The Gorgeous Hussy

Dullsville

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

It probably comes as no surprise that the star of a movie called The Gorgeous Hussy is Joan Crawford. I think the term hussy was probably used quite regularly to describe the star’s off-screen behavior, but the movie is not as scandalous as the title might suggest. This work of historical fiction is set in 1823 Washington D.C. and places Crawford’s hussy among several government notables of the time.

Crawford plays Peggy, daughter of an innkeeper in D.C. where several lawmakers stay while in the capitol. She has grown up around the men and so Virginia Sen. John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas) has a hard time thinking of the girl as a woman. This reluctance causes him to spurn her when she enters his room late one night to declare her love.

The rejection leads Peggy to accept the advances of a sailor “Bow” Timberlake (Robert Taylor). The couple marries but Bow is called back to duty on the U.S.S. Constitution and dies before ever returning home.

Peggy has been good friends with Andrew (Lionel Barrymore) and Rachel Jackson (Beulah Bondi) for a number of years and begins to hang around with the politician up through a rough campaign for president, which he, of course, wins. The campaign involved a lot of gossip and harsh words against Rachel, who first married Andrew before her divorce from her first husband was finalized. With Jackson as president and Rachel having passed away, Peggy is in classy company but the rumors about her begin to mount.

Randolph returns to D.C. after five years in Russia and has resolved his feelings about Peggy to the point he does want to be with her, but the relationship will not last. Jackson objects to a union between the two and instead convinces Peggy to eventually wed Secretary of War John Eaton, played by Crawford’s one-time husband Franchot Tone. The rumors and “pot house Peg” references culminate in backlash from Jackson who asks his entire cabinet to resign because of their demands Peggy be sent away from Washington for the various scandals she has caused. Being the bigger person, Peggy bows out of the capitol scene.

I think filmmakers run a risk when inserting fictional characters into real historical situations. It is one thing to have fun with history and change aspects of real events for a laugh, but a drama in the same vein is not nearly as fun. If one ignores Crawford’s character in The Gorgeous Hussy, the movie does have some interesting historical aspects, such as the horrible mud that was slung at Rachel Jackson. The movie also becomes a bit predictable in terms of which relationships we know will be unsuccessful for Peggy, given that John Randolph never married someone with her name.

Crawford’s performance is fine, but uninspired. She is a woman with conflicting romantic emotions who is pursued or admired by nearly every man around her. We cannot, however, enjoy the movie as a “what might have been” romance between Peggy and Randolph given the historic requirements. I found it difficult to enjoy any of Peggy’s romantic interludes, which just added junk to what could have been a decent historical recollection of Jackson’s election.

Knights of the Round Table

Dullsville

Knights of the Round Table (1954)

I tend to dislike movies set in any ancient era or really any time preceding the turn of the 19th Century. That being the case, the many costume dramas strewn throughout cinema history struggle to entice me. I one test of a truly great movies is that can garner the appreciation and enjoyment of the viewer who dislikes the given genre. Knights of the Roundtable does not do that for me.

Despite its big leading stars and sex appeal, Knights of the Round Table fails in the draw of its story and conviction of its actors. Taking a look at a different angle of the Sword in the Stone story of King Arthur, the flick focuses largely on Sir. Lancelot of the Lake (Robert Taylor) and his relationship with both Arthur (Mel Ferrer) and the king’s wife, Guinevere (Ava Gardner).

Amidst the many sword-fought battle/duel scenes, Lancelot makes the acquaintance of Arthur, who is essentially campaigning to be ruler of the land following his extraction of Excalibur from the stone. Once king, Arthur arranges to make good with his love Guinevere and marry her. The woman is being held in a castle, however, when Lancelot stumbles upon the situation. The knight fights the guard for her, not knowing she is Guinevere.

A love triangle of sorts ensues as Lancelot acts as best friend to Arthur while harboring feelings for the queen who does not hide her appreciation. Arthur seems so blind to the possibility of an inappropriate relationship that he declares Lancelot the Queen’s Champion. Knowing how he feels, Guinevere instructs Lancelot to marry Elaine (Maureen Swanson), who has been pouring her love all over the knight since before Guinevere entered the picture. Lancelot follows through with the marriage and takes his wife away from the castle to oversee the battlefield.

