Film Score: Miklós Rózsa Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Starring: Jennifer Jones, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan and James Mason
Gustave Flaubert’s original 1856 novel is a grim story of a woman who gradually destroys her life because of her own discontentedness. In a way, it’s similar to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina from 1877, or what American author Kate Chopin would do in her turn of the century novel The Awakening. MGM’s version of Madame Bovary sort of splits the difference, keeping the French backdrop but completely Americanizing the tale the way most studio productions would do to European stories. In fact, the sets and costumes are highly exaggerated as a representation of the provincial life of its main characters. But while it may have been unrealistic, it did earn an Academy Award nomination for the team responsible for the production design. In terms of story, most of the set pieces are there, but the true dissipation of the title character’s life is toned down considerably for the screen. The manic quality of Jennifer Jones was also perfect for the title character, and sometimes spilled over in her off screen behavior. While the film was not only a critical but a popular success, earning over two million dollars at the box office, it was unfortunately not enough to offset its production costs, and it ultimately lost money for the studio.
The film opens with the trial of Flaubert, played by James Mason, for the publication of his novel about an adulterous woman. The prosecutor’s biggest complaint is that the heroine isn’t punished at the end of the novel. But the author didn’t need to insult the intelligence of his audience by doing so, when they could see that her own guilt was, as it should be, more than punishment enough. To the crime of forgiveness, Mason pleads guilty. It’s then that he says he wants to tell the court of the whole story, not just the sensationalized portions of the text the prosecutor read aloud. It begins with Van Heflin as a young doctor being called to a farmhouse. There he meets Jennifer Jones, a young girl who dreams of romance and believes that escaping her father’s farm as the wife of a doctor is the first step to achieving it. After securing a house in a small village Heflin asks Jones to marry him, and she immediately says yes, enchanted by the escape from the farm. On their wedding day she is repulsed by the crudity and juvenile behavior of the country people she lives with, and begs Heflin to take her to their home. The next day she sets about transforming the small house into a showplace, the first of her many dreams, not realizing that Heflin makes very little money, the first of her many disappointments. Jones is befriended by the young clerk, Alf Kjellin, and swindled by Frank Allenby, who lets her buy on credit without her husband’s knowledge.
When Paul Cavanagh as a Marquis stops by on his way through town and invites the couple to his estate Jones is ecstatic, that is until Cavanaugh laughs at the rubes she has invited over to her house. Years later, after their daughter is born, they receive an invitation to one of Cavanagh’s balls and Jones insists on attending. It’s there she meets Louis Jourdan, who begins visiting their village regularly and confesses his love for her. Having already escaped having an affair with Kjellin because his mother sent him off to Paris, she tells Heflin that the only way she’ll be able to love him is if he becomes a famous surgeon and operates on a club-footed young boy and wins the Legion of Honor. When he refuses, she takes her life in her own hands and determines to do what she wants despite the consequences. The faces of familiar character actors show up throughout the film. In the village where they live, Gene Lockhart plays the boorish pharmacist who believes he has a lot more refinement than he does, and the Bovary’s nursemaid is Ellen Corby. Harry Morgan puts in an appearance as the club-footed peasant that Heflin refuses to operate on, and George Zucco plays the lawyer that Alf Kjellin eventually works for.
Jennifer Jones does a nice job as the obsessed woman who can never attain the life she wants. The role was originally meant for Lana Turner but she was unable to work at that time and Jones stepped in. Van Heflin does the best he can in a supporting role, but the part gives him little to work with. Director Vincente Minnelli is also solid and the story very well filmed. The lighting in the interiors benefits from the skills of film noir cinematographers, and the moving camera during the ballroom scene is incredible as Jones and Jourdan circle faster and faster around the camera on the dance floor, a scene Minnelli described as one of his most difficult to shoot. The film score by Miklós Rózsa is appropriately sweeping, and at the moment when Jones decides to give herself to Jourdan, he uses a theme that he would rework for the Steve Martin comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid over thirty years later. If there’s a down side it’s the voiceover and the scenes with James Mason, which seem an unnecessary and intrusive framing device. Ironically, this was meant to forestall the same type of outrage about the film that Flaubert’s novel received. Post-war conformity had already settled in and to the censors of the time a film like this seemed like something from the pre-code era. Madame Bovary is certainly a classic film of the studio period, and what it lacks in suspense, it certainly makes up for in glamour. It’s a solid MGM production that is definitely worth checking out.