Magnificent Doll

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History lite story of America’s Founding Fathers

Image of Magnificent Doll

Frank Borzage / US / 1946 / 95mins

Available on Blu-ray Mon 19 Feb 2018

What would the late Gore Vidal have made of President Trump? Author of Live from Golgotha (the Crucifixion seen as reality TV) and biographical novel of Aaron Burr. Vidal would have been in his element. It was Burr, one of America’s Founding Fathers, who killed Alexander Hamilton (he of the new mega-musical) in an illegal duel in 1804 and went on to attempt to declare himself emperor of a seceded part of the American South West. Meantime former paramour Dolley Payne became the hostess with the mostest in Washington, DC helping to remodel the White House in spectacular style. All this might make for a binge-worthy box set a la John Adams. Quite what made Arrow release Magnificent Doll probably involves none of the above. This is historical drama lite.

The movie is a timely reminder of how the RKO studio (best-remembered for B-movies and Rogers and Astaire musicals) could really pull out the stops when it wanted to. It’s also a reminder of what a versatile and underrated performer Ginger Rogers was and how she never quite reached her full potential. A famous cartoon ran: “[Fred Astaire] was great but Ginger Rogers did everything he did, except backwards and in high heels”. Rogers herself felt deeply about her unfulfilled potential. She was never able to fully develop as a serious actress, partly because of her doll-like looks (blonde with big, widely-spaced blue eyes).

Rogers plays the vivacious Dolley who flirts with Aaron Burr (David Niven) finally marries President Madison (Burgess Meredith) and becomes one of the best remembered First Ladies (more Jackie than Melania, it must be said). It’s the early 19th century and the women are in ringlets and the men look as if they’ve stepped off a Johnnie Walker whisky label. There’s lots of earnest talk and when Dolley and Madison debate the American way of freedom (slavery notwithstanding) viewers might struggle for the need of a basic grounding in this era of American history… Others may struggle in believing the characters (Dolley the Quaker wife in perfect lipstick). But it’s an enjoyable enough movie.

At root, however, Rogers is miscast. She might have deserved more meaty roles but this wasn’t one of them. How different a movie might have been with Bette Davis or even Norma Shearer.