Above photo: Ginger Rogers in Magnificent Doll (1946)
As a director, Frank Borzage brought style, taste, intelligence, and commitment to the most romantic nonsense. In other words: he was invaluable to Hollywood. Two examples from 1946 are now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films. Under the frivolous tosh, both films focus on the strength and independence of women who must free themselves from dominating men in order to find happiness in more equal partnerships. It helps that both have scripts by top popular novelists who knew how to construct a story.
Borzage produced and directed I’ve Always Loved You, written by Borden Chase from his story “Concerto”. (This versatile writer is best remembered for westerns, including the novel and screenplay of Red River.) The story follows Myra Hassman (Catherine McLeod), a brilliant classical pianist tutored for her Carnegie Hall debut by the charming and mercurial Leopold Goronoff (Philip Dorn). He whisks her through the capitals of Europe and South America, where she idolizes him while he discards women like tissues.
Meanwhile, back in her lovely country home of rolling hills and shirtless farmers, she’s quietly loved by a tall strapping hunk next door, described as a simple good man (William Carter). No less an authority than the maestro’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya, famous from many a werewolf picture) tells him to fight for Myra against her son.
The long, complicated plot drags on for many years before Myra can resolve herself psychologically. This is one of those highbrow studio films that celebrate classical music, a literal melodrama that showcases works like Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. It’s handled (twice) as a major plot point and expression of character, not as a mere pause where the film grinds to a halt. The first performance is presented with many “notes” of the common people appreciating the longhair music and serving as a chorus to observe and explain the struggle between student and teacher for “who is master”.
Goronoff declares there’s no place for a woman in music because she will always submit to some man. His ego is clear, and Myra’s problem is lacking sufficient ego to do justice to the music. In this way, a romantic triangle uses music as the context for expressing women’s yearning for self-assertion, something she must learn to do in a male-dominated field. There’s also a postwar subtext about decadent European despotism vs. wholesome American strength, although this would be clearer if all the music weren’t European. By the way, the piano performances are dubbed by Artur Rubinstein, though McLeod fakes it convincingly.
Dorn, a Dutch-born actor of moderate success in Hollywood character roles, has his meatiest lead here, as does the harshly pretty McLeod, who faded into ’50s TV roles. Carter’s portrayal of a blandly understanding husband doesn’t promise more, and it never came for him. Felix Bressart, Elizabeth Patterson, Fritz Feld, and Vanessa Brown fill out the supporting cast. Tony Gaudio’s photography and Ernst Fegté’s design are lovely in creamy Technicolor, a surprising expense for the B factory of Republic Pictures.
I’ve Always Loved You was the first of three films Borzage made under a Republic contract that gave him complete artistic control; it was the studio’s first Technicolor film. He next made That’s My Man, which has also been released by Olive Films, and his Republic output culminated in the brilliant romantic noir Moonrise, but the other film that concerns us today is the epic that Borzage made for Universal just before moving to Republic, Magnificent Doll.
DVD: Magnificent Doll
Film: Magnificent Doll
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Ginger Rogers, David Niven
Rating: Not rated
US DVD release date: 2014-08-19
Distributor: Olive Films
Extras rating: N/A
Universal films were tightly budgeted too, but they lent themselves to Technicolor more often, so it’s a bit surprising that they didn’t fork out for Magnificent Doll, a prestige historical picture that fairly cries out for color with its lavish sets and outdoor sequences. Still, Joseph Valentine’s chiaroscuro tones are typically excellent in suggestive fire-lit scenes. More importantly, the script by Irving Stone is more literate and articulate and the performances a shade more graceful in their star power.
Ginger Rogers plays Dolley Madison, seen as the forthright and opinionated yet lovely and diplomatic wife of fourth U.S. President James Madison (Burgess Meredith), presented as quietly brilliant and self-effacing. He’s seen as a supporting character in his own presidency, and in fact, the story doesn’t get that far aside from a brief opening sequence of bustle during the War of 1812.
Rogers’ co-star is David Niven, who teamed with her memorably in Bachelor Mother. He plays Senator Aaron Burr, who’s famous for being Thomas Jefferson’s vice-president, for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and for being tried for treason. Accurately or not, he’s portrayed as a complex mixture of sophistication, gallantry, and the demonic. He’s inherently a more dramatic character than Madison, and his presence in the film is justified by his friendship with Dolley, which began when he was a lodger at her widowed mother’s home.
The plot detours into fanciful scenes alleging Burr’s romantic designs on Dolley and culminating with passionate speeches in which our heroine pacifies a lynch mob. The package quotes Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review: “Heaven help the poor school children whose minds are supposedly informed about the American Federalist period by the film Magnificent Doll.” Notwithstanding this condescending tone, children and adults could do worse. There have been too few films about this period to dismiss this one lightly.
This film is fascinating, fluid, and enjoyable from beginning to end, and all the made-up romantic nonsense serves to dramatize serious ideas in a political dialectic about the nature of freedom. If Burr is the unlikely anti-hero of this romantic drama, it’s because his dominating presence represents the seductive nature of power and its desire to control, something the film says (correctly) appeals to the submissive will of many people.
Dolley’s sympathy and growing revulsion for his would-be tyranny (over herself and the country) represents a struggle within her own spirit and its coming to fruition as an individual, and these feelings are complemented by her harmony with the personality and politics of Madison. As vivacious as she reputedly was, it seems unlikely that Dolley was quite the political manipulator depicted here, but this behavior serves her symbolic function as America itself wrestling with these ideas, and she manages this always in the context of being conscious of women’s social roles in her society.
There are many memorable scenes, beginning with her father’s dramatic return from the Revolutionary War with a renewed commitment to Quakerism, the freeing of his slaves, and (in an irony she feels keenly) his promising Dolley to a husband she doesn’t want. Her scenes with that husband (Stephen McNally) are as well-handled as those with her parents (Peggy Wood, Robert Barrat), and she also has interesting scenes of comradeship with a black servant and confidante (Frances Williams).
This unusual biopic is presented as the anti-romance of two characters who ultimately cannot and should not be together–just as in I’ve Always Loved You. That’s why neither film quite fits the conventional romantic pattern so neatly, not to mention the pattern of many Borzage movies about lovers who overcome great odds to be together. Perhaps, one might reasonably conclude, this lack of convention has led the films to be underrated or misunderstood.