"The Toy Wife" is a film about family, love, relationships, dysfunction, broken hearts, false pride, false martyrdom, anger, cowardice, lack of responsibility, and character weaknesses. It's not a surprise that such a film was not a hit with audiences in 1938. The country was still in the throes of the Great Depression, and had just been through a devastating Dust Bowl in the central states. Although some dramas fared well, most of those had upbeat plots. And, the next year's "Gone with the Wind" had a powerful novel behind it.
So, most of the films of the period were aimed at entertaining. People wanted to be able, for a short while, to forget about the hard times. Comedies, mysteries, musicals, swashbucklers, sci-fi and films with flights of fancy ruled the day. The best picture Oscar for 1938 went to a comedy, "You Can't Take it With You."
Yet, decades later, this film remains a poignant portrayal of the problems of masking emotions, denial, pride and dysfunctions among families. In the Muse of Greek mythology, "The Toy Wife" is a true tragedy. Dialog toward the end of the film captures the pathos of the tragedy. Frou Frou says, "How strange." André asks, "What is this?" And Frou Frou replies, "That I, who have never thought of myself as wicked, have done so much harm." Indeed, that the life of such an immature and innocent person would end so tragically because of the faults and weaknesses of so many others.
"The Toy Wife" has four noteworthy aspects. The first three are historical. Few films have been made that take place in the Deep South of the 18th century. It is set in the antebellum South of the late 1700s. New Orleans was still under the flag of France. And, the U.S. purchase of the Louisiana Territory was still years away. Thus, the film also shows the slavery of Blacks within the White society of the South.
A number of other historical period films have educational value for the present and future. The best known among this group are Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" of 1939 and Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" of 1941.
The fourth aspect of this film is the drama of a seriously dysfunctional group of people across three families. One might think at first that Louise Rainer's Gilberte "Frou Frou" is the main weak character. But for her youth (16 at the start), immaturity and gay and lively persona, she is the only well-grounded person of the group.
This is a powerful drama in which all the actors give very good performances. Rainer shows the talent that won her best actress Academy Awards for 1936 and 1937. Barbara O'Neill is superb as Frou Frou's sister, Louise. She is the most dysfunctional of the lot as the false martyr who urges her sister to marry George Sartoris whom she, Louise, loves. In her denial, with her love for her sister, she can't see her later part in breaking up their marriage.
Robert Young's Andre Vallaire is a weak lover who won't fight for the woman he loves and instead sulks off when he sees Frou Frou and George kissing. That is in spite of Andre and Frou Frou having courted and fallen for each other. Melvyn Douglas is supposed to be the visionary, dedicated, intelligent man who is helping to build a nation. Yet his George Sartoris lacks common sense and vision when it comes to love.
H.B. Warner plays Victor Brigard, the father of the girls and a highly respected plantation owner and leader. Yet, he is weak and a cowardly character and passes off the responsibility of deciding Frou Frou's future when Sartoris asks for her hand in marriage. He had hoped George would marry Louise, and he knew of her love for George. Yet, he doesn't discourage George but sends him to Louise for her decision. Of course, that's when Louise should have been honest with her feelings and expectations. George had led her to believe he loved her since they were young. Honesty between them at this point would have allayed many later heartbreaks.
The last dysfunctional culprit in the film is Madame Vallaire. Alma Kruger plays Andre's mother superbly. Her matronly disappointment with her son's carefree life style and frequent partying in New Orleans, blinds her to George's probable reform after he falls in love with Frou Frou.
So, instead of a light and breezy story with a blooming romance and two probable happy marriages, this film becomes a sad drama of hurt, loss and death.
History buffs may especially enjoy this film for its setting. As with other such films, it gives one a good sense of the culture of the time. Within a decade or two of the film's setting, the U.S. would purchase the Louisiana Territory from France - in 1803. Then, in 1815, Gen. Andrew Jackson would lead an American defeat of the British Army in the Battle of New Orleans. Half a century after that, the U.S. itself would be ending its bloody Civil War.
Here are some favorite lines from the film.
Frou Frou Brigard, "What's being silly in loving a man who pleases one in every way?"
Madame Vallaire, "You envy me, mademoiselle, because my tooth aches?" Frou Frou, "No, but because you can go to New Orleans to have it out."
Frou Frou, "What an honor to sit next to a gentleman who has just killed a man." George Sartoris, "Thank you, mademoiselle."
Louise Brigard, "Do you think a woman in love with a man would ask another woman to marry him?" Frou Frou Brigard, "I wouldn't. But you might."