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Release Date: December 12th, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1949

Madame Bovary (1949) - Warner Archive Collection

Overview -

Literary films can be stuffy, but just like the servants who break the ballroom windows in the movie's most memorable scene, director Vincente Minnelli lets plenty of air into his sumptuous adaptation of Gustav Flaubert's timeless novel Madame Bovary. Elegance abounds in this captivating drama that's played to perfection by Jennifer Jones, Van Heflin, Louis Jourdan, and James Mason. A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements, robust audio, and a couple of vintage supplements cap off this wonderful Warner Archive Blu-ray release. Highly Recommended.

 Lonely Emma Bovary longs for romance, glamour, possessions. Wed to a country doctor she instead gets routine, motherhood and penny-pinching. So when she catches the eye of a handsome aristocrat, Emma risks all to reach for what she thinks will be happiness. Jennifer Jones stars in this lush adaptation of Gustave Flaubert's famous novel that scandalized 19th century France. The film's capstone is the stunning ballroom scene, contrasting Emma's social success with her husband's failure, culminating in his drunken arrival on the dance floor. In this famed sequence (highlighted by the unforgettable music of Miklos Rozsa), masterful director Vincente Minnelli skillfully combines dissolves, cross-cuts, pans, long takes- a library of techniques into a seamless triumph of head-spinning gaiety, heart-breaking despair, and moviemaking artistry.

Special Features and Technical Specs:

  • NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM FROM PRESERVATION ELEMENTS (2023)
  • M-G-M 25th anniversary retrospective film SOME OF THE BEST (1949)
  • Classic TOM & JERRY cartoon LOVE THAT PUP
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM FROM PRESERVATION ELEMENTS (2023)
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Length:
114
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Audio Formats:
English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Subtitles/Captions:
Optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature
Special Features:
Theatrical Trailer
Release Date:
December 12th, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

Adapting controversial literary works for the screen is challenging in any era, but arguably never more so than during Hollywood's Golden Age. To get their scripts past the censors, writers routinely gutted acclaimed and beloved novels, watering down or altering "objectionable" material and forcing retribution on characters who crossed moral red lines. Gustav Flaubert's classic novel Madame Bovary landed its author in hot water way back in 1857 - he was tried and acquitted on obscenity charges shortly after the novel's publication - so you can only imagine the hand-wringing that occurred during its film adaptation almost a century later.

The story of a provincial Frenchwoman who pines for a more affluent, cosmopolitan, and romantic life than the one her amiable country-doctor husband can give her posed plenty of problems for director Vincente Minnelli and screenwriter Robert Ardrey, the most pressing of which was the heroine's complete lack of conscience and utter self-absorption as she brazenly satisfies her desires. Hardly a likable character, Emma Bovary (Jennifer Jones) indulges her every material whim, engages in infidelity with reckless abandon, and often treats her cuckolded husband Charles (Van Heflin) like a second-class citizen.

Such rash and improper behavior raised the ire of Hollywood's censors, but Ardrey cleverly outsmarted the prudish gatekeepers of cinematic good taste. The man who had just adapted Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers the previous year (and would earn his sole Oscar nomination 17 years later for Khartoum) bookends Flaubert's chronicle of Emma's tawdry tribulations with the author's own real-life trial. In a highly effective and persuasive prologue, Flaubert (James Mason) passionately defends Emma by strikingly classifying her as an everywoman shaped by an imperfect world. "I have shown you the vicious...so we can preserve the virtuous," he says. And that simple yet potent argument just might have been enough to give Ardrey the leeway he needed to craft a faithful, surprisingly frank adaptation. Combined with Minnelli's fluid direction and superior performances by a fine cast, this Madame Bovary strikes all the right notes and stands the test of time.

For some reason, Madame Bovary doesn't rank among Minnelli's most celebrated works. Even if you exclude his signature musicals like Meet Me in St. LouisAn American in Paris, and GigiMadame Bovary never gets mentioned in the same breath with such notable Minnelli dramas as The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life. That's a shame, because 75 years after its premiere it remains a riveting, affecting, and relevant film. And considering how little experience Minnelli had with straight dramatic vehicles up to that time (prior to Madame Bovary, his two non-musical pictures were The Clock, a tender wartime romance with Judy Garland and Robert Walker, and Undercurrent, a slow-burn thriller with Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor), what he is able to accomplish with Madame Bovary is nothing short of astonishing.

