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.