Classic literature, Hollywood style

Literary Classics Collection

MGM was the go-to house for high-gloss, quasi-classy entertainment in Hollywood’s golden age. Now the studio has collected six of its lesser-known adaptations (or defilements) of Western literature into a six-film box set called the Literary Classics Collection.

As with many DVD box sets, it’s a hit-and-miss affair, as solid films are bundled together with works of dubious worth. The set includes two versions of The Prisoner of Zenda, as well as Captain Horatio Hornblower, Billy Budd, and Gene Kelly’s backflipping D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers, but the standout is Vincente Minnelli’s 1949 adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, starring Jennifer Jones.

The film begins slowly and is weighed down initially by an awkward framing device that features James Mason as Flaubert defending his novel in court against morals charges. Ironically, the movie was also a target of the censors, and the truncated opening scenes and watered-down sexuality reflect this.

About a half hour into Madame Bovary, the film suddenly springs to life with a bravura 10-minute ballroom sequence that provides the perfect showcase for Minnelli’s visual craftsmanship, the MGM studio’s knack for lavish pageantry and the ferocious beauty of Jones.

Minnelli keeps things rolling from there, and the last half of the movie becomes a dizzying series of lies, infidelities and tragic betrayals. A good supporting cast abets Jones’ convincing turn in the title role: Van Heflin has a few great scenes as Charles Bovary, the simple country doctor who can’t possibly satisfy his wife’s romantic cravings, and Louis Jourdan plays the debauched rake who breaks her heart.

Madame Bovary isn’t a great Minnelli film like The Bad and the Beautiful or Some Came Running, but it’s a beautifully mounted Hollywood literary adaptation and a clear indication of Minnelli’s range.