Clarence Brown’s The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) is a rather anemic misfire. It makes a valiant, though ultimately half-hearted attempt to be a gushing period romance; pretends – mostly through contrived falsehoods – to be a bio pic about President Andrew Jackson, and utterly implodes in its miscasting of Joan Crawford to play the title character. Brown, a sadly forgotten figure from Hollywood’s golden age, was one of the busiest directors at MGM throughout the 1930s and 40s, coaching temperamental beauties like Greta Garbo (Anna Christie), yet seemingly adept at telling all kinds of stories with a light intimate touch; from homespun bucolic family films (National Velvet 1944, The Yearling 1946) to witty cosmopolitan romances (Wife Vs. Secretary 1935, Idiot’s Delight 1939) and large scale period pictures (Conquest 1937, The Rains Came 1939). Yet on The Gorgeous Hussy Brown is at a genuine loss to gain control over the Stephen Morehouse Avery/Ainsworth Morgan screenplay, an afflicted claptrap of oddities and snippets seemingly excised from the historical record, yet incongruously regurgitated with the promise of a better film coming than the one actually delivered through little more than a series of vignettes.
A lot of the film’s failure rests squarely on Joan Crawford who, despite giving it her obvious and absolute all (for Crawford arguably never gave anything less), cannot belie the fact that Park Avenue is more her forte than colonial turn of the century Americana. Crawford became ensconced at MGM as a regal glamour queen through the 1930s. But her talents are dwarfed in period costumes by Adrian. Crawford looks the part of an elegant clothes horse but never emerges from beneath her laced bodice. The other problem with this film is advertising it as a Joan Crawford/Robert Taylor picture. It is not; what, with killing off Taylor’s enigmatically suave and impossibly handsome sailor only forty-eight minutes into the story, leaving Crawford at the mercy of the interminably leaden Melvyn Douglas or in the shadow of Lionel Barrymore’s Plebian muckraker, or worse – to be mooned over by tepid Franchot Tone (whom Crawford was then married to in real life but herein shares zero on screen chemistry) The Gorgeous Hussy founders under the weight of too many would-be romantic suitors poking their noses into this convoluted romantic milieu.
The year is 1823. Widower Major O'Neal (Gene Lockhart) runs an inn just outside of Washington D.C. frequented by politicians. His daughter Margaret ‘Peggy’ O’Neal (Crawford) is a headstrong, forthright, and occasionally willful girl whose beauty is equaled by her smarts. She has strong political convictions that frequently pit her judgment against those of Daniel Webster (Sidney Toler), Virginia Senator John Randoph (Melvyn Douglas) and even her Uncle Andy – better known as Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore). But before any of these narrative threads are developed, Clarence Brown opens with a prelude to the political deceptions that will come to dominate the latter half of our story.
Peggy is pursued by the rather foppish Rowdy Dow (James Stewart) whom she does not care for except in platonic friendship. Instead, Peggy harbors a desperate school girl’s crush on the elder Randolph – a fiery politico threatening succession if the U.S. government attempts to intervene in Virginia’s sovereignty. In the middle of the night, after the rest of the guests have gone to bed, Peggy sneaks upstairs to Randolph’s room. She finds him wide awake in his dressing gown in deep contemplation. After throwing herself at Randolph’s head and being rebuked for her efforts, Peggy storms off peevish and bitter.
Lucky circumstance for her that the inn’s latest resident, a dashing sailor named Bow Timberlake (Taylor) adores her. Previously, Bow had referred to Peggy as a mere ‘tavern girl’, slapped in the face by Randolph who defends her honor but later apologized for his actions after realizing Bow meant no disrespect. Bow lustily pursues Peggy. Although she is smitten, Peggy asks Randolph if there is any reason why she should not marry Bow. Unable to admit his love for her, Randolph pretends that nothing between them has changed. Fed up with Randolph’s dishonest Peggy decides to marry Bow instead.
The two elope in the middle of the night, returning to the inn much later as man and wife, startling Uncle Andy and his beloved Rachel (Beulah Bondi). After some initial apprehensions and confusion over the marriage license (Bow lost it at the parson’s), Bow and Peggy are left to their one passionate night together. For it seems Bow has been called back to his ship, the USS Constitution for a three month tour of duty. This first act is exceptionally well paced by Brown, the narrative – while hardly cohesive – at the very least pinned together in a manner that suggests continuity. But from here on in the story becomes stiflingly episodic. Even Brown’s direction seems more pedestrian than purposeful.
