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What do you do with an acclaimed actress who's as difficult to cast as she is to work with? At MGM in 1938, the answer must have been "Cherchez la belle!" because through a series of geographical contrivances the studio cast its resident Austrian tragedienne, Luise Rainer as a tempestuous Southern belle in The Toy Wife. In it, she creates a little un-civil war of her own when she steals sister Barbara O'Neil's fianc (Melvyn Douglas), then tries to dump him and return to her first love Robert Young. The results, though less than smashing, provide a fascinating example of how a star could be un-made through bad casting.
Rainer had taken MGM by storm when a studio talent scout spotted her in one of the three German-language films she made in the early '30s. After a strong studio debut in the sophisticated romantic drama Escapade (1935), she had captured back-to-back Oscars® for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937), but that's where the trouble started. Rainer had become a star without clearly establishing a star persona. Studio head Louis B. Mayer instructed his writers to come up with more "Luise Rainer vehicles," but nobody had any idea what that meant. Moreover, critics, who had applauded her first films, suddenly didn't care for her as much, partly because of the hastily assembled vehicles MGM assigned her and partly out of anger that her second Oscar® had come at the expense of Greta Garbo's justly famed performance in Camille (1937). Just to make matters worse, the off-screen Rainer had little patience with Hollywood or film moguls. She insisted on walking around town without makeup and wearing slacks. She tried to demand a new contract giving her a higher salary. And she often made Mayer deal with her husband, playwright Clifford Odets, whom she enlisted in her fight for better material and whose liberal politics made him politically suspicious in conservative Hollywood.
It was in this atmosphere of tension and dashed hopes that MGM cast her in The Toy Wife. Perhaps it was the role's pedigree that made it seem suitable for the newly minted diva. Although the original French play Frou-frou was not credited on screen (though the original title remained the leading lady's nickname, and the studio briefly considered calling the picture Mlle. Froufrou), the film was adapted from a 19th century French play that had supplied Sarah Bernhardt with one of her most popular stage vehicles. Just as likely, however, was the possibility that they wanted to cash in on the publicity surrounding Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and David O. Selznick's impending film version. Warner's had jumped on the bandwagon by casting Bette Davis in Jezebel (1938), so MGM had to have its own fiery Southern girl. Of course, this Southern belle had a German accent, so the story was re-set in pre-war New Orleans and Rainer's character, Gilberte, was only recently returned from an extended stay in Paris.
The production that resulted was a curious mix of MGM elegance and cost cutting. Since Rainer was now considered a star, the studio didn't want to put one of its highly paid leading men into what was clearly a vehicle for her, so they borrowed Melvyn Douglas from Universal to play Rainer's husband and cast studio stand-by Robert Young as her rejected suitor. Many of the sets were recycled from other productions, though that was pretty much standard practice in Hollywood. At least they assigned a top writer, Zoe Akins, to the screenplay. Akins was a popular playwright who had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for The Old Maid. She had most recently written Camille, and even borrowed the film's climax, with a tubercular Rainer dying in Douglas' arms.
The critics, however, weren't having any of it. They dismissed The Toy Wife as a tearjerker, complaining that the plot lurched from one contrivance to another trying to generate the maximum emotional response from the audience. Moreover, Rainer seemed to have worn out her welcome. Where once they had found her enchanting, they now called her tedious. The New York Times reviewer complained, "...Miss Rainer's 'toy wife' is wound too tightly for anybody's comfort -- even in a divan seat. And with all due respect, we do think Miss Rainer should be informed that there is such a thing as being too feminine." Neither she nor MGM were happy with the results. She would make only one more film for the studio before moving back to New York to be with Odets, a move that prompted Mayer to cancel her contract.
Only one performer came out of The Toy Wife with anything positive. Barbara O'Neil, cast as Rainer's sister, had parlayed her beauty and a natural sense of style into a burgeoning stage career (she started out with Henry Fonda, James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in summer stock) and was only recently arrived in Hollywood, where she had debuted as Barbara Stanwyck's romantic rival in Stella Dallas (1937). In her third film, she was so impressive at holding her own against Rainer's star performance that she caught Selznick's attention and landed the role of mother to the screen's ultimate Southern belle, Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939).
Producer: Merian C. Cooper
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Zoe Akins
Adapted (uncredited) from the play Frou-frou by Ludovic Halevy, Henri Meilhac and Augustin DalyCinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward Ward
Principal Cast: Luise Rainer (Gilberte "Frou Frou" Brigard), Melvyn Douglas (George Sartoris), Robert Young (Andre Vallaire), Barbara O'Neil (Louise Brigard), H.B. Warner (Victor Brigard), Alma Kruger (Madame Vallaire), Clarence Muse (Brutus), Hal Le Sueur (First Brother), Douglas McPhail (Leon, the Second Brother), Esther Muir (Blonde Woman), Rafaela Ottiano (Felicianne), Madame Sul-Te-Wan (Eve), Edward Van Sloan (Older Man).BW-96m.
by Frank Miller