ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Magnificent Doll (1946) starring Ginger Rogers Blu Ray (Arrow)
The life of a First Lady
This historical drama directed by Frank Borzage starts off at the 1812 Burning of Washington as First Lady Dolly Madison (Ginger Rogers) salvages what she can from the White House. The film then flashes back to earlier in her life on a Virginia plantation as her father John Payne (Robert Barrat) arranges for her to be married to John Todd (Stephen McNally), the son of a man who saved his life on the battlefield and got killed in the process.
While she lives comfortably with him in Philadelphia for some years and they have a baby son she never truly feels love for him. After some time fate intervenes as the town where they are living is struck by yellow fever. Dolly loses her child, her father and, soon afterwards, John himself as they flee across country.
The film then picks up another few years later in Washington as Dolly and her mother Mary (Peggy Wood) make a living by running a guesthouse which is frequently used by the various aspirational politicians who come and go from the city. One of them is the dashing but ruthlessly ambitious Aaron Burr (David Niven) with whom she quickly becomes besotted. However, she starts to become increasingly drawn to the more progressive politics of another lodger, James Madison (Burgess Meredith), who aims to push through a bill to abolish slavery.
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Not a magnificent film
Hollywood’s Golden Age certainly spawned a large number of truly stellar performers (Ginger Rogers being amongst them) and many genuinely classic films. However, not everything from this era was… well… golden. Magnificent Doll is a case in point. It’s not so much a lousy movie as it is a lazy one; a rich opportunity to represent a tumultuous era in US history is missed in favour of a trite romantic love triangle melodrama which merely pays lip service to politics.
I mean lip service literally; there’s a hell of a lot of talk here and not much action. The Burning of Washington is briefly represented by a few background flashes seen through the windows of the White House. The battle that John Payne returns from early on in the film is never seen at all - merely mentioned. The closest we get to any excitement is a brief and rather boringly staged sword fight in a tavern.
It’s not just the bloodshed that’s kept offscreen. When Dolly’s child and father succumb to yellow fever they are, again, merely mentioned. When people lose loved ones in this manner it’s a tragic, character-changing event - so why trivialise it in this manner? Moreover, while there’s an underlying touched-upon theme about the abolition of slavery we only ever see one black character on screen for any substantial length of time: Dolly’s maid Amy (Frances E. Williams), whom we never witness behaving in any other capacity than as her dogsbody.
The cast partially redeems it
The lead performances are the best things about this film. The dialogue is on the leaden and obvious side at times (at one point Dolly says “I feel so important”) but Ginger Rogers gives off a persuasively indomitable air. Niven is his usual suave self (albeit not sporting the moustache that would ultimately become his trademark) and manages to generate a fine chemistry with the actress when they are on screen together. When it was unusual to cast this much-loved British actor as an antagonist he carries enough weight to be believable in the role. Nowadays it’s a little strange to see Burgess Meredith as the “good” politician/ romantic lead (he later played The Penguin in the campy 1960s Batman TV series) but he does well enough.
Unfortunately, some of the supporting performances are on the weak side. Stephen McNally is wooden as Dolly’s first husband and the actor who plays Thomas Jefferson (Grandon Rhodes) is so utterly underwhelming that you end up wondering how his onscreen representation of an American President managed to persuade anyone to vote for him - not that he has much dialogue to say. That pretty much says it all about the film; the main events are ignored in favour of a trivial sideshow.
There’s a little gravitas generated at the film’s climax as Rogers gets to make a rousing and impassioned speech about the dangers of mob rule. However, it’s a pity that more of this uninspiring historical potboiler couldn’t have been the same.
Runtime: 95 mins
Dir: Frank Borzage
Script: Irving Stone
Starring: Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Burgess Meredith, Peggy Wood, Stephen McNally, Robert Barrat, Grandon Rhodes, Frances E. Williams
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The image is very crisp with great contrast but a few visible artefacts. Audio is very clean and pleasant.
Commentary by David Del Valle and Sloan De Forest
An enjoyable commentary looking at the contemporary reception to the film; it garnered mixed reviews with some critics opining that Rogers and Niven were miscast. In typical retrospective fashion they also discuss the respective careers of many of the people involved. The insights into Ginger Rogers (who is eternally linked with Fred Astaire in the public conscience despite the fact that they only starred together in 10 of her 73 films) and her mother Lila are especially interesting.
The two commentators also try their best to defend the film against its negative reputation but never really address the criticisms that I mention in my review.
Ginger Rogers: Following Her Own Lead
Farran Smith Nehme’s excellent visual essay takes a look at the acclaimed but now largely forgotten dramatic acting career of Ginger Rogers. It’s a nice whisk through a selection of films that, by and large, you most likely haven’t heard of.
A limited edition collector’s booklet rounds out the extras.
Magnificent Doll is strictly for Ginger Rogers aficionados. It trivialises history in a way that is certainly noticeable when watched with modern eyes (and was undoubtedly noticeable even back then). However, as with most Arrow releases the quality of the overall package is of some compensation.