Magnificent Doll Review

After the death of her first husband and her child due to yellow fever, Dolley Todd (Ginger Rogers) sets up a boarding house with her mother in, Philadelphia. There, she meets Senator Aaron Burr (David Niven), an ambitious politician with his eyes firmly set on the presidency and her. However, at the same time, she also meets Statesman and Founding Father James Madison (Burgess Meredith). Potential love triangle aside, Dolley must also deal with the feeling of general unrest which threatens to destroy the relatively newly formed United States.

Most know that Ginger Rogers was one half of RKO's musical powerhouse pair alongside Fred Astaire. Not many have seen her in any films beyond those dancing parts, least of all the star of a period drama about Dolley Madison. However, in the preceding years, Ginger Rogers had won an academy award for Kitty Foyle (1940); another story about a woman torn between two lovers, thus proving that she was more than just a dance partner, graduating to the more dramatic roles, like Dolley Madison in Magnificent Doll, during a career which spanned nearly sixty years.

Dolley Madison, for those unfamiliar, was the wife of the fourth President of the United States, James Madison; it was she - through sheer force of personality - who got her husband elected. However, she did not have an easy life: losing her first husband and one of her sons to yellow fever in Philadelphia, her other son was an alcoholic and frittered away any money she had. Make no mistake, she was not a passive person, she furnished The White House (after reconstruction following the fire which burnt the original down in 1814, saving important paintings and documents along the way) and catalogued James Madison's papers to support herself. She has been called the example of what all First Ladies aspire to be, self-sustaining and highly competent.

While the film is not an extensive history of Dolley's life and her actions, it focusses on key points in her life from 1783, after Dolley's father returns from the revolutionary war all the way up to the trial of Aaron Burr for treason in 1806. It deals mainly with the relationships she had with the key men in her life, her first husband John Todd, Aaron Burr and James Madison. There may be a lack of historical accuracy to proceedings but as a piece of romantic fiction you could do worse than Magnificent Doll. The film has a similar quality to Gone With The Wind in the way that it looks, feels and quickly moves past and ignores the more troubling parts of American History. It shares the same sweeping emotional epic quality with Gone With The Wind, a story of a woman's love.

The story cracks along at a decent pace, each scene or segment never outstaying its welcome and always advancing the story that the filmmakers wanted to tell. Generally, the films that cover such a long period, like the 2016 film Denial, feel compressed and empty, however, due to the focus on the core aspects of Dolley's life, Magnificent Doll's chronology never feels tampered with.

What helps tremendously is the captivating central performance, from Ginger Rogers, who provides an earnest, effervescent Dolley Payne/Todd/Madison. She is the star of the film, and more than capable to perform the emotional gymnastics that draw an audience into her story. She is supported by two pillars; first is Burgess Meredith as James Madison, who is the less showy of the two yet still does a sterling job in a role which decibels quieter than that of the Penguin, a role he would become better know for in the 1960s. Finally, we have the suave David Niven as the more ambitious Aaron Burr. Niven already had proven chemistry with Rogers thanks to their 1939 romantic comedy Bachelor Mother, but here there is something else behind this character’s eyes. Burr is a man with a plan, and he will take Dolley with him and you sort of want him to, despite how crafty he is, thanks to the geniality of Niven's charming wit.

Arrow Academy has produced wonderful looking video quality with this disc, providing a high-quality 1080p picture that perfectly compliments the luscious set design. This is a lavish production, every frame and setting is filled with detail and luxury, just like most Hollywood films of that era and it looks fantastic on Blu-ray, as everything pops perfectly together like a black and white jigsaw piece. Similarly, the audio (an uncompressed LPCM Mono audio track) sounds great and clear.

For those who need extra assistance hearing, Arrow has provided optional subtitles that are clear and unobtrusive. Finally, menu layouts are presented in the standard Arrow format for ease of use and clarity. As we've come to expect, there are plenty of also. Not only do the first pressings have an illustrated  companion booklet featuring new writing by Nathalie Morris, but there's also a video essay from Farran Nahme on the dramatic roles of Ginger Rogers and audio commentary provided by David De Valle and Sloan De Forest. These will provide historical context for the film, for Ginger Rogers and for Dolley Madison, if like me you are not as familiar with American history as you should be.

Magnificent Doll is a movie that should be in the collection of any fan of classical Hollywood cinema. It is a film that typifies that glorious comforting warmth that all the old movies do. It has a great cast and rollicking story that you can get stuck into. The extras are also a great addition which enhances the viewing experience. While some may consider it too sentimental and melodramatic, I say it's a well-made, simple story with an emotional core that will melt you (and the tub of ice cream you are eating) while you watch it.

8 out of 10
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8 out of 10

A luxurious film full of emotional intensity and a great performance from a leading lady who was more than just a dance partner.


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