THE GORGEOUS HUSSY was a Joan Crawford vehicle in which she played one of the controversial figures in the early history of this country. It was based on a novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams. An early disclaimer in the film says it’s a fiction based on fact. So true. Directed by Clarence Brown from the script by Ainsworth Morgan and Stephen Morehouse Avery, it does seem to play fast and loose with known facts, as well as the gossip that fueled the air in early Washington.
Margaret “Peggy” O’Neale(Crawford) was the daughter of the owner of the Franklin House, a boarding house frequented by the single politicians of Washington. She was a well educated woman with opinions that didn’t jib with “well mannered” women. Her vivacious, friendly personality doesn’t help either.
In the film, she has four suitors for her hand, one she loved, two she married(and not the one she loved). It was all very interesting to see these big name actors, later in their careers and so very young here. Rowdy Dow(Jimmy Stewart, billed as James and twenty-eight here) was a childhood friend who constantly asked her to marry him. Bow Timberlake(Robert Taylor, twenty-five here), a young naval Lieutenant, was here first husband. Here film varies from history. He leaves for duty in the southwest seas and is killed in action. In real life, he was twenty-two years her senior and they had three children. Her second husband was John Eaton(Franchot Tone, thirty-one). She married him at the suggestion of Andrew Jackson(Lionel Barrymore), Eaton was his Secretary of War.
The fourth suitor was the one she had loved since she was a skinny little girl. John Randolph(Melvyn Douglas, thirty-five here), a Virginia senator who was at odds with Jackson over states’ rights in this still new union. When she makes her love known, Randolph won’t admit the same, she’s seventeen and he’s much older, and pushes her toward Timberlake.
When Jackson is running for President, Peggy has been a widow for five years, becoming closer than ever to Jackson and his wife, Rachel(Beulah Bondi, getting a best supporting Oscar nomination), referring to them as Aunt and Uncle. Rachel had been the subject of much gossip in Washington because of her country ways, and the pipe smoking as well, and she dies after Jackson wins, but before he takes office. She extracts a promise from Peggy to look after her Andrew. He’s going to need it and “they aren’t going to like you any better than they liked me.”
As she ends up serving as the unofficial First Lady, the gossip mongers, in the form of the cabinet wives, ramp it up. Only one, Eaton of course, backs Jackson. He ends up firing his whole cabinet but for Eaton, an unprecedented move at the time, and plans a new one. But Peggy knows the new cabinet wives won’t like her any better and persuades Jackson to appoint her husband Ambassador to Spain.
There’s also a thread running through the film of a break-up of the new union over states’ rights with the phrase Civil War mentioned several times. But after an incident near the end that propels the Cabinet firings, that seems to end.
The film portrays Peggy Eaton as nothing more than a friend and confidant to Jackson. History suggests something more. A good film that may, or may not, be more fiction based than one believes.
As always on Tuesdays, for more overlooked films and other items, check out Todd Mason over at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM,