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Madame Sans-Gêne

Gloria Swanson as Madame Sans-Gêne.
Release Year: 1924
Country: United States
Director: Léonce Perret
Writers: Forrest Halsey, based on the play by Émile Moreau and Victorien Sardou
Cast: Gloria Swanson, Émile Drain, Charles de Roche, Madeleine Guitty, Warwick Ward, Henry Favieres, Arlette Marchal, Renée Héribel, Suzanne Bianchetti, Denise Lorys, Jacques Marney, Jean Lorette
Sound Mix: Silent
Music: Hugo Riesenfeld
Company: Famous Players-Lasky Corporation
Runtime: 100 minutes


tory: From the synopsis included in the original souvenir packet: Catherine Hubscher [Gloria Swanson], known for her sharp and witty tongue as Madame Sans Gene (Madame Devil-May-Care), runs a laundry in Paris. One of her customers is Napoleon Bonaparte [Jean Lorette], then a shabby lieutenant, too poor to pay his laundry bills. Sans Gene likes him and steals laundry from her richer customers for him, though he is too full of soaring ambitions to respond to her attempts to flirt with him.

The French Revolution breaks out, and Sans Gene leads her laundry workers forth. In the midst of the murdering, looting and dancing, she meets Lefebvre [Charles de Roche], a handsome sergeant. She flirts with him outrageously.

A few days later, Count de Neipperg [Warwick Ward], an Austrian officer in the service of Queen Marie Antoinette, seeks refuge in Sans Gene's laundry from his foes. Sans Gene conceals him in her bedroom. Lefebvre arrives in furious pursuit of Neipperg. By stratagem Lefebvre gets into the bedroom and discovers Neipperg backed against the wall, pistol in his hand. His gallantry and loyalty to his Queen impresses the Sergeant, and he lets Neipperg go. Touched by this display of generosity, Sans Gene tells Lefebvre she loves him, and they are married.

Madame Sans-Gêne (Gloria Swanson) and Lefebvre (Charles
de Roche) (bowing, center right) presented to Napoleon (Émile Drain)
and Marie Louise (Suzanne Bianchetti) (extreme left).
Lefebvre rises rapidly, with Sans Gene following him to the wars, cheering him by her antics and good humor, entertaining and nursing the wounded. When Napoleon [now played by Émile Drain] is crowned King and Emperor, Lefebvre is made a marshal of France and Duke of Danzig. Thus the former washerwoman becomes a Duchess.

But the Duchess, still the same spitfire Sans Gene, is looked down upon by the snobbish ladies of Napoleon's court. Even her servants sneer at her, but she is more than a match for them all. Neipperg, on a mission for the Austrian Emperor, unexpectedly comes to Napoleon's court and renews his acquaintance with Sans Gene and her husband. Empress Marie Louise [Suzanne Bianchetti], wife of Napoleon, is at once attracted to the handsome Neipperg.

The ladies of the court, determined to ruin Sans Gene, induce Napoleon to order her to give a grand reception at Compiegne, hoping in this way to show her up in all her social crudities. Napoleon informs Lefebvre that unless Sans Gene conducts herself with proper decorum, he will order Lefebvre to divorce her and marry a certain princess. Sans Gene, suppressing her fury, gives a wonderful reception and, thanks to the secret coaching of a faithful friend [Fouché, played by Henry Favieres], behaves with perfect decorum until right at the end. Then, taunted to distraction by whispered insults, she turns upon her tormentors and denounces them as revolution-made nobodies, no better, if as good, as herself.

Madame Sans-Gêne (Gloria Swanson) struggles with
too-tight shoes while at the reception with her husband,
Lefebvre (Charles de Roche), the Duke of Danzig.
Among those tongue-lashed by Sans Gene are Napoleon's sisters [Arlette Marchal and Renée Héribel], and they go to him, demanding Sans Gene be sent away. He summons Sans Gene. She appears before him, armed with his old laundry bills, unpaid through all these years. When she flashes them at him, he is amused. She tells him she once loved him, but he was cold. He indicates that she might find him different now.

While she is with Napoleon, word comes that Neipperg is in the Empress' bedroom. Sans Gene restrains Napoleon from dashing out at once and killing the intruder. Nevertheless Napoleon orders Neipperg shot, sure the Austrian has been guilty of misconduct with the Empress. Sans Gene declares the Empress innocent, and offers to prove it, if Napoleon will delay Neipperg's execution until her plan is given a chance. He consents.

Sans Gene arranges that a letter fall into Napoleon's hand, presumably from the Empress to her father, the Emperor of Austria, begging him to recall Neipperg, and declaring her undying love for Napoleon. Napoleon, overjoyed, releases Neipperg. (Sans Gene, of course, wrote the letter herself.)

As a reward to Sans Gene, Napoleon says all talk of divorcing her from Lefebvre will be dropped. And Sans Gene says to her husband, "Let's go to bed; I feel as though I'd done a hard day's wash."


omment: In 1893, young playwright Émile Moreau approached the elder dramatist, Victorien Sardou, with a play he had written about Napoleon and Marie-Thérèse Figueur, a real-life woman known as Madame Sans-Gêne who had disguised herself as a soldier in the French army and participated in a number of Napoleon's campaigns. Sardou liked the concept, but suggested that a better story might be constructed around Catherine Hubscher, an actual regimental laundress who later became the wife of Sergeant Lefebvre, who rose to the rank of Marshal under the Empire and became the Duke of Danzig. Moreau agreed, and together the two reworked the original play into what became Madame Sans-Gêne.

