The Gorgeous Hussy
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Whether playing a flapper in the 1920s, a proletarian working girl in the 1930s, or a broad-shouldered businesswoman in the 1940s, Joan Crawford was the quintessential modern woman. In only one of her talking films did she venture into period pantaloons, and that film, The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), was not a financial or critical success. "I was so totally miscast," Crawford later admitted.
Recently married to New York actor and upper-class intellectual Franchot Tone, Crawford had acquired intellectual pretensions of her own. Essaying an historical character may have been part of that. The Gorgeous Hussy was based on a popular historical novel about Peggy O'Neal Eaton, a sassy innkeeper's daughter who gained political power in the 1830s because of her friendship with President Andrew Jackson, but was ostracized by Washington society. MGM executive David Selznick tried to talk Crawford out of tackling the role of Peggy Eaton by telling her "you can't do a costume picture, you're too modern." When she would not be dissuaded, Selznick decided to surround her with not one, but five strong leading men, and assigned producing duties to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had recently been working with Crawford and understood her strengths and weaknesses.
The Gorgeous Hussy certainly looked great, with Adrian's lavish period costumes, George Folsey's stunning cinematography, and Cedric Gibbons' elegant art direction. And the men surrounding Crawford ranged from adequate to magnificent. As Peggy's first husband, Robert Taylor looked handsome, which was all that was required for his brief role. Newcomer James Stewart, conspicuously out of place in the period wardrobe and silly sideburns, had the grace not to look embarrassed. Melvyn Douglas was more at ease in the costumes, and gave some complexity to his character. Franchot Tone, Crawford's husband at the time and playing her second husband in the film, was miserable with his nothing role, plus being reduced to his wife's coat-holder hit a little too close to home. Working together in The Gorgeous Hussy definitely put a strain on the marriage, especially when Tone began drinking and arriving late on the set, sins that the always professional Crawford would not tolerate.
The film's greatest asset, however, was Lionel Barrymore's splendid performance as Andrew Jackson. Despite the elaborate makeup which gave him a startling resemblance to the real Jackson, Barrymore's talent and humanity shone through. The actor was already suffering from the illness that would cripple him ¿ a form of arthritis. He could barely walk anymore, but he could stand, and when the camera was rolling, he would push through the pain and do what was required. The part offered Barrymore the opportunity to display a broad emotional range, from thundering oratory to overwhelming grief at the loss of his beloved wife. The latter hit too close to home -- Barrymore's own wife was terminally ill with tuberculosis. She died on Christmas Eve of 1936.
In the end, though, not even terrific acting by a stellar cast could save The Gorgeous Hussy. Although the critics praised some of the performances (particularly Barrymore's, and even Crawford's), most of them found the film dull and stodgy. Frank Nugent in the New York Times sneered, "Miss Crawford's Peggy is a maligned Anne of Green Gables, a persecuted Pollyanna, a dismayed Dolly Dimple." The consensus seemed to be, "gorgeous, yes, but not enough hussy." The problem was that although the real Peggy, as portrayed in the book, was fascinating and complex, censorship of the era would not allow the filmmakers to deal with her alleged affairs and improprieties in a frank manner, so audiences couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. And MGM executives' fears were also confirmed: moviegoers wanted Crawford to be contemporary, and would not accept her in period costume, no matter how glamorous. Ever attuned to her public, Crawford never made that mistake again.
Director: Clarence Brown
Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Ainsworth Morgan & Stephen Morehouse Avery, based on the book by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Cinematography: George Folsey
Editor: Blanche Sewell
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Joan Crawford (Peggy O'Neal Eaton), Robert Taylor (Bow Timberlake), Lionel Barrymore (Andrew Jackson), Melvyn Douglas (John Randolph), James Stewart ("Rowdy" Dow), Franchot Tone (John Eaton), Beulah Bondi (Rachel Jackson), Gene Lockhart (Major O'Neal).
BW-104m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri