Monday, December 2, 2013

Historical Joan

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) is an unusual film, in that it feature Joan Crawford playing an historical person and is set in the 1820s and 1830s.  Never before, nor again, would Crawford tackle a period piece, which makes this a fascinating diversion.

Crawford plays Margaret "Peggy" O'Neal Timberlake Eaton, an innkeeper's daughter who becomes influential in the Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) White House, following her marriage to Secretary of War John Eaton (Franchot Tone).  Her common birth, her forthrightness, and her earlier marriage to John "Bow" Timberlake (Robert Taylor) make her an easy target for gossip.  And then there is her relationship with John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas). She loves him, he claims not to love her, but then he realizes too late that he does have feelings for her.

It's hard to imagine a studio other than MGM  being able to assemble this much talent in one movie. Besides the already mentioned Crawford, Tone, Taylor, and Douglas, we also have James Stewart  as "Rowdy" Dow,  Lionel Barrymore as Andrew Jackson, Beulah Bondi  as Rachel Jackson, Sidney Toler as Daniel Webster, and Louis Calhern as Sunderland.  With the exception of Crawford and Barrymore, the supporting actors have minimal screen time.  Certainly, Taylor and Stewart had not yet achieved the level of stardom that we are familiar with (Taylor's breakout in Camille was 4 months away, while Stewart would wait another 2 years before You Can't Take it With You.); yet Taylor gets second billing under Crawford, in spite of being in only about 1/3 of the film (no spoilers here; you have to watch the film to find out why).  We particularly enjoyed a scene in which Peggy and Bow are sewn into adjacent beds so there will be no hanky-panky.

Crawford's Peggy is very sweet; and also quite bright - she does the accounting for her father's inn, and she is shown as being quite savvy about business.  As always, Crawford creates a strong and feminine character (with the assistance of Adrian, in his creation of some spectacular period dresses).  Despite this, Crawford felt that the audience - always her career arbiter - did not like her in costume roles, and so she opted to not appear in an historical drama again.  This TCM article discusses the public reception - or lack thereof - of the film. 

The article also discusses the personal life of Lionel Barrymore in some detail.  Barrymore's severe arthritis had already become a problem.  He could still stand, though doing so was painful; walking was next to impossible.  He was also dealing with his wife's illness - an illness that would claim her life 4 months later.  Barrymore's relationship with the always wonderful Beulah Bondi - in her Oscar-nominated role - is warm and loving; acting as a counterpoint to the blustering, somewhat abrasive politician.  One particularly funny scene with Barrymore involved an unnamed character actress - the mother of one of the cabinet wives - who congratulates Jackson for his successful put-down of her daughter.

The character of John Randolph is, however, a frustrating one.  While his reluctance to become involved with a girl he'd known since she was a child is understandable, Randolph seems hell-bent on being unhappy, and making Peggy unhappy as well.  Even when it seems that love is within their grasp, he is unable to compromise to unite them.  Certainly, Jackson is equally to blame for Peggy's eventual unhappiness, but it's easier to blame Randolph, with his easy assumption that Peggy's beliefs should take second place to his own. It's not one of Douglas' better roles; a bit too angst-y for our taste.

We found it interesting that the author of the book "The Gorgeous Hussy", Samuel Hopkins Adams, also wrote the book "The Harvey Girls" and the story "Night Bus" (which became It Happened One Night).  An article in the American Journal of Public Health discusses his career as a "journalist and muckraker".

To close, we share the opening of the film. Enjoy!