3 October 2014 | l_rawjalaurence
A Slice of American History with a Strong Contemporary Political Slant
Ostensibly set in the late eighteenth century, MAGNIFICENT DOLL is a biopic of Dolley Madison (Ginger Rogers), who is forced into marriage with her first husband John Todd (Horace McNally); suffers a bereavement due to the plague, and encounters dashing senator Aaron Burr (David Niven). The two of them fall in love, but Dolley discovers to her cost that Aaron is not quite the romantic hero she first assumed. His ambition often gets the better of his reason, so much so that he is prepared to flout the constitution to achieve his ends. Eventually Dolley marries Senator James Madison (Burgess Meredith) and condemns Aaron to a life of perpetual isolation - a free man yet with no one to support him either politically or personally.
Released in the year immediately following the end of World War II, Frank Borzage's film underlines the importance of the constitution, especially the parts focusing on freedom, the rule of law and social equality. There are long sequences involving Madison, Dolley and Aaron which discuss such topics: sometimes it seems that the film has sacrificed plot-development for propaganda. Aaron is a superficially attractive character, but he believes in despotic rule in which everyone should submit to his will. He needs to be ousted in order for the American way of life to continue.
Stylistically speaking, MAGNIFICENT DOLL oscillates between love- scenes involving Dolley and Aaron (with H. J. Salter's lush score appearing somewhat intrusive), and sequences of political intrigue and/or debate. Dolley's first supper-party is impressively staged, with Dolley and Madison sat at either end of a long table, flanked by congressmen and their spouses. Borzage's camera intercuts between the two protagonists, making us aware of their burgeoning relationship which was both personal and political in scope.
David Niven was a highly versatile actor who often seemed to be typecast in romantic leading roles. By the mid-Forties his career as a leading man was on the skids, due in no small part to his military service in the British army. As Aaron, he has the chance to demonstrate his capacities, especially when he tries (and fails) to conceal his frustrations both in love and politics. Meredith makes a convincing Madison; the kind of person whom everyone can trust and hence an ideal presidential candidate. Rogers doesn't have much to do, except for a climactic speech delivered at the end of the film to the Virginian people where she emphasizes the importance of the rule of law. This she delivers with élan.
MAGNIFICENT DOLL is a watchable film, even if its didactic purposes sometimes get in the way of its dramatic development.