CONQUEST does the job as a historical romance (with the expected sad wrapup), this time a lavish 1937 MGM version of the destiny-determined love affair between Napoleon Bonaparte and a Polish countess. Greta Garbo’s last dramatic performance matches her with Charles Boyer, in grand form, earning his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor. The classy art direction was also up for a statue, the work of Cedric Gibbons and William A. Horning. Clarence Brown directed (his 7th time working with Garbo) the adaptation of “Pani Walewska”, Polish author Waclaw Gasiorowski’s 768-page novel about the affair.
1807. During his campaign against Prussia, Napoleon (Boyer) has a brief but telling encounter with admirer Marie Walewska (Garbo), a young countess. When they meet formally later, he becomes determined to seduce her, not bothered she’s married (to someone fifty years her senior). Polish noblemen convince Marie to divorce her husband and succumb to Bonaparte’s desires, to better Poland’s security with Russia chafing at the door. Marie becomes more than a mistress: she and the adored but lonely Emperor fall in love. But the Empire and its politics rule Napoleon, at great personal cost: not all casualties occur on battlefields. *
Though it made money, Conquest didn’t earn nearly enough to cover the production tab that, over a shoot that ran on for 127 days, rose to a whopping $2,732,000. Garbo’s salary alone accounted for $500,000 (equivalent to 10m in 2022) and reshoots pushed Boyer’s pay from $125,000 to $450,000. Seventeen writers toiled on the script; those credited were S.N. Behrman, Samuel Hoffenstein and Salka Viertel. **
Other than a striking opener with rampaging Cossacks barging into a country estate, and a brief, impressive scene of the miserable 1812 retreat from Russia, the story contains no other action. Things stay plush but mostly intimate; the focus is on the give & take relationship rather than the politics and warfare that force their choices and consume their chances. There’s a good deal of humor (Boyer’s verbal duel with a dotty elder relative of Marie’s, played to the hilt by Maria Ouspensakaya, is delightful) and thanks to the subtle emotional expressiveness of the two charismatic stars, some affecting drama. Garbo’s good, only occasionally undone by some of the less-optimal dialogue; Boyer is marvelous, shading the complex ruler with more energy, depth and dignity than most interpretations of that mercurial military titan.
Other assorted notable aristocratic personages and the odd fictional commoner are well represented by Reginald Owen (scheming Talleyrand), Alan Marshal (Captain d’Ornano, later to wed Marie, though not in the script), Henry Stephenson (the jettisoned elder husband), Leif Erickson (Marie’s exuberant brother, one of the few times this ever-dour actor was allowed to be zesty), Dame May Whitty (Bonaparte’s mother), C. Henry Gordon, George Zucco, Vladimir Sokoloff, Stanley Andrews, Paul Fix and Dennis O’Keefe. 112 minutes.
* Marie Waleska only lived to be 31, dying in 1817, four years before Napoleon Bonaparte left the world stage at 51.
** The European release was known as Marie Walewska. The American Conquest was chosen after mulling over A World Is Born, Flame of the Century, Symphony Without Music and The Woman Before Waterloo. Given those, Conquest seems a good pick. As for the public payoff, though Cogerson gives it a gross of $2,900,000, other sources point to $2,141,000, with $730,000 in the States, $1,411,000 abroad, resulting in a loss to the studio of $1,397,000. That financial Waterloo no doubt gave MGM’s all-powerful emperor, Louis B. Mayer, his version of a coronary; it is often reported that Conquest lost more money for the studio than any movie they made between 1920 and 1949.