Napoleon (Émile Drain, right) tells Lefebvre (Charles de Roche)
that he must divorce his vulgar wife, Madame Sans-Gêne.
The collaboration was a resounding success, and the play had a long run at the Vaudeville Theatre in Paris beginning on October 27, 1893, with famous French stage actress, Gabrielle Réjane, in the title role. The play was successfully revived in Paris in 1900, and went on to become a popular show in London and on Broadway. Stage performances of Madame Sans-Gêne continued to appear in New York into the 1920s, and the play was twice adapted to opera. Early film adaptations included a short made in France in 1900, a Danish version in 1909, and a full-length version that was made in France in 1911, with Madame Réjane as Madame Sans-Gêne and Edmond Duquesne as Napoleon.

Prominent silent-era film star Gloria Swanson arrived in Paris in November, 1924, to film the location work for the Famous Players production of Madame Sans-Gêne. According to the PR folks, she placed a wreath on the grave of Madame Réjane with the inscription "I come very humbly to endeavor to place upon the screen the play which you immortalized upon the stage." Filming took place at Versailles, Fontainebleau, and Compiegne, and utilized the actual coaches used by the royalty of the Imperial Court. One souvenir that Gloria Swanson took back to the States was the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, who had worked as a translator for the film crew and became her third husband.

Palace of Fontainbleau as it appears in a scene from Madame Sans-Gêne.
Gloria Swanson had first appeared in pictures in 1915, and was an established star by 1924. She remembered Madame Sans-Gêne as the personal favorite of all her films, and was reportedly disappointed that she could not see it again before her death. She continued to appear in pictures after the end of the silent movie era, most memorably in Sunset Boulevard in 1951 as faded movie star Norma Desmond. Although her film appearances tapered off, she made a couple of movies in the 1970s and continued to appear on television up to the early 1980s. She died in 1983.

Émile Drain was born in Paris, France, in 1890, and had first played Napoleon on film in the 1921 French production of Un drame sous Napoléon, an adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's historical novel, Uncle Bernac. He had already become well known in the French theatre and on screen by the time Madame Sans-Gêne was made in 1924, having played several hundred parts on stage, and was a member of the "Comedie Francaise" state theatre. He went on to play Napoleon in several other films, last appearing as the Emperor in an uncredited cameo in Sacha Guitry's Royal Affairs in Versailles in 1954. He died in 1966.

Madame Sans-Gêne opened to mixed reviews, with The New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall seemingly more impressed with the spectacle of Gloria Swanson and her new titled husband appearing at the New York premiere than with anything that was happening onscreen. Hall concluded his review with the observation that, "Aside from Miss Swanson's performance and possibly that of the rôles of Napoleon and La Rousotte, the characterization that is obtainable on the stage is lacking in this picture. Somehow the players are pleasant but rather flat. The idea of having the titles in English without a tinge of French is unsatisfactory in several stretches. When Madame Sans Gene, as the vivandière, marches through the streets with the troops Gloria Swanson appears to be only certain of one word in the national anthem, and that is 'Marchons!' In other scenes it is plain that Madame Sans Gene is speaking English."


istorical Context: As mentioned above, the real Madame Sans-Gêne was Marie-Thérèse Figueur, an orphan who at age eighteen had followed her uncle into the French cavalry and enlisted as a dragoon. She met the young Napoleon at the siege of Toulon, and continued with the army until her capture in Spain, after which she became a prisoner of war in England. She was released in 1814 and returned to Paris. After the Restoration, she married Clément Sutter, a sergeant-quartermaster with the constabulary, dictated her memoirs, and died in poverty in 1861. Other than her nickname and early acquaintance with Napoleon, nothing of her intriguing story remains in Moreau and Sardou's play.

Catherine Hubscher, who was never known to her contemporaries as Madame Sans-Gêne, and the rest of the major characters in Madame Sans-Gêne are all based on actual people from history. Although her manner is exaggerated to the point of caricature, the Duchess of Danzig was well-known for her native wit and coarse ways. I've seen no evidence that Napoleon ever suggested that Lefebvre divorce her, but he is known to have cautioned the Duke that his wife should show more decorum while at court. Although it isn't made clear, the character of Neipperg is presumably based upon Adam Albert, Count von Neipperg, who actually became the Empress Marie-Louise's lover and who married her after Napoleon's death. However, Count von Neipperg's involvement with Napoleon's second wife did not occur until after Napoleon's first abdication and exile to Elba, so his involvement in the plot of Madame Sans-Gêne is fictional.

Availability: Unfortunately, Madame Sans-Gêne is classified as a "lost" film, all known copies having been destroyed. All that remains is the film's trailer.

References: IMDb; Wikipedia; Souvenir packet created by Paramount Pictures in 1924; Hart, Jerome A. Sardou and the Sardou Plays, Philadelphia. J.B. Lippincott Company, 1913; Vandam, A.D. The Real Madame Sans-Gêne, in The New Review, Volume XI, edited by Archibald Grove, London, William Heinemann, 1894.

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© 2011 by Clark J. Holloway.