It's the early nineteenth century Washington. Young adult Margaret O'Neal - Peggy to most that know her - is the daughter of Major William O'Neal, who is the innkeeper of the establishment where most out-of-town politicians and military men stay when they're in Washington. Peggy is pretty and politically aware. She is courted by several of those politicians and military men who all want to marry her, except for the one with who she is truly in love. Because of her personal situation at the time, she, in 1828, becomes the unofficial first lady to help her old friend - "old" both in terms of age and length of time - Andrew Jackson, who has just been elected President of the United States. Jackson and Peggy have the same political outlook, where the union of the states is paramount, especially when many states see their rights as being more important than the union. Jackson had a rough ride during the election in large part because his wife, Rachel Jackson, was seen as a pipe smoking ... Written by
"The Gorgeous Hussy" impressed me at once as a rather trite, artificial history-based (I won't actually call it historical) film about the Eaton Affair scandal of Andrew Jackson's presidency. It's an odd subject somewhat to choose as the basis for a romance-filled drama, and the script doesn't do it a whole lot of justice at times. A lot of the dialogue is just difficult to swallow or sickly-sweet, and American history is treated with a kind of overly orthodox distorting reverence -- turning the scandal into a stage for Andrew Jackson to be held up as an early defender of the Union in a proto-iteration of the Civil War -- that grates.
There are good points too however: Lionel Barrymore creates a wonderfully memorable performance as the raucous and rough yet wise President Jackson. He makes the former president human even while the script presents him somewhat two-dimensionally as a kind of grumpy but lovable old uncle most of the time (with a few nice scenes where he gets to be principled and statesmanlike in the face of his congress). Joan Crawford seeps magnetism and sympathy as Margaret, even as we are not really allowed to see the struggles between men that make up much of the movie emotionally dramatized for her. These actors get to play a few nice dramatic scenes amid the posturing, including a very effective one after President Jackson's wife's death.
Unfortunately, the piety with which "The Gorgeous Hussy" treats American history extends to other elements of its subject matter. We are supposed to sympathize with Margaret about the viscous rumors that are spread about her, but we never really learn what the rumors are or why they are spread. In other words, in this Hays-code influenced feature, we see how the titular gorgeous hussy is gorgeous, but never really how she is a hussy.
There are a few fine performances here, and the film is quite watchable, but it is let down by an overly careful, pious, and reverent production in many respects.
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