"Historical romance simply was not for me." ~ Joan Crawford on "Gorgeous Hussy."
"The Gorgeous Hussy" 1936
Cast: Joan Crawford~Robert Taylor~Lionel Barrymore~Franchot Tone~Melvyn Douglas~James Stewart~Alison Skipworth~Louis Calhern~Beulah
Bondi~Melville Cooper~Sidney Toler~Gene Lockman~Clara Blandick~Frank Conroy~Nydia Westman~Charles Trowbridge~Willard Robertson~Ruby
DeRemer~Betty Blythe~Zeffie Tilbury.
Director: Clarence Brown
Costumes by Adrian
Box Office Figures for "The Gorgeous Hussy":
Cost: $N/A ~ Domestic Studio Gross: $N/A ~ Foreign Studio Gross: $N/A
Total: $N/A / Profit: $N/A
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Stars: Two and a half stars out of four stars
Based on the real life "petticoat politics" story of a Washington innkeeper's daughter, Peggy O'Neill (Joan
Crawford) in the 1800's, "The Gorgeous Hussy" portrays an O'Neill who many viewers complained was not much of a
hussy although she had four men snapping at her heels like frisky MGM puppies. Since the real Crawford had a love life that
Casanova would have envied and was ranked very highly as a lover by notorious ladies men who should know, I'm sure she could
tell tales that would curl the pigtails of any one of her suitors in this film. But instead of walking on the wild side and
flashing her petticoats, this belle is demure, devoid even of the conniving undercurrent that Vivien Leigh wove seamlessly
into her portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara. Lane Bellamy in "Flamingo Road" has more meringue than this sugar-coated
Napoleon, but then she's not meant to be truly a hussy. Rather, the title is ironic (if it can be given that much credit),
referring to the way gossipy women try to frame O'Neill in order to chip away at her uncle, President Andrew Jackson (Lionel
Barrymore), their political adversary.
Our pretty titular miss is preoccupied with politics and juggling beaus, the latter of which she is in no shortage. During
a thunderstorm at a dance, in fact, two beaus fight over her and in order to ride out the night, two gigantic mattresses (where
did they find them?) are set up -- one for men, the other for the womenfolk. The scene with amorous Lt. Timberlake (a gorgeous
Robert Taylor) in one bed and Crawford in its neighbor has all the sexual spark of a slumber party with cub scouts. Everyone
is fully dressed and made up beneath the sheets, reminding me of the puppets "tucked in" in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer." Not even an undercurrent of scandal sullies this sleepover. The pair exchange a chaste kiss and speak of
meeting in dreams, just as earlier Taylor chirped, "I dreamed that you smothered me with kisses that left little red
hearts all over my face" as the pair moseyed along in a wagon with another of O'Neill's admirers Roderick "Rowdy"
Dow (James Stewart). At that time, they were accompanied by the requisite merrily singing slaves -- so inherently good at
harmony and quiet just long enough for the principals to state their dialogue before resuming their melodious chorus, so useful
for Dixie ambience.
Although O'Neill has loved John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas) since she was "in pigtails," he gives her the rebuff
in an earlier encounter, thinking her "not growed up enough" presumably (as Crawford tries unsuccessfully to look
it), so she marries the dashing Lt. Timberlake who shortly gets killed in action, opening the way for more ardent suitors.
Finally and briefly O'Neill and Randolph are given the chance to profess their mutual love and marry, but upon Jackson's
ascendancy to the presidency, their polar political sympathies drive them apart. Meanwhile, Jackson's morale is being punctured
by the local hens who go for his weak spot by attacking his wife, Rachel (Beulah Bondi), a woman as crusty as her husband
and ripe for material. When Rachel dies and O'Neill takes over the mantle of supporting the president, she becomes the new
target. Meanwhile she takes on the husband her uncle recommends (in his own political camp), John Eaton (the ever-smirking
Franchot Tone, her real life husband).
Once she throws off the straight-jacket of dewy innocence and grating cuteness that hampers her earliest scenes where
she is portraying O'Neill as a youngster, Crawford becomes strong as an actor and character. One aspect of Crawford's screen
persona I greatly admire and cherish then shines. She is the feminine feminist ahead of her time, reflective of the star's
own admirable tenacity and spirit. One of her best scenes is in a ballroom where not only does she look glorious (and mite
sexy) in a sumptuous low-cut gown (designer Adrian's hand again) but exudes the cunning and fire which finally spur the plot
Although my initial tendency was to underrate Melvyn Douglas, I've come to recognize and appreciate his smooth authority
as an actor. Against an entire mishmash of MGM contract players assembled here who evidently kept the wardrobe people up
to their eyeballs in lace, buckles and pancake makeup, he holds his own, becoming a sympathetic character I truly liked.
Barrymore is essentially a character actor and can be very good or very bad, depending on the way you look at it, at times
hammy and almost burlesque, at other times wrenchingly poignant and brilliant. Here he is saddled with period makeup that
makes him appear dipped in bleach, every patch of hair whitened. But his performance overall ranks with his best, recalling
his irascible colonel in "The Littlest Colonel" with Shirley Temple.
In sum, in spite of the care lavished on "The Gorgeous Hussy" and some capable performances, the match never
quite lights. It's like "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" without the musical interludes, everyone behaving as
if they're about to burst into song because of MGM's tendency to sentimentality and hokeyness and as far as historical accuracy,
throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It recalls a comment Crawford made in "Conversations with Joan Crawford"
that made me laugh -- in which she referred to a film as one of those "let's-throw-everyone-on-the-lot-into-a-musical
things." The ado might have been about much more than nothing if historical veracity were substituted more often for
saccharine. Sidney Toler, best known for Charlie Chan, appears as Daniel Webster.