28 April 2008 | mukava991
too genteel for its subject matter
THE GORGEOUS HUSSY, based on a 1934 historical novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams, is another one of those genteel forays into the past from squeaky clean MGM. The only compelling ingredients in this overlong saga about the controversial hussy Peggy Eaton who wielded much influence over President Andrew Jackson are a few of the performances and the novelty of actual political debates occurring in the context of a love affair; Hollywood seldom mixed those two elements. The first half hour is bone dead, with familiar performers strutting around in period costumes and delivering the necessary exposition. Joan Crawford is not particularly persuasive as a young tavern keeper's daughter. She looks somewhat haggard and hard, but still beautiful. Things liven up with the appearance of Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) and his unpopular and maligned wife Rachel (Beulah Bondi). Barrymore may have been a ham who gave basically the same performance in film after film, but at least he puts some juice into the proceedings, making the most he can of the extremely diluted representation of Jackson supplied by the script. Bondi is touching in her depiction of the ill-fated Rachel, the love of Jackson's life. Until then we have had to endure endless moments with a dashing but wooden Melvyn Douglas and a competent but unexciting contribution from neophyte Robert Taylor. Jimmy Stewart and later Franchot Tone are on hand too but only in a few scenes and to little effect. And we have the always nasty and conniving Alison Skipworth as a disapproving society matron to hold our attention. And the marvelous Zeffie Tilbury as Skipworth's deaf mother who disagrees strongly with her snobbish daughter's malicious gossip. Between these bits there are occasionally interesting sketches of the political contentions of the time, mostly about how much power should be granted to the individual states, foreshadowing the Civil War. But we never get a sense of what an extraordinary woman the title character was. Nothing in Joan Crawford's performance or in the material given her indicates that this is anything other than an unusually attractive and well behaved lady with romantic yearnings but someone for whose honor and reputation a President would dissolve his cabinet and change the course of US history? No way. You cannot make a polite film about these characters in this historical period, but this is what MGM tried to do.