powered by AFI
An onscreen dedication reads: "To Sidney Franklin...for his contribution in the preparation of this production...grateful acknowledgement." According to contemporary news items in trade publications, and information contained in the M-G-M story files at the USC Cinema-Television library, pre-production work on the film began in 1933. At that time, Sidney Franklin was assigned to direct the picture and Claudine West and Ernest Vajda were assigned to the script, which was to be supervised by M-G-M production head Irving Thalberg. News items in late 1933 through 1935 indicate that Norma Shearer, Thalberg's wife, was to take the title role and that Charles Laughton was "signed" to play opposite her as King Louis XVI. In late December 1935, it was announced that Marie Antoinette was to be the first major M-G-M production shot in Europe, and Thalberg was planning to go to Europe in preparation for the film in June 1936. The production was delayed a number of times, and after Thalberg's death in mid-September 1936, it appeared that the film might be shelved. In late August 1937, M-G-M assigned Jacques Tourneur, who later acted as second unit director on the film, to prepare a short documentary film about the last days of Queen Marie Antoinette to generate interest in the main film.
By the time the picture was again back on M-G-M's production schedule in 1937, Charles Laughton was no longer available for the role of Louis XVI and Peter Lorre and Oscar Homolka were both tested for the part. In a modern New York Times interview, actor John Gielgud has said that he, too, was considered for the role. In early December 1937, Lorre was announced as the first choice for the role, but by the time filming began on 30 Dec, English actor Robert Morley had been awarded the part. Marie Antoinette marked Morley's motion picture debut and his last film made in the United States until Take Her-She's Mine in 1963 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70; F6.4853). Maureen O'Sullivan was signed for the role of "Princess de Lambelle," but she had to replace the ill Luise Rainer in the lead of M-G-M's Port of Seven Seas (see below) and was thus prevented from appearing in Marie Antoinette. O'Sullivan was then replaced by Anite Louise, who was borrowed from Warner Bros. for the role. Tyrone Power was borrowed from Twentieth Century-Fox for his role as "Count Axel de Fersen." Early Hollywood Reporter production charts, as well as a studio cast sheet released before the film's completion, list actor Shepperd Strudwick in the role of "Toulan." That role was taken over by Leonard Penn at some point in the film's production. Modern sources add that Herbert Marshall and Robert Taylor were also considered for that role at various times. On or about the first day of filming, Sidney Franklin, who had been with the project from the beginning, was replaced by W. S. Van Dyke II. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Franklin was "ill," but modern sources have indicated that after Thalberg's death, M-G-M's interest in the project waned and studio executives felt that Van Dyke would be a much faster, and thus cheaper, person to direct the project. In 1939 Franklin became an M-G-M producer, a position he held into the 1950s. The only film he worked on as a director after 1938 was The Barretts of Wimpole Street, a 1957 remake of his 1934 film of the same name.
During principal photography on Marie Antoinette, portions of the film were shot on location at the recently completed Hollywood Park Racetrack in Inglewood, CA. The racetrack's facade was decorated to stand-in for the exterior of the Palace at Versailles. A press release, contained in the AMPAS Library file on the film, from Robert M. W. Vogel of M-G-M's foreign department states, "The French government has authorized the Palace of Versailles to be photographed for the first time as a background in a motion picture." The backgrounds were edited into the racetrack footage in the completed film. In mid-March 1938, filming was halted on the production for two weeks to edit completed scenes and to decorate sets for scenes that needed to be added. During that time, Van Dyke went on a location scouting trip to British Columbia for Northwest Passage (see below). Marie Antoinette subsequently went back into production for an additional two months. An article in Life magazine in July 1938, just after the film's Los Angeles premiere, noted that it cost "only" $1,000,000 to make due to Van Dyke's ecomony. The article also noted, among other things, that M-G-M's recreation of the ballroom at Versailles was actually twice as large as the original.
Screen Achievements Bulletin records indicate that writers Ernest Vajda and Donald Ogden Stewart protested against not being given screenwriting credit in the film's tentative credits submitted to AMPAS on April 5, 1938. Vajda and Stewart are, however, included in the onscreen credits of the released film, along with Claudine West, whose name appeared first. According to news items, the film's lavish premiere was held at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles. The event was broadcast on the radio, hosted by masters-of-ceremonies Pete Smith, Don Wilson, Frank Whitbeck, Carey Wilson, Robert Young and Freddie Bartholomew. For its New York opening, M-G-M press representative Howard Dietz arranged for a $100,000 "museum" quality exhibition at New York's Astor Theatre to publicize the picture. Marie Antoinette marked actor John Barrymore's final film for M-G-M after being under contract to that studio throughout the 1930s. Shearer and Morley were both nominated for Academy Awards for their roles in the film. The picture also received nominations in the Art Direction and Music (Scoring) categories.