Madame Bovary (1949) (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Feb 20, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Madame Bovary (1949) (Blu-ray Review)


Vincente Minnelli

Release Date(s)

1949 (December 12, 2023)


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Warner Archive Collection)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: B-

Madame Bovary (1949) (Blu-ray)

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Gustave Flaubert scandalized France with his novel Madame Bovary, published in serialized form in 1856, and the author was put on trial for obscenity. Published the following year in book form, this work of literary realism is today regarded as Flaubert’s masterpiece. The MGM film is one of many film adaptations based on the colorful life of its title character.

The opening sequence is in a courtroom scene with Flaubert (James Mason, A Star Is Born) on trial and the prosecutor decrying the novel as a sordid, depraved glorification of a woman of low morals. Taking the stand to answer the charges and defend his novel, Flaubert becomes the narrator of the story of Emma Bovary (Jennifer Jones, Duel in the Sun), from her days as a twenty-year-old farmer’s daughter, when Dr. Charles Bovary (Van Heflin, Shane) comes to their home to tend to her ailing father. Seeing an opportunity to escape her dull rural life, Emma dons her fanciest dress to enhance her natural beauty and prepares a meal for the doctor in the hope of charming him. The strategy works and he’s immediately smitten.

Emma longs for beauty. Her time attending a convent school, with its austerity and rigorous discipline, has taught her to escape in dreams inspired by the romantic novels the girls smuggle in. She’s thrilled when Charles proposes, and pledges to make him a beautiful home. All goes reasonably well for a while and they have a daughter, but Emma soon is overcome by revulsion for their small provincial town and the vulgarity of its people and hopeless about any prospect for improvement.

Charles views himself as an average doctor and lacks ambition. Emma wishes he could be famous and rich. Her private demons make life unendurable. She longs for more. An opportunity arises when a wealthy nobleman seeks medical treatment for his servant. From then on, Emma engages in clandestine relationships with men who provide romance, excitement, social connections, and status.

Director Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis) is fascinated with Emma’s self-destructive drive, her vanity, her idea of love, and her passion for social status. She was well before her time in wishing to be independent and free of social limitations but she’s also a neglectful wife and mother, and the combination makes her an unsympathetic yet intriguing character. Minnelli took care to give the film a lush look, especially in an elaborate ball sequence when the camera swirls around with the dancers as Emma is literally swept up into a world of splendor. Beautifully gowned women, men in formal dress, glittering chandeliers, glowing candelabras, and glorious music create a fairy-tale world with Emma its centerpiece.

Jennifer Jones is good as the title character but her performance lacks variety and depth. Her Emma is mostly on the same note—wide-eyed infatuation with how various men can further her pursuit of her dreams. We never see her devious machinations in her face or body language. Jones conveys a likable personality, so she’s often working against type.

Heflin conveys decency and loyalty. His Charles recognizes his limitations and is content to be husband and father with a practice in a small town. There’s also great dignity in how he reacts to Emma’s behavior; he’s not vengeful or mean-spirited. His gentility and contentment contrast with her restlessness. In terms of strength, he’s no match for the free-spirited Emma and often seems unable to cope with her drive for betterment. He never realizes she has outgrown him and what he can offer her.

Louis Jourdan (Gigi) plays Rudolph Boulanger, a dashing womanizer who’s happy to enjoy Emma’s companionship but perhaps has a greater moral center than she. He represents what Emma longs for—adventure and new experiences. Boulanger appears in two major episodes of her life, once when they’re about to flee to Italy and later, when Emma is burdened with debt and turns to him for financial assistance. Their chemistry together is strong, with Jourdan’s continental charm translating to Boulanger.

The quality supporting cast includes Gene Lockhart, Ellen Corby, Frank Allenby, Alf Kjellin, Gladys Cooper, Harry Morgan, John Abbott, George Zucco, Eduard Franz, and Paul Cavanagh.

Madame Bovary is the kind of literary classic that MGM specialized in during the 1930s and 1940s. The studio lavished its considerable resources on dazzling production value in bringing famous novels to the screen. The screenplay by Robert Audrey, based on Flaubert’s novel, moves briskly and tells an epic story in under two hours, a feat that is vanishingly rare these days. The novel was a favorite of director Minnelli, who obviously lavished great care on this adaptation. Shot entirely on sound stages and the back lot, the picture captures the look of nineteenth-century France reasonably well. The film is melodrama in the grand tradition.

Director of photography Robert H. Planck shot Madame Bovary on 35 mm black & white film with spherical lenses and it was presented in the Academy aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The transfer looks great, with details in Emma Bovary’s gowns nicely delineated. The art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith is rich and luxurious in scenes that take place in the homes of wealthy individuals, typical of the MGM style of the period. There are no perceptible imperfections such as dirt specks or scratches to impair viewing.

The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Sound mixing is excellent, with dialogue, ambient crowd noise and music blending effectively, particularly in the ballroom scene. Sound effects include horses’ hooves on cobblestones, a clattering coach, windows being smashed, a child crying, and boisterous, drunken guests at Emma and Charles Bovary’s marriage celebration. Miklos Rozsa’s score is grand and exciting, adding sweeping glamour to the ballroom scene.

Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release from Warner Archive include the following:

  • Some of the Best (42:18)
  • Love That Pup (7:37)
  • Theatrical Trailer (3:07)

Some of the Best – Released in 1949 as part of MGM’s 25th anniversary celebration, this short features highlights of the studio’s productions from 1924 through 1949. Lionel Barrymore narrates as scenes from The Merry Widow, Flesh and the Devil, Tell It to the Marines, Min and Bill, Trader Horn, Mutiny on the Bounty, San Francisco, The Wizard of Oz, The Good Earth, The Philadelphia Story, Madame Bovary and others are shown. Barrymore speaks about upcoming productions, including On the Town, Battleground, Quo Vadis, and Annie Get Your Gun. The film ends with views of the studio birthday party featuring its stars seated at long tables.

Love That Pup – In this 1949 Tom & Jerry cartoon directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Spike the bulldog threatens Tom the cat to keep away from his puppy, Tyke. Jerry the mouse realizes that sticking close to the puppy is the best way to keep away from his feline tormentor. But Tom, intent on luring Jerry, tries other methods to prevent the mouse from evading him.

Costume pictures were a specialty of MGM, and Madame Bovary certainly lives up to the studio’s reputation. With the Production Code still in full force, the script had to deftly deal with the novel’s more graphic content, but the film captures the essence of Flaubert, casting likable Jennifer Jones in order to soften her character’s scandalous behavior.

- Dennis Seuling