The story of Richard Perry and Lil Duryea is, of course, fictional, albeit set during actual events. It doesn't take a scholar to realize about five minutes into the film that Perry is getting himself into really hot water by taking on a secret assignment from McKinley, who is not long for this world. Since our first glimpse of his successor, Teddy Roosevelt (Sidney Blackmer) presents us with a man who appears to be a buffoon, a lot of head shaking can occur before the story really begins. But the real problem is that the movie can't decide what it wants to be - romance? espionage story? historical piece? musical? The film never really decides, and as a result we have a bit of a mishmash.
That our co-stars were romantically involved at the time is perhaps the main reason for this mess. According to this article from the AFI Catalog, Darryl Zanuck (who wrote the short story on which the screenplay is most likely based under the pseudonym of Melville Crossman), wanted to capitalize on the highly publicized relationship. So, what might have been a decent espionage story became muddled with the romance between Richard and Lil. Plus, when you have a star of the caliber of Barbara Stanwyck, you want her to shine. As a result actors like Brian Donlevy and Victor McLaghlen get shortchanged, as their (more important) storyline, gets abridged to almost nothing. A waste of two fine talents, and not a great use of the Ms. Stanwyck, either.
It's really Robert Taylor's movie, though he doesn't have much of a script to work with. As a result, his performance is somewhat lackluster, and there is suprisingly not much chemistry between him and Ms. Stanwyck. There's a lot more chemistry in both The Night Walker and His Brother's Wife, so it is certainly not THEM.
Taylor had met Stanwyck after her divorce from Frank Fay, in 1935, about a year before they filmed His Brother's Wife (1936) (see A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940) She was a bit older, and certainly had more experience in the film industry, and what began as a mentorship morphed into marriage in 1939 (a marriage that was somewhat forced on her. That they were living together became public when Photoplay magazine outed them - along with Gable and Lombard, and Chaplin and Goddard - resulting in MGM encouraging to formalize the union). They were together until 1952. Separated by the war (Taylor served United States Naval Air Corps as a flight instructor) and then by work, the marriage suffered. When Stanwyck discovered that Taylor was involved with a starlet, she asked for a divorce. Later, Taylor married actress Ursula Thiess (they had two children). He died of lung cancer in 1969.
It's hard to discuss Taylor without talking about his involvement in the Hollywood Blacklist. Suffice it to say, when subpoenaed by HUAC, he appeared and testified. He considered the proceedings to be a circus, but when asked for names, he supplied two. (You can read a transcript of his testimony or see an excerpt.) Did he have a choice? Perhaps. But, to quote Dalton Trumbo, who was no stranger to the evils of the blacklist: "The blacklist was a time of evil...no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil...[Looking] back on this time...it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims."
The cast is chock full of wonderful actors, most of who are wasted. Brian Donlevy makes the most of the little screentime he has, but Victor McLagen is seems completely out of place - he hams up most of his scenes, making a character who should be menacing rather stupid. Why an actor of his caliber was placed in this really inferior part is a mystery. Sidney Blackmer is almost unrecognizable as Roosevelt, but he does get an opportunity to grow the character. He makes Roosevelt very broad (but Roosevelt was a man who lived life large), but he also shows him to be no fool, and very tenacious. By the end of the film, he is almost likeable (as much as any other character in the piece!)According to this TCM article, Stanwyck, who started her career on the Broadway stage (she appeared in the Broadway musical Tattle Tales in 1933, with her then husband Frank Fay), was quite nervous about singing in the film - and asked that Taylor not be on the set while she sang. Stanwyck has a deep, not unpleasant voice, but these "musical numbers" are really more of a distraction, and add little to the story.
All in all, not one of Ms. Stanwyck's best efforts. We will circle back to her first film with Robert Taylor next time.