A warning should anyone be watching solely for Franchot's part: I would not consider this a "Franchot Tone film." He doesn't appear in the first 45 minutes and although his scenes are good, they are certainly not abundant. However, this is an ensemble drama, so no actor apart from Joan is really present for the majority of the film.
The Gorgeous Hussy is a fictional account of the life of Peggy O'Neill Eaton, the beautiful, flirtatious daughter of a hotel proprietor who faces criticism as a senator's wife and friend to President Andrew Jackson. In the film, Joan is flirtatious, but much more than that, comes across as extremely kindhearted and lovely (not nearly as bold and controversial as the real Peggy was reported to be.)
The film shows a young Peggy enjoying the advances of the politicians who frequently stay at her father's hotel. We find that unlike most women of the time, Peggy is privy to much political discussion and exposed to confidential information. Peggy's childhood friend Rowdy (James Stewart) is smitten with her, but she sees him only as a friend. Peggy is head over heals for senator John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas), who although protective, rejects her declarations of love.
By the time Randolph discovers that he does indeed have romantic feelings for her, Peggy has married Bow Timberlake (Robert Taylor). Timberlake leaves for duty the morning after their marriage and soon dies in action.
In the midst of Eaton's romantic drama, we see that she is, innocently, the apple of senator Andrew Jackson's eye. She is beloved by Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife Rachel (Beulah Bondi). Jackson is well-liked, but his wife Rachel is regularly insulted in public because they view her as uneducated and unsocial. Peggy cares for Rachel as if she's her own mother and tries to shield her from public scorn, a scorn Peggy will feel herself after she takes care of Jackson following Rachel's deathbed request. Quickly becoming the newly elected president Jackson's confidante, Peggy is the focus of much gossip.
Franchot Tone is senator John Eaton, a man who proposes to Peggy after many years of admiring her from afar. Peggy is still deeply in love with Randolph, but they are unable to get past their political differences. Not out of love, but to please president Jackson and improve her reputation, Peggy marries senator Eaton.
The film strays from the true account of Peggy's life (you can read about the real woman here,) but the costumes and sets perfectly capture the historical time in which its set. I found The Gorgeous Hussy a bit tedious in places and apart from Beulah Bondi's performance (wow!), wouldn't call any of the performances in this movie the best of their careers. Good, yes, but not the best. It's an interesting film to check out just to see the likes of Barrymore, Crawford, Taylor, Tone, and Stewart working together.
In some ways, I agree with Frank S.Nugent's review in the New York Times:
We don't believe in Miss Crawford's Peggy, we have reservations about Lionel Barrymore's Andrew Jackson, we discount Sidney Toler's Daniel Webster, we pity Melvyn Douglas's Senator John Randolph of Virginia and we cannot even recall Frank Conroy's John Calhoun or Charles Trowbridge's Martin Van Buren.
What we have here, and you might as well make the best of it, is a thoroughly romanticized biography in which Miss Crawford is gorgeous, but never a hussy. An innkeeper's daughter she may be, but that is all the women of Washington can possibly hold against her. Sweet, demure, trusting and of rather doubtful inspiration to Old Hickory—even though Mr. Barrymore gallantly implies she is his chief prop in his efforts to preserve the Union against the States-righters—Miss Crawford's Peggy is a maligned Anne of Green Gables, a persecuted Polyanna, a dismayed Dolly Dimple.
The Gorgeous Hussy is definitely a heavily romanticized tale, but it's worth watching for its legendary ensemble cast and nod to a historic event in U.S. history. It is available on DVD.
I've taken great pleasure in writing a series of posts devoted to one subject over the past 6 weeks. If you've missed any previous posts in my Franchot & Politics series, you can access those below:
From here until the new year, I'll be writing about a variety of Franchot-related subjects and am happy to be participating in blogathons devoted to Cary Grant and Agnes Moorehead in December.
Nugent, Frank S. "Democratic Unconvention in 'The Gorgeous Hussy,' at the Capitol -- 'A Son Comes Home,' at the Rialto." September 5, 1936.