Oh, American history! So full of passion, intrigue, and even more passion. What a soap opera you are! How many crises were solved with longing looks across wooden tables? Were Presidencies lost in hope of currying a lady's favor? Is the phrase "I love you" more powerful than "We the People..."?
According to Magnificent Doll, the answers are "a lot," "yes," and "yes." Rearrange and apply as necessary.
So why is this 1946 biopic of Dolly Madison such a snooze? There is nary a zinger to be heard, much less tastefully enjoyed.
Directed by Frank Borzage, Magnificent Doll stars the affable Ginger Rogers as Dolly, wife to President James Madison (Burgess Meredith), famous more for saving the portrait of George Washington from a burning White House than she was her snack cakes. This incident, so crucial to every American elementary school education, is reduced to an opening anecdote, however; Dolly has a better story to tell. It's all about her marriages and how she learns to love. You see, as a teenager, her father (Robert Barrat) promised her to another man's son, and Dolly was so angry, she refused to ever fall in love with John Todd (Stephen McNally), regardless of how much he may have actually loved her. When the man died fighting for their country, it became her eternal regret that she never repaid his many kindnesses.
This makes her far more careful when love comes knocking again. Dolly and her mother (Peggy Wood), both widowed, open a boarding house in Philadelphia where they cater to the players of the early American government. Their two biggest lodgers are Madison and his friend and rival Aaron Burr (David Niven). Both have a hankering for Dolly, and both present two very different prospects as husband material. Madison is kind and thoughtful, but Burr...oh, Aaron Burr is a bad boy! Selfish, vain, and possessed of tyrannical pretensions. He takes Dolly to bars where she can watch men brawl! He kisses her under the stairs! How can you even compete, James Madison, you mealy-mouthed nerd?!
Well, the answer might surprise you. Then again, if you've ever read a young adult novel, it might not. Aaron Burr attempts to form a well-armed militia to overthrow the government. That's right! You can have bad breath or bad hair or a poor sense of fashion, but Dolly Madison has no time for 2nd-Amendment nutters. She will do her best to save Aaron Burr from himself, but we all know whose white house she's going to move into.
Come to think of it, Magnificent Doll actually would have been better as a high school drama. Aaron Burr is all troubled and dark, smoking cigarettes and writing bad poetry between class, while James Madison gets laughed at for studying and stuff. Niven and Meredith both seem to get the inherent silliness of the script. As written by Irving Stone (Lust for Life), the Continental Congress is little more than the equivalent of a mock U.N. All the boys are just waiting for the next break to pass a note to the pretty redhead.
Too bad she's so dull. Hanging out with Dolly instead of working is like taking a break from a nap to take another nap. Ginger Rogers totally flounders here. She is so earnest about playing Dolly as a proper lady, she drains all personality right out of the character. Her speechifying and noble declarations just sound bland and corny.
As is all of the movie. Magnificent Doll is not a total travesty, it ambles along just fine, never quite sinking down to be egregiously bad. It more or less just exists. Like Frank Borzage simply hit autopilot and let this thing make itself.
Magnificent Doll is released on Blu-ray as high-definition, full-frame (1.37:1) transfer. The black-and-white image varies throughout. Sometimes it is sharp and clean, sometimes the resolution is soft and there are lots of marks on the source print. In a way, it kind of replicates the experience of seeing an old 35mm print in the theater, one of those cases where you never know what you're going to get from one reel to the next. Luckily, the basic image stays stable throughout and there is a consistent grain that lends a certain continuity to the experience.
Mixed in mono, the original audio is clean and free of glitches, noise, or dropouts.
I joked above that Magnificent Doll should have been a high school drama, but the more tragic joke is that it might actually make you wish you were back in high school where American history is vibrant and alive in the classroom--well, at least compared to this 1946 dud. Ginger Rogers appears lost in all the costume frippery, caught between two political lovers. Namely, a boring script and a bored director. Skip It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.