"Is it a crime to want things to be beautiful?" Emma asks. The answer is no, but her obsession with opulence that began with fairy-tale girlhood dreams leads her into several misguided liaisons as an adult. Local merchant Lheureux (Frank Allenby) encourages her extravagant spending and quietly allows Emma to rack up astronomical debts, while aristocratic playboy Rodolphe Boulanger (Louis Jourdan) whisks Emma off her feet during a waltz and into an illicit affair. The ever-smitten Leon Dupuis (Christopher Kent), a clerk with upwardly mobile aspirations, also turns Madame Bovary's head. Anyone or anything that can rescue her from her asphyxiating existence as a small-town wife and mother grabs Emma's attention and she goes after it with the ferocity of a drowning woman grasping for a lifeline. Her patient, adoring, and hopelessly naïve husband doesn't understand her and never takes the time to try...a common frailty among men of his era, but unforgivable nonetheless.

Emma smashes the myth that the only things women want are marriage and family and they should be satisfied with and grateful for whatever a man gives them. She was ahead of her time in 1856 and she's an enduring literary figure today. Her impulsivity and deceptions may not make her a role model, but her refusal to compromise and play by society's antiquated rules elevate her to trailblazer status. When Rodolphe admits he's "scared" of Emma, he speaks for all men who fear strong, resolute women who know what they want and aren't afraid to pursue it.

I thought Madame Bovary would be stuffy, pretentious, overly precious, and achingly slow. Boy, was I wrong! Not only did the film captivate me with its elegance, literacy, fine performances, and surprisingly contemporary feel, Emma fascinated me, too. I kept rewatching portions of Madame Bovary to try to learn what made her tick and examine more intently how the men in her life responded and reacted to her. I also wanted to more fully absorb the style of Minnelli, who brings his musical sensibilities to this period drama, infusing it with a lyricism that evokes grand opera.

That lyricism is most evident during the movie's most famous and rapturous scene, a bona fide Minnelli tour de force that in its own way ranks right up there with the ballet in An American in Paris. The pivotal ballroom sequence not only symbolizes Emma's liberation, it also stands as a testament to Minnelli's artistry, technical prowess, and uncanny ability to capture and transmit myriad emotions through music and visuals. When Rodolphe grabs Emma's hand and drags her onto the dance floor despite her assertion that "I don't waltz," both she and we embark on a dizzying experience that leaves both of us breathless. The swirling, sweeping camera with its 360-degree pans and subjective perspective combined with Miklós Rósza's crescendoing score allows us to feel what Emma feels and immerses us in the grandeur and romance of the moment. Minnelli also brilliantly contrasts her exhilaration with her neglected husband's increasing inebriation. While she floats on air, he drunkenly stumbles down a flight of stairs and topples a tray of glassware as he tries to catch her averted gaze. This is Minnelli at his mesmerizing best. Watch the clip below:

Thank goodness Lana Turner turned down the part of Emma and producer David O. Selznick agreed to loan Jones to MGM. Though Minnelli had to endure Selznick's serial meddling during production, Jones produced some of her best work as the mercurial, restless, and selfish Emma. There are those who find Jones insipid, affected, and self-conscious on screen, but I've always respected her talent, and rarely more so than here. She beautifully captures Emma's longing for an exciting life and fascination with fine things while subtly conveying her frustrations, neuroses, and Scarlett O'Hara-like wiliness. Jones has a lot to carry on her slight shoulders, but instead of buckling under the weight, she stands tall and does this complex character proud.

The film may be called Madame Bovary, but as compelling as Emma is, she's hardly the whole show. The always underrated Heflin embodies the often flummoxed, oblivious, and hapless Charles, engendering pity one minute and deep disappointment and dismay the next. Without his intuitive performance, we wouldn't empathize with Emma nearly as much, nor rue the callous way she treats him. Charles doesn't drive Emma to her doom, he just unwittingly gives her enough rope to hang herself, and Heflin deftly projects his helplessness. Though Jones and the dashing Jourdan create palpable sexual chemistry, she and Heflin click in a more delicate, but equally effective manner that serves the film well.

Jourdan infuses Rodolphe with the same air of elegance and privilege he would bring to Gigi's Gaston a decade later, while a brooding Mason uses his distinctive, mellifluous voice to supreme advantage in both his on-screen scenes and voice-over narration. Allenby plays the scoundrel Lhereux with thinly veiled diabolical glee, Gene Lockhart supplies some comic relief as the town apothecary, and the always superb Gladys Cooper makes the most of her brief cameo as Leon's domineering mother. Classic TV fans will also spot The Waltons' Ellen Corby as the Bovary maid and nanny and M*A*S*H's Harry Morgan (billed here as Henry) as a disabled man who reluctantly consents to a risky operation that Emma pressures Charles into performing.

