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Voice-over narration by Jean Simmons is heard intermittently throughout the film as her character "Dsire Clary Bernadotte" writes in her diary. Annemarie Selinko's bestselling novel and the film are loosely based on the life of Eugenie Bernadine Dsire Clary (1777-1860), who was described by Napoleon Bonaparte as his first love. Dsire's older sister Julie was married to Napoleon's brother Joseph, as depicted in the film. In 1798, Dsire married Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763-1844), a longtime French soldier who was made a marshal of France in 1804. Bernadotte's relations with Napoleon were strained and became more so after 1810, when Bernadotte was adopted into the royal family of Sweden and became the crown prince. Bernadotte arranged an alliance between Sweden and Russia, and helped to defeat Napoleon in the Battle of Nations in 1813. In 1818, he was crowned King Karl XIV Johan, and in 1829, Dsire, who had been living in Paris, returned to Sweden and was crowned Queen Desideria. Bernadotte and Dsire's son Oskar succeeded to the throne, and the reigning monarchs of Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Belgium are their direct descendents.
According to a November 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item, Anatole Litvak was originally set to direct the picture, but on February 17, 1954, Daily Variety announced that "after a disagreement which couldn't be resolved over [the] process in which Dsire should be produced," Litvak and Twentieth Century-Fox "called off their multiple-picture deal." The news item also noted that Litvak had hoped to shoot the film abroad in a standard format instead of in CinemaScope. In September 1953, Daily Variety reported that studio production chief Darryl F. Zanuck hoped to star Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in the film, and an March 18, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Jay Robinson was being tested for the role of Napoleon. Marlon Brando agreed to play the role in exchange for Twentieth Century-Fox dropping its $2,000,000 breach-of-contract suit against him concerning his failure to appear for the title role of its 1954 production The Egyptian (see below). Brando later appeared on the October 11, 1954 cover of Time, dressed as Napoleon.
Although Cathleen Nesbitt (Napoleon's mother) and Larry Craine (Louis Bonaparte) are listed on the CBCS, they did not appear in the released picture. Hollywood Reporter news items include Paul Glass, Anna Cheselka, Buddy Bryan, Tony De Mario, Robert Pike, Gloria Rhoads and Cosmo Sardo in the cast, but their appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. As noted by numerous Hollywood Reporter news items, cinematographer Edward Cronjager and director Fred Fox led a second unit to film backgrounds in Paris and the "Napoleon Country" around Fontainebleau, Malmaison and the Parisian suburbs.
According to the film's pressbook, Selinko had intended to serve as a technical advisor while the picture was in production, but was prevented from doing so by personal matters. The Hollywood Reporter review mistakenly lists the film's running time as 118 minutes. A modern source notes that Philip Rhodes served as Brando's personal makeup man. Lyrics to "The Song from Dsire (We Meet Again)," which is performed as an instrumental waltz in the film, were later added by Ken Darby, and the song became a hit for Jane Froman, Bing Crosby and other recording stars. The picture's San Francisco world premiere was a benefit for the San Francisco Newspaper Guild, while the New York gala opening was a benefit for the March of Dimes. Dsire received Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction (Color) and Best Costume Design (Color).