Magnificent Doll is probably best known for being one of Ginger Rogers dramatic roles—of course, she is best known for her classic musical comedies with her dancing partner Fred Astaire. She remains somewhat underappreciated as a dramatic actress, even though Magnificent Doll itself is not the shining jewel in her crown of dramatic performances. The film was directed by the interesting Frank Borzage, whose career spanned from the silent era to all the way to the end of the 50s: he is due a big reappraisal.
This film, however, is a relatively dry yet melodramatic biopic of one of the United States of America’s first ladies, Dolly Payne, and her relationships with James Madison and Aaron Burr. The true story is far more fascinating than the tale that unfolds on the screen. The film did at least pique my interest enough to do a bit of research on her and Madison (who was the fourth president) and Burr, who ended up causing one of the first constitutional crises in the US after his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton.
Borzage and the screenwriter, Irving Stone, decide to have the fascinating construction of the US government really in the background. Instead, they focused on the relatively bland story of this socialite playing Burr and Madison off one another. However, Ginger Rogers does get the big patriotic speech to stop the mob taking out Burr after he is found not guilty of treason. Obviously, due to the time it was made, the film avoids taking on any of the complicated aspects of the characters. Thomas Jefferson’s betrayal of Burr (who was Jefferson’s vice president) in court, for example, or anything really substantial about slaves are avoided, despite slavery being the major taint on Jefferson’s otherwise excellent presidency.
The film doesn’t even tackle perhaps the most interesting aspect of Dolly’s life, which was when she finally became the first lady. Dolly Madison really started what a first lady is “supposed to be”’ with her high-profile entertaining. It’s told through flashbacks, and it never really gels together in any satisfying way. Even her single-handedly saving the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is told in such a throwaway fashion. Ginger shines anyway, of course, and Burgess Meredith (who was always good) plays Madison and David Niven plays Burr as a total slimeball, which is a common portrayal of him. As a part of his famous Narratives of Empire series of historical novels, Gore Vidal did a fictional memoir of Burr that painted him in a far more sympathetic light.
The disc is fairly low on extras, but includes a commentary by film writers David Del Vale and Sloan De Forest and a visual essay by Farran Nehme on the dramatic roles of Ginger Rogers.