte (Marlon Brando) biopic into an inaccurate dull costume romantic/drama, whose best virtues are its lush photography (though not shot on location, but in various California spots such as Pebble Beach) and its detailed accurate period costumes. Star Marlon Brando was forced by 20th Century-Fox to make a pic he didn’t want to make, as he owed studio head Zanuck after walking out on The Egyptian. Perhaps as resentment, the great Brando gives an uninspiring performance by sleepwalking through his part. It’s based on the bestselling novel by Annemarie Selinko and the inconsequential screenplay is written by Daniel Taradash.

It opens in 1794, in Marseille, where the arrogant, coarse and poor Corsican revolutionary Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte and his brother Joseph (Cameron Mitchell) get an invite by the youngest daughter Désirée (Jean Simmons) to visit her wealthy silk merchant family’s house, overseen by her older brother Etienne (Richard Deacon). Joseph marries older sister Julie (Elizabeth Sellar) and gets taken into the silk business, while Etienne refuses to bless Napoleon’s marriage proposal to Desiree. Soon after Napoleon is cleared of treason charges, he treks to Paris vowing to come back for Desiree but never returns. When the naive beauty Desiree treks to Paris to ask her man what’s up, she discovers he’s engaged to the wealthy and well-connected Josephine (Merle Oberon). When Napoleon marries his Josephine, he schemes his way into becoming emperor and rules in an imperious way. This leads the way for Desiree to marry General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (Michael Rennie), who comforted her while she was in Paris. By a strange quirk of fate, Bernadotte becomes the King of Norway and Sweden. When Desiree, as queen, again meets Napoleon, the emperor disgusts her by his blood-lust for power and she no longer loves him.

It’s a hollow historical pic with an uninteresting drama, it also lacks passion and the acting is ever so wooden. It plays like the soap opera As The World Turns. If looking for a glorious cinema moment, there’s the splendid coronation scene.