For Reel

Conquest (1937)
January 16, 2012, 11:04 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Clarence Brown

Charles Boyer received his first of four Oscar nominations playing Napoleon Bonaparte opposite Greta Garbo in 1937’s Conquest. Although remembered as one of the great lovers of 1930s and 40s Hollywood cinema, his Napoleon is an often despicable, selfish womanizer, and with a gut and thinning hair he doesn’t look nearly as dashing as a typical Garbo co-star. The opening moments of the picture are splendid – in 17th century Poland, a Count’s mansion is raided by Cossacks, who trample through the furnishings on horseback. To combat the Russian threat, Poland’s leaders plot to prostitute Garbo out to Napoleon in exchange for his military aid. These sexual manipulations contribute to some entertaining sequences of political intrigue early on, but it is not long before the romance becomes consensual and the sentiment by-the-numbers. Boyer’s Napoleon is lacking on the page – after making the transition to romantic, he doesn’t ever recover – whereas Garbo must serve as the heart of the picture and she successfully grounds Boyer’s Napoleon in some level of reality. Neither can completely salvage the blandness of the script (even as it does give us such memorable lines as, “I have signed many treaties… but this is the first time I am at peace!”), though it can not be blamed on a lack of effort. The picture was a big money-loser for MGM and it was the beginning of the end of Garbo’s career, but it remains of some interest for the purposes of appreciating two very dynamic performers in roles that were atypical for them – he, unglamorous; she, largely a political pawn.

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