The Toy Wife (1938)

Passed   |    |  Drama, History, Romance

The Toy Wife (1938) Poster

The beautiful and frivolous wife of a plantation owner in antebellum Louisiana proves unsatisfactory at running the household, leading her serious-minded husband to enlist the help of her unmarried sister.


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24 January 2010 | MartinHafer
| My vote for Wife and Mother of the Year!!
This film is a period piece set in Louisiana before the Civil War. In this Hollywood version of the Old South, the rich plantation owners are good to their slaves and the slaves are happy people! I can't even repeat (due to IMDb standards) some of the ways these human beings are referred to in the film and I can't see this film earning a perfect 10 simply because of its whitewashing of slavery.

The story is about a very shallow, child-like and destructive woman nicknamed "Frou Frou" (Luise Rainer). She bounces about like a happy bunny--captivating men in the process. Yet, because of her selfishness and lack of depth, she is destined to screw up the lives of men who get close to her. Frankly, I think they overdid her character a bit in the first half of the film--you'd think that smart men would see right through her and know exactly what she is (I know I hated her almost as soon as I saw her on the screen).

The first man she becomes involved with is George (Melvin Douglas). George is competent, decent and a very good catch--and her sister, Louise (Barbara O'Neil)is already in love with him. After marrying him, Frou Frou has a child and everything seems fine. However, George becomes frustrated with Frou Frou. She's very simple-minded and too self-absorbed to be much of a mother (as he describes her "she's more like a playmate than a mother to the boy"), she spends money with abandon and offers no intellectual stimulation for her husband. When he is offered an important assignment from the government to the new territories of Texas and New Mexico, she refuses to go, as she finds these places boring (though she's never even seen them)! He stays but is quite unhappy about this and it's obvious that something bad is brewing in this marriage! I actually liked this next part of the film. I had incorrectly assumed that Frou Frou would cheat on George and was too selfish to even try to be a proper wife. This would have been the easy next step for the film. Fortunately, the writers chose a different and much more interesting path.

Because Frou Frou is so irresponsible and daffy, her sister Louise comes to live with them. Over time, the boy looks more to Louise for guidance and love and it's clear to the audience that she is slowly taking Frou Frou's place. In the meantime, Andre returns and begins to make the moves on Frou Frou. He can see that she is unhappy but Frou Frou refuses--she is determined to keep her home intact. She seems to realize that her marriage is slipping away from her and she makes some efforts to work on it...but it appears to possibly be too late. In desperation, Frou Frou tries to arrange a marriage for Louise to get her out of the house but Louise refuses the offer! Eventually, however, Frou Frou realizes that the marriage is beyond her ability to save it. Then, and only then, she runs to Andre. At this point, her life and the lives of those around her are in ruins--her family is aghast and she and Andre are now outcasts. As the film nears the end, George and Andre are about to kill each other in a duel--and Frou Frou realizes that this is her doing. How this all ends is something you'll just have to see for yourself.

Overall, not a great film but there is a lot to be admired. Several times during the film, I anticipated what would happen next and was wrong. Being a huge fan of classic Hollywood, my 'batting average' is pretty good in anticipating plots and I am glad the the writers didn't take the easy way or rely on clichés. I also like how late in the film George's responsibility for marrying a woman like this and then being unjustly angry because she lacked depth was brought to light--it wasn't just a 'one-way street'. As long as the way they portray slavery doesn't completely alienate you (and it easily might), the film is well acted and original.

If you liked films like CAMILLE or JEZEBEL, then you will most likely enjoy seeing THE TOY WIFE.

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