The debt modern screen acting owes to Marlon Brando is legendary. Brando's Oscar-winning performance in 1954's On the Waterfront provides clear evidence of the fresh "Method" realism Brando embodied, of a piece with Elia Kazan's street-level directorial realism. But in some ways, it's easier to see Brando's startling impact in the relief of an "Old Hollywood" style picture like Desirée, also released in 1954. Henry Koster's starchy costume drama gets a much-needed jolt of electricity from Brando's take on Napoleon, a character whose greatness likewise sets him apart from the ordinary and unambitious who surround him.
Were it not for Brando, Desirée would epitomize the handsomely mounted but dull CinemaScope epic that was Hollywood's artistically lackluster answer to the rise of television. Desirée's textureless quality ranges from its use of one-time fiancee Désirée Clary as a reductive lens through which to view Napoleon's rise and fall, to the blandly pretty costumes of René Hubert and Charles Le Maire. The always likeable Jean Simmons makes Désirée lively if naive, but the early implication of her free-spiritedness quickly decomposes into her vaguely disatisfied, spoiled-little-rich-girl life as the husband of Michael Rennie's General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (the ramrod-straight Rennie offers the photo-negative of Brando's darkly shaded spontaneity).
Adapted by Daniel Taradash from Annemarie Selinko's novel, the film begins with Desirée's 1794 meeting of Joseph Bonaparte (Cameron Mitchell) and his brother Napoleon in her home town of Marseilles. After a bit of manly wooing, Napoleon proposes marriage—though it's more like a statement of fact than an offer—then turns around and takes up with Joséphine de Beauharnais (Merle Oberon). Seeing his opening, Bernadotte insinuates himself with Desirée and proposes marriage, but it's hard to forget about one's first love when he's y'know, First Consul of the French Republic or, worse, Emperor.
Cross with Bernadotte's claiming of Desirée, the Emperor attempts to exert his power over the general, who boldly maintains his independence as he accepts an offer to become next in line to the kingship of Sweden. Suddenly a princess (and queen in waiting), Desirée finds herself ill at ease in Stockholm's royal palace, but even more disturbed to be held hostage by Napoleon when she returns to Paris. Napoleon's dormant feelings once more become apparent in his cruel division of Desirée and her family, now including young son Oscar (Nicolas Koster, the director's son).
The cast also includes some familiar character actors soon to be yet more recognizable from prominent television roles (John Hoyt, Alan Napier, Carolyn Jones), but the show belongs to the love quadrangle. Though stiff, Rennie gives Bernadotte a certain warmth, and with her calculatedly worrying placidity, Oberon proves ideal to play Josephine, a woman destined to be prized and then cast aside, and Simmons traces and exploits as best as she can Desirée's mixed feelings. Still, it is Brando's brooding and smoldering that hold sway over the film (with an assist from a surprisingly effective putty nose designed by famed makeup artist Ben Nye).
Desirée shows the occasional glimmer of wit (Napoleon: "Believe me, only in marriage can a woman find the real meaning in life." Desirée: "I should like to throw these candlesticks at you") and a notably romantic Alex North score, but not a whit of action, unless you count a ball or two. Especially in the shadow of Abel Gance, and Cinemascope notwithstanding, Desirée's take on Napoleon seems unambitious as it stumbles its way through history. This story framed as a historical account of the only woman to stand up to Napoleon doesn't quite conquer our interest, though it is itself an intriguing piece of Hollywood history due to the presence of Brando in an iconic role.