A Joan Crawford Film That's Pure Camp!

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)
Directed by Clarence Brown
MGM, 103 minutes, Not-rated

For professional historians, finding factual errors in a Hollywood history film is as easy as locating Chinese-made goods in a Walmart. You won’t need a history degree to suspect that things are amiss in The Glorious Hussy. Joan Crawford stars as Margaret “Peggy” O’Neal (1799-1879), a fascinating woman whose life has parallels to the salaciousness of the film’s title. Alas, most of that story remained eluded scriptwriter Stephen Avery.

In the movie, O’Neal is the vivacious daughter of a Washington, D.C. innkeeper and a political junkie who can hold her own in debates over federal versus local sovereignty with senators such as Daniel Webster (MA) and John Randolph (VA). Secretly, she has loved the older Randolph (Melvyn Douglas) since girlhood, even though she’s an ardent Unionist and he a states’ rights advocate. When he rebuffs her, she elopes with a handsome sailor, 39-year-old “Beau” Timberlake (Robert Taylor), who is twice her age. Upon his death, she marries Senator John Eaton (Franchot Tone) just months after Timberlake is dispatched to Davy Jones’ locker. Rumors fly.

Further complications arise when her “Uncle Andy” Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) wins the presidency after a brutish campaign that besmirches his wife Rachel (Beulah Bondi). She is crestfallen and dies before Jackson takes the White House*.  When he does, the heartbroken Jackson asks Peggy to act as his White House hostess. This outrages DC socialites such as Vice President John C. Calhoun’s wife, Floride, who organizes other political wives to snub Mrs. Eaton. They regard her as an adulteress and–they whisper–perhaps a murderess. An outraged Jackson, who blamed malicious ridicule for Rachel’s death, defends Peggy’s honor to the degree that he eventually fires his entire Cabinet except for Eaton, his Secretary of War. Tongues continue to wag, however, and Peggy eventually convinces Jackson to apoint John ambassador to Spain so they can escape the DC snake pit.  

There are enough evidential holes for several stagecoaches to pass through, but had director Clarence Brown left matters there, we’d have a workable rough draft of the improbable-but-true Petticoat Affair (1829-1831). The social backstabbing over Peggy was so intense and constant that President Jackson had trouble getting any work done. Instead of plumbing the depths of this, The Gorgeous Hussy piles on contrivances until history gives way to farce. There is, for instance, the invented character of “Rowdy” Dow, a goofy mooncalf, Peggy’s friend and defender. The role is so ambiguous that Jimmy Stewart seems to improvise from one scene to the next. We witness Randolph as a pivotal figure in the Nullification Crisis** of 1832, though Calhoun was the lynchpin and Randolph opposed his stance. Instead, Brown devises an absurd scene in which a secessionist “anarchist” (really?) assassinates Randolph and leaves Peggy bereft. (In life, Randolph died of pneumonia and there is no evidence that he and Peggy were smitten with each other. He was 26 years older than she.)

Let’s set a few more things straight. The Glorious Hussy was made just two years after the Hays Code stablished strict moral guidelines that movies had to adhere to acquire certification, without which they could not be distributed. The real Peggy O’Neill was outspoken, flirtatious, and quite possibly a for-real “hussy,” an outmoded and politically incorrect term that means brazen and/or sexually promiscuous. She married Timberlake in 1816 and bore two children–a third died at birth–but it’s up for grabs if they all sired by Eaton, a drunkard and gambler. We know for certain that she met Eaton in 1818, and that the two were seen in each other’s company long before Timberlake died in 1828. Because Peggy was already viewed as Eaton’s lover, unsubstantiated rumors held that Timberlake committed suicide. Perhaps the moralists had grounds to suspect her. For what it’s worth, Peggy was neither Jackson’s niece nor his White House hostess; that job fell to Jackson’s actual niece, Emily Donelson, who was among those snubbing the Eatons.

The Cabinet firing was real. It was engineered by his Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren, who “resigned” so that Jackson could dismiss the rest of his advisors. When the dust settled, only Eaton remained and Van Buren became Jackson’s confidant. When Vice President Calhoun took up the nullification cause, Jackson dumped him in time for his 1832 reelection; Van Buren became the new VP and four years later, the 8th president of the United States. (Legend holds that Jackson threatened to hang Calhoun!) As for Peggy, the best that can be said of her is that she was an unconventional woman in an age in which that was not a sanctioned option for most women. She and John did go to Spain, though John was first appointed governor of Florida Territory. John died in 1856; 10 years later, 59-year-old Peggy married an Italian dance instructor who was in his mid-20s. (It did not end well. They divorced in 1869, but he bilked her and Peggy died in poverty in 1879.)

Good stuff. Too bad it’s not in the movie. Barrymore and Bondi play the Jacksons as if they just wandered off the set of a Ma and Pa Kettle episode. Incredibly, Bondi gained Best Supporting Actress nomination. More surprising still, cinematographer George Folsey was also nominated, even though his sets were cheesier than all of Wisconsin. Neither won; Hollywood has some standards! Joan Crawford was also miscast. She was a superb actress, but not a head-turning beauty. The Gorgeous Hussy is a rare case in which the lead actress was less attractive than the woman she portrayed.

Okay, it’s a 1936 movie, but it’s still a cream pie in history’s face. So why bother? First, The Gorgeous Hussy is so bad that it’s good camp. Second, turkeys often inspire us to investigate more deeply. Third, it’s a textbook case of how wrong Hollywood can get things. Watch it, and from that day forth you will don a skeptic’s hat whenever you see the fatal words, “story inspired by….”

Rob Weir

* Before the 20th Amendment (1933) new presidents took office in March, not January. Rachel Jackson died on December 22, 1828, but her husband grieved for her for the rest of his life.

** The Nullification Crisis was an argument over tariffs that also centered on whether a state could void a federal act. It later became a favored cause of pro-slavery apologists hiding behind a “states’ right” cloak.

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