While away, Elaine dies in childbirth, prompting Lancelot’s return to Camelot –and his disposal of the baby with his father. The flame between the queen and the knight is rekindled, and a nearly innocent moment between them sparks a controversy that will bring down Arthur.

This description of the Knights of the Round Table certainly sounds far more sexy than it actually comes off. There are many other plot elements involved related to Modred (Stanley Baker) and Morgan LeFay’s (Anne Crawford) plot to disgrace and unseat Arthur. There is also a bit of a “bromance” within the story tracking the ups and downs between Arthur and Lancelot. The story has potential, but it failed to grasp me on any of these topics. The performances were just too underwhelming to drive an emotional response. Gardner is as gorgeous as ever, but offers nothing more. Ferrer, meanwhile, has never managed to convince me he is capable of a decent performance (including as husband to Audrey Hepburn. Zing!) Taylor, lastly, provides only a middle-of-the-road conveyance of Lancelot, a part that could have been played by anyone.

Knights of the Round Table does, however, have the distinction of being the first movie MGM shot in CinemaScope and recorded in stereo sound. The widescreen technique would become the mainstay of many epic adventures with vast landscapes like this one; though, certainly there were better movies shot in the format.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

Camille (1937)

Ring a Ding Ding

Camille (1937)

     The 1937 release of Camille did not give audiences a new story. The romance originated as an Alexandre Dumas novel that became a Paris play in 1848, the Verdi opera La Traviata, a 1907 Danish short film La Dame aux Camlias, a 1915 Shubert production, a 1917 Fox film, and a 1927 First National production, among many others. What the other adaptations did not have, however, was Greta Garbo.

     Although the past productions also featured some great actresses in the lead role, for audiences in the 1930s, there was no better-suited star than Garbo. She plays Marguerite Gautier –the lady of the camellias because of her love of the flower– who in this film’s case is a society lady whose lifestyle is paid for by the generosity of male suitors. With her debt on the rise, Marguerite is advised by a friend, Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews), to find a wealthy suitor. The mark is the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), but a case of mistaken identity at the theatre lands Marguerite in acquaintance with long-time admirer Armand Duval (Robert Taylor).

     Although Marguerite carries on a relationship with the Baron, and he keeps her financially sound, she finds herself all at once in love with Armand when the two are alone at a party. She has also been hearing that this man over the years has always been ever attentive when she would fall under one of her illness spells, likely the result of tuberculosis. After some time and growing affection, Marguerite agrees to break off her relationship with the baron in order to spend a summer in the country with Armand, something that would perhaps mend her health. Before she can leave town, however, she must pay off $40,000 francs worth of debt, something no match for Armand’s $7,000 per year salary. The baron foots the bill just before declaring he would never see Marguerite again.

     The couple have a marvelous time in the country despite the discovery that the baron’s mansion is just a hill away. While there, however, Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore) stops by to beg Marguerite to back off. He says the relationship will ruin the young man’s future success and could bring a certain amount of shame upon him. Marguerite, despite knowing that her health is unlikely to keep her around for many more years, coldly breaks her relationship with Armand and says she is returning to the nearby baron. The couple will reunite, but not under happy circumstances.

     I cannot help but ponder why the story of Camille has time and time again produced movies –as recently as the 2001 Moulin Rouge. The story is that of a love triangle but not one in which the object of the dual affection is emotionally torn between two individuals. Instead, she must weigh passion against her financial needs, needs that have been ever-present in her past up until the introduction of true love. Other incarnations of Camille have painted the woman as a courtesan, and although the Garbo version does not depict her that way ala Production Code restrictions, there is no denying her source of income. So the story also involves a love so strong that it ignores the woman’s seedy past.

     Perhaps the plot is appealing to viewers because the romantic choice is obvious; we will always root for love over money. Yet regardless of the decision, the woman will still meet a fate that neither love nor money could have prevented.

     Garbo and Taylor embody all that the story demands of impassioned love. Although Garbo’s performances can be cold at times, she is convincing in her emotional connection with Taylor, who meanwhile is exhibiting the endearingly obsessive love that seems to exist only in films and classic literature. The couple does the story justice and create a good entre for anyone who has yet to be exposed to the classic romance.

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