With Oscar-nominated art direction and set decoration by the legendary Cedric Gibbons, lush black-and-white cinematography by Robert H. Planck, Rósza's rousing and romantic score, and the always impeccable taste and eye for detail that distinguishes its director, Madame Bovary is a Minnelli masterwork that deserves more respect and reverence than it gets. As he always did throughout his lengthy career, Minnelli proves it's not a crime to want things to be beautiful, but he complements the film's style with substance and emotion. You may not like Emma Bovary, but Minnelli makes sure we won't forget her.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 1949 edition of Madame Bovary arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements yields a gloriously rich 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that maximizes the beauty of Cedric Gibbons' Oscar-nominated art direction and set decoration and faithfully honors the sumptuous cinematography of four-time Oscar nominee Robert H. Planck. Minnelli films may not always hit the mark, but almost all of them are beautiful to behold, and even though he had to cut some corners when mounting Madame Bovary, the movie still exudes a sumptuous feel. Lush, inky blacks, bright, stable whites, and gorgeously graded grays combine with excellent clarity and contrast to produce a stunning film-like image that keeps the natural grain structure intact. Costume textures and the details of wallpaper, upholstery, and bric-a-brac are distinct, shadow delineation is quite good, and razor-sharp close-ups highlight Jones' plump cheeks, Heflin's bushy hair, and various facial follicles and blemishes. No nicks, marks, or scratches mar the pristine print or distract from the absorbing on-screen drama. I don't have the 2007 DVD to make comparisons, but it's impossible to imagine any other home video rendering eclipsing this superlative effort from Warner Archive.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies robust sound that first and foremost showcases Miklós Rózsa's bravura score. A wide dynamic scale embraces the sweeping highs and weighty lows of the romantic and melodramatic music without any distortion, while superior fidelity and tonal depth help the score fill the room with ease. Sonic accents like horse hooves and shattering glass are crisp and atmospherics like rain nicely shade the action. All the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle disrupt the purity of this impressive mix. Madame Bovary is a sight to behold, but it's also music to the ears.

Special Features

Ranking:

Warner Archive replaces the vintage short and cartoon on the DVD with a different cartoon and a lengthy vintage salute to MGM that was produced to celebrate the studio's 25th anniversary in 1949.

  • Vintage Film: Some of the Best: Twenty-Five Years of Motion Picture Leadership (HD, 42 minutes) - Actor Lionel Barrymore hosts this affectionate and entertaining look back at the first quarter century of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which the studio produced to celebrate its silver anniversary. The film spotlights one movie from each year of MGM's history, beginning in 1924 with The Big Parade and continuing with such classics as the original Ben-HurThe Broadway MelodyGrand HotelDinner at EightMutiny on the BountySan FranciscoThe Good EarthBoys TownThe Wizard of OzThe Philadelphia StoryMrs. MiniverNational VelvetMeet Me in St. Louis, and Easter Parade. The film also promos a number of upcoming 1949 MGM movies like Border IncidentThe Red DanubeEdward My SonThe Secret GardenIntruder in the Dust, Little WomenTake Me Out to the Ball GameIn the Good Old Summertime, Neptune's Daughter, and of course Madame Bovary, and ends with star-studded footage from MGM's lavish 25th anniversary luncheon.

  • Vintage Cartoon: Love That Pup (HD, 8 minutes) - Tom and Jerry star in this rollicking 1949 Hanna-Barbera cartoon that chronicles Tom's entanglement with a menacing bulldog while he tries to capture the pesky and ever elusive Jerry.

  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview hypes Madame Bovary as "the most talked-about drama of today!"

Final Thoughts

The 1949 version of Madame Bovary rarely gets the respect it deserves, but Warner Archive's superior Blu-ray presentation just might change that. Minnelli's elegant direction, top-notch performances from Jones, Heflin, Jourdan, and Mason, Oscar-nominated art direction and set decoration, lush cinematography, and a glorious musical score all combine to create a captivating film experience that properly fetes Flaubert's classic novel, but it's the brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements and remastered audio that allow us to look at and listen to the movie with fresh eyes and ears. A couple of vintage supplements add to the appeal of this high-quality release. Highly Recommended

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