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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
MGM in trying to expand Joan Crawford's repertoire into period costume pieces spared no expense and gave her one all star cast in this drama about the Peggy O'Neal Eaton affair. The basic facts are true, Peggy O'Neal, daughter of a Washington, DC tavern-keeper and widow of a young Navy Lieutenant, marries the Senator from Tennessee who then is chosen Secretary of War in President Andrew Jackson's original cabinet. The Cabinet wives however refuse to receive Peggy socially as does the wife of the Vice President John C. Calhoun. Jackson blows his cabinet up, requests resignations from all involved and Eaton and Peg are sent in exile so to speak as he is made Minister to Spain.
The real story is far more complex than that. Jackson did regard Peggy as a slandered woman, much like his late wife Rachel was. Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson dies between the election and inauguration of Jackson. Beulah Bondi plays her in the movie and it's the best performance in the film. In real life this whole affair was being maneuvered behind the scenes by John Calhoun and Secretary of State Martin Van Buren taking anti and pro Peggy positions respectively. Van Buren's character is barely mentioned here. Played by Charles Trowbridge, he's given one or two lines in the film.
Robert Taylor strikes the right note as the young Naval Lieutenant Bow Timberlake. After Timberlake and Peggy are married, he is ordered to sea and dies there. The manner of his death has never been satisfactorily explained. It's also not explained here and that leaves the audiences up in the air.
Franchot Tone plays John Eaton and I think a lot of his performance is left on the cutting room floor. In real life there is some question as to whether Eaton and Peggy were involved while she was married to Timberlake.
But the most fantastic error in this plot is John Randolph's interest in Peggy. The real John Randolph was impotent, his testicles never descended, he never reached puberty. He never had any romantic attachments with anyone, he wasn't capable of it. In real life John Randolph because he never reached puberty had this girlishly high-pitched voice when he spoke on the floor of Congress. No one ever dared make fun of him though as he was a crack shot with a dueling pistol. Melvyn Douglas played a character with no basis in reality.
One of the other things I found a bit much was Douglas's constant prattle about state's rights. To him this a nice philosophy to be debated on the floor of Congress. Louis Calhern's character who is admittedly like a previous reviewer describes him as a Snidely Whiplash villain, is ready for secession. He goes to Randolph and says that he's organized a movement and he wants Randolph to lead it. The real Randolph would have been hot to trot for that. Melvyn Douglas reacts in horror however, he threatens to expose Calhern's villainy. Calhern has to shoot him. But if you think about it, the only thing Calhern did was take that state's right talk of Douglas to its logical conclusion and translate it into action.
The real John Randolph was never assassinated, he died of natural causes and had no major role in the Peggy O'Neal affair at all.
Maybe some day someone will make a better film of this incident.
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