We flash ahead to the end of the three months. Peggy climbs aboard the Constitution only to be told that Bow has died and was buried at sea. The year is now 1828. Peggy aligns her loyalties with Uncle Andy whose bid for the presidency is threatened by callous mud slingers that attempt to belittle and humiliate Rachel as a backward back woods hick. Jackson assaults one of the naysayers in the street with Rowdy, Randolph and another supporter John Eaton (Franchot Tone) rushing to his defense. Eaton will eventually become Jackson’s Secretary of War after Jackson wins the presidency of the United States. Regrettably, Rachel falls ill and dies before the inaugural, leaving Peggy as the president’s official hostess. Unhappily, she is also forced to endure the brunt of venomous gossip from both members of the president’s cabinet and their busybody wives who thrive on dismantling her reputation.
Five years later, at a ball given in Jackson’s honor, Peggy is delighted to see Randolph once again. However, when Rowdy – who has had too much to drink – challenges Southern senator John C. Calhoun (Frank Conroy) to a fight after overhearing a disparaging remark made about Peggy, she intervenes to distract Rowdy with a dance. Randolph leaves the ball in a frustrated huff but is later pursued by Peggy at his home where he finally admits his love for her. Realizing what marriage to Randolph would do to his political career, Peggy says goodbye to him instead.
A short time later John Eaton proposes. President Jackson encourages the match, telling Peggy that only marriage to a respectable gentleman will help quell the unfounded suspicions that have dogged her reputation. So Peggy marries Eaton. However, the gossips are hardly willing to issue her a reprieve. If anything, the marriage only brings even more salacious rumors to the forefront. Meanwhile, Randolph is confronted at his home by Sunderland (Louis Calhern) who believes he will lead a rebellion against the nation for the independence of the south. Denied by Randolph, Sunderland shoot him in the back, then attempts to hitch a carriage ride back to Washington with Peggy and Rowdy, who instead throws Sunderland out. Randolph dies after telling Peggy that he has always loved her.
Jackson's cabinet members and their wives demand that Peggy be cast out from Washington. This loosely parallels an actual historic event known as ‘the petticoat affair’. Jackson angrily defends Peggy’s honor, accusing the cabinet and their wives of having ruined his late wife’s reputation with their slanderous gossip. He furthermore contends that Peggy and Eaton are pillars of the community far above them all and thereafter demands the resignation of every cabinet member except Eaton, whom he appoints as a special envoy to Spain. It is assumed that Peggy will remain behind as the President’s hostess. Instead, Peggy confides privately to her uncle that the time has come to move on. Saddened by the news Jackson asks Peggy if she thinks Rachel is proud of him and Peggy insists that she would have emphatically approved of his gutsy decision. In the final moments, Peggy and Eaton are seen sailing for Spain, she casting a bittersweet glance back toward America and whispering goodbye to Randolph.
The Gorgeous Hussy is, frankly, a mess; its patchwork of historical inaccuracies and downright fabrications accentuating the seriously flawed love story at its center. There’s absolutely zero romantic chemistry between Crawford and her triage of romantic suitors. She’s undeniably at her best opposite Robert Taylor’s playfully swarthy rogue. Taylor’s absence from the last two thirds of the story illustrates what a mistake it was to cast him as the sailor who prematurely dies. In fact, The Gorgeous Hussy might have functioned more succinctly as a plausible romance, or at least and had more guts had Taylor played Randolph instead. Melvyn Douglas – a raconteur with hint of petty larceny best exemplified opposite Garbo in Ninotchka (1939) herein plays against type. As Randolph he’s bitter, pouty, stoic and purposeless – in short; the kiss of death for any woman, but especially one as lustily driven as Crawford’s Peggy. James Stewart and Franchot Tone are relegated to cameos; neither making an impact or even a modest dent in the story. But in the end The Gorgeous Hussy implodes because of its meandering, episodic screenplay. Writers Stephen Morehouse Avery and Ainsworth Morgan cannot make up their minds whether this is serious political biography, a romantic melodrama/tragedy or a farcical comedy played out in period britches. Regrettably, the finished film is none of the above, but a little of each and, as such, comes across as nothing better or braver than an artistic mongrel – haphazardly stitched and easily forgotten.
That seems to be the sentiment behind this Warner Archive release. The Gorgeous Hussy’s original film elements are in very bad shape. The B&W image is riddled with excessive age-related dirt and damage. Vertical scratches and horizontal tears, water damage, nicks, chips and other imperfections are everywhere and quite distracting. The visuals also suffer from lower than anticipated contrast levels that leave most every scene mired in a very muddy mid-register. Everything is grayish black. Whites are rarely bright and never clean. Film grain is curiously absent as are fine details. The image has a very soft characteristic that is problematic to say the least. The audio is mono and suffers from frequent hiss and pops. I can’t say that The Gorgeous Hussy is a work of art. But if it deserves a DVD-R pressing it most certainly deserves better than this! As with most other Archive titles there are NO extras included. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)