The Period Eye

Notes on Early Modern Visual Culture

In Search of Marie-Antoinette

Monograph release: Spring 2019

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In Search of Marie-Antoinette in the 1930s: Stefan Zweig, Irving Thalberg, and Norma Shearer is a scholarly monograph published by Palgrave Macmillan that follows Austrian biographer Stefan Zweig, American producer Irving Thalberg, and Canadian-American actress Norma Shearer as they attempt to uncover personal aspects of Marie-Antoinette’s life at the French court in the late eighteenth century and to dramatize them in biography, cinema, and performance for public consumption during the 1930s. The first chapter establishes the core subject as an inquiry into the respective contributions of Zweig, Thalberg, and Shearer in formulating an “objective” or “authentic” image of “Marie-Antoinette.” The three chapters that follow examine in some detail how Zweig pursued research and drafted the psychological biography at his Salzburg home, Thalberg acquired film rights to the best-selling book and fought the censors to preserve the more sensational aspects of the screenplay at the Culver City studio, and Shearer worked closely with a new producer to give the script a strong romantic angle and to perform the character of the queen on the sound stage. The professionals’ research standards and strategic objectives are weighed in the formulation of a new myth at once sensitive to the historical record and suited to the leisure market. The author’s painstaking research makes it clear that all three protagonists strove for historical precision in their characterizations of the eighteenth-century queen and her court, though with different degrees of self-awareness as shapers of a potent twentieth-century myth of “Marie-Antoinette.”

Stefan Zweig, author of the best-selling biography Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman (1932), and Claudine West, contributor to the adapted screenplay Marie Antoinette (1934-1936) (Stefan Zweig Center, Salzburg and Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles).

Table of Contents

Introduction: In Search of Marie-Antoinette: The Inscrutable Life Worth Scrutinizing

Scholarship to Date

  • The Myth of “Marie-Antoinette”
  • “Objectivity” in the Writing of History, “Authenticity” in the Production of Film
  • Zweig, Thalberg and Shearer in Documents and Biographies

Structure and Method of the Argument

Part I: Stefan Zweig’s Clinical Biography, 1930-1932

Western European Approaches to Illustrated Biography in the 1920s

Zweig’s Approach to Psychological Biography

Zweig’s Approach to the French Revolution

Merging Dominant Interpretations of Marie-Antoinette 

Structure of the Argument

Marie-Antoinette’s Psychological Transformation: Cause, Manifestations, and Cure

Marie-Antoinette’s Spiritual Transformation: Awakening, Resistance and Acceptance

Writing Historical Biography as an “Interested” Undertaking

Zweig on Film Adaptations of Historical Biographies

Part II: Irving Thalberg’s Film Production, 1934-1936

European and American Approaches to Historical Film in the 1920s

Thalberg’s Approach to Biographical Film

Thalberg’s Introduction to the Zweig Property

Sorting Rival Interpretations of Marie-Antoinette

In Conference: Establishing Character Motivations, Scenarios, and Continuity

The Two Earliest “Temporary Complete Screenplays”

Indicating Louis’ Phimosis, or How Ineffectual Lovemaking Leads to lackluster Leadership

Indicating the Revolutionaries, or How to Generate Sympathy for Monarchs in Spite of Their Ineffectualness

Producing Biographical Film as an “interested” Undertaking

Thalberg on Playing a Historical Character

Part III: Norma Shearer’s Dramatic Performance, 1937-1938

Euro-American Approaches to Historical Roles in the 1930s

Shearer’s Approach to Historical Characterizations

Shearer’s Recommitment to the Marie-Antoinette Role

The “Final Okayed Screenplay”

Inter-Dependence of Screenplay, Cast, Costumes, and Sets

Before and Behind the Cameras: Shearer’s Acting Technique and Production Oversight

The Two Faces of Marie-Antoinette, or How to Sell Sin and Atonement

To make Marie-Antoinette Live Again: The Art of Rendering Clear and Mixed Passions

Acting a Historical Part as an “Interested” Undertaking

Shearer on Public Response to Her Performance



“Marie-Antoinette” in Myth

“Objectivity” in Biography, “Authenticity” in Film

Time Travel Today


Design by Emma Hardy

Todd Larkin during the writing of In Search of Marie-Antoinette, August 2016


“This is an important book for our library!”

– Eva Alteneder, Stefan Zweig Center Salzburg

“This gets my award for best reception history book of the year! It is simply fabulous!” and “It’s a great piece of research underpinned by a strong idea. It reads as an archaeology of film. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned loads.”

– Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, University of Cardiff

“T. Lawrence Larkin’s In Search of Marie-Antoinette in the 1930s is a game changer. He builds upon his considerable expertise in art history—the representation of the dubious queen in oil painting—as a framework for exploring a particular classical Hollywood biopic, MGM’s Marie-Antoinette (1938). Not only does the book give reason to attend more carefully to the bio-pic in late 1930s Hollywood, it also provides a sterling guide for how to do production studies at its most sophisticated level. Larkin’s attention to literary studies (the author Stefan Zweig), film studies (the producer Irving Thalberg), and performance studies (the actress Norma Shearer) provides a beacon for what the humanities should look like in the twenty-first century, interdisciplinary and brazenly expansive in its scope. The age of academic disciplinary boundaries is coming to an end, and Larkin’s book hammers a significant nail into its coffin.”

– Walter Metz, Southern Illinois University

“Like everything Professor Larkin has written about Marie-Antoinette and her image (how she related to her own image, how she contributed to shaping it, or—like here—how the queen’s image and character have been explored on screen and in literature), this book is excellent reading and very thoroughly researched. I warmly recommend it to those with an interest in the fascinating dialogue historical figures keep having with movie makers and intellectuals turned biographers….Many useless and repetitive books are written about Marie-Antoinette. This original way of exploring how she has fascinated so many—and keeps doing so—will appeal to many. A great book!”

– Jean François Carric, Metamark UK Limited

Norma Shearer as Marie-Antoinette, MGM publicity postcard, ca. 1938.

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