20 March 2018



This historically-based costume drama is a sight for sore eyes. Ginger Rogers appears in the most fantastic dresses and hats in every scene. If the film had been made in colour and had gone on for another ninety or so minutes, it could have been a rival to GONE WITH THE WIND, the American Civil War drama that inflamed passions worldwide with Clark Gable's/Rhett Butler's reckless use of the word 'damn.'

MAGNIFICENT DOLL is not itself a Civil War drama, although it does involve itself heavily in American politics. Ginger Rogers plays Dolley Madison, the popular wife of James Madison who was President of the United States from 1809-1817, serving two terms as you can see.

This is a period of politics of which I'm woefully ignorant. I picked up some stuff about the Civil War from the aforementioned GONE WITH THE WIND, but anything that happened prior to that is lost on me, I'm afraid. 

This review will therefore concentrate, as always, on the romantic sub-plots and lovely dresses and touch only lightly on the politics, lol. As a female person of the womanly sex, I love a nice bit of love, and there's a lot of it floating about in this film.

Dolley, born Dorothea Dandridge Payne in 1768 but always known as Dolley, was married off against her will in the film, to a handsome Quaker lawyer called John Todd. This was brought about by a promise Dolley's Dad had made to a dying man. 

You gotta keep those promises, no matter what they are, lol. Even if a dying person makes you promise to dance naked down the High Street singing the Macarena, you still gotta do it 'cause a promise made to a dying person can't be broken or else the dead person can come back and haunt you. This is actually true and not something I just made up, cross my 'eart or sumthin' or nuthin.' (Vicky Pollard from LITTLE BRITAIN speaking there.)

Dolly had two sons by the clearly virile Mister Todd and, even though the marriage was obviously consummated, she vowed that she would never tell John Todd that she loved him.

Having been forced into the arranged marriage, she felt strongly that she'd been robbed by her father and husband of the right to choose her own life-partner, robbed of the chance to fall in love like a normal person. Dolley was a woman who set a lot of store by love, as most women do.

She did eventually tell John Todd that she loved him, but only when he was lying dead of the dreaded yellow fever in 1793. Too little too late then, I would have said. Poor John. Both his parents and one of his and Dolley's sons perished also in this terrible epidemic.

In the film, Dolley and her mother Mrs. Payne open up a genteel boarding-house to make ends meet after they've both been widowed. Two politicians of opposing views, Aaron Burr and James Madison, are two of their first lodgers.

Both of them fall madly in love with Dolley at first sight, which is understandable as Ginger Rogers is a blonde knockout here in her fabulous dresses and hats, with the sweetest, prettiest face you've ever seen and the lushest red lips. 

She's not unaware of her feminine powers either, though she's not brash and pushy about it like that little hussy Scarlett O'Hara. She's more subtle and genteel about it, though her outfits are to die for and accentuate her womanly curves nicely.

After stringing David Niven as Aaron Burr along for a bit, she eventually plumps for James Madison, whose politics and stance on the freedom of all men she prefers to Aaron Burr's. James Madison's view that all men are born equal and should all be free coincides with Dolley's own opinions. They're a good match for each other.

Now I could be wrong here but Aaron Burr seems to be more of a Hitler-ish type, who thinks that the country and people of America need to be governed by one strong focused ruler. Himself, in other words. David Niven plays Aaron Burr as a ruthless, maybe even mentally unbalanced man who'll stop at nothing to gain power.

Dolley makes a great President's wife. She refurbishes the White House and uses her legendary social gatherings to help her husband's work and further his causes. She was the definitive President's wife, the blueprint, if you like, for all the women who came after her. She was a game old gal who became the power behind the throne kind of thing. What's that they say? Behind every great man and all that jazz. That was old Dolley all right.

When the British set fire to the White House in 1814 (don't ask me why, I don't fully understand it!), Dolly is credited with saving the portrait of George Washington that hung there. She became something of a national heroine for so doing, although some people feel sure that it was actually the house slaves who were responsible for saving the painting. Ahem. 

And just to note also that the only black people in the film are all house servants, but that seems to be the way it still was back then. The Civil War that freed the slaves hadn't yet happened at that point and wouldn't for a while.

And don't think that that's the end of Aaron Burr either. Yes, James Madison reaches the White House before him but Aaron Burr's not finished yet, or so he thinks. Dolley visits him in prison, just before he's due to be hanged for treason (his beliefs and un-American views on how the country should be ruled run contrary to popular belief, you see).

Although Ginger's not wearing her mother's good curtains and has no need of Aaron Burr's money to save Tara by paying the taxes on it, it's hard not to think of GONE WITH THE WIND here. Scarlett's anger when she finds out that Rhett doesn't have a bean and she's been flaunting herself for nothing is just priceless. 'Taint fittin',' as Mammy would have said. And did, in fact, say.

Aaron's facing the rope and Dolley, although she doesn't care for his politics, is distraught to see her old friend and suitor brought so low. Can she save him from an angry mob thirsty for his blood? Well, if she can't, then her name ain't Dolley Madison, that's for sure...

Anyway, Ginger Roger's abundant hair is actually threaded throughout with jewels in some scenes, and the magnificent hats, created by the celebrated milliner and fashion designer Lilly Daché, are such wonderfully complex structures that one really wonders what's keeping them in place. An army of pins, hairspray and the collective will of the entire staff of Wardrobe, I shouldn't wonder.

Travis Banton and Vera West designed the stunningly eye-catching dresses. Travis Banton worked on a number of Josef Von Sternberg's films with the vampish Marlene Dietrich and Vera West's credits include BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA and other classic UNIVERSAL horror movies. In a film like this where the costumes, hats and hair are so outstanding, one definitely needs to credit the geniuses behind the sewing-machines and drawing-boards. Not to do so would be a shameful oversight.

Also worthy of mention is the fact that Ginger Rogers was a serious actress as well as the dancing songstress who made all those RKO pictures with Fred Astaire, with whose name she would be associated and partnered forever.

What's really worthy of note is that she won an Oscar in 1940 for her role in a film called KITTY FOYLE. That in itself is great but it's not the really interesting thing about her win. What's of interest chiefly is the competition she beat that year to pick up the coveted Academy Award for Best Actress.

Wait till you hear the other nominees. Just wait. Bette Davis for THE LETTER, Joan Fontaine for REBECCA and Katherine Hepburn for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. Now, I've never seen KITTY FOYLE but you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be checking it out after hearing this literally gobsmacking fact. I'll bet the after-party was a real blast. Can you just imagine the bitching that must have gone on? Oh, to have been a fly on that wall...

MAGNIFICENT DOLL is out on Blu-Ray now from ARROW ACADEMY.


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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