In recent years, I’ve developed a particular interest in costume design and have been reading up on various designers. Needless to say, I wracked my brain trying to decide which film I wanted to feature here, until I stumbled across The Toy Wife, a rather unknown pre-Civil War drama.
Based on the French play Froufrou written by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, it was adapted for the American screen during the time when Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind was large in the public conscious and in the middle of being filmed. Warner Brothers’ answer to the popularity of Mitchell’s book was the release of Jezebel starring Bette Davis. MGM too wanted to capitalize on public interest with their own antebellum story and so Froufrou became The Toy Wife.
Set in New Orleans, The Toy Wife is the story of Gilberte Brigard (Luise Ranier), otherwise known as Frou Frou. Having been raised in France, she is finally returning home with her older sister Louise (Barbara O’Neil). Frou Frou is a shallow, silly girl despite the influence of her sensible older sister. Upon her return she meets two men; the dashing Andre Valliare (Robert Young) and George Sartoris (Melvyn Doulas), an upright, responsible man who is the secret desire of Louise’ heart.
Both men find Frou-Frou irresistible. However when George tells Louise of his wishes to marry Frou-Frou, she convinces her immature sister that love will come and that George is a better match for her than Andre, setting in motion the elements for future tragedy.
Years later, Frou-Frou is happily married with a young son, but George has tired of the gaiety and frivolity that attracted him to his young wife. He appeals to Louise and she comes to stay with them, taking on all the responsibilities of the household that Frou-Frou is unable to manage.
Gradually, Frou-Frou becomes aware that she is being supplanted in her own home and in the affections of her husband and son, by her well-meaning sister. And finally the seeds of the choice Louise convinced Frou-Frou to make years earlier bloom into a disaster.
The low rating for this movie on IMDb almost convinced me to avoid it altogether. While it has it’s flaws, I found it a very entertaining period drama.
The dynamic between sisters is one that always draws me as I have sisters of my own. One year before Barbara O’Neil would play Scarlett O’Hara’s sainted mother, she gets to play Frou-Frou’s equally sainted sister who denies her own happiness, not for her sister’s sake, but for George, the man she secretly loves.
While her fortitude in giving up her claim on George to her sister is admirable, her well-intentioned meddling denies her sister the opportunity to choose for herself. Years later, she is just as blind to the consequences of her influence over Frou-Frou and George when she takes over the running of their household. She finally has just about everything she’s ever wanted, except George’s love, but it comes at Frou-Frou’s expense. O’Neil does a terrific job as Louise, making her seem very human for a woman who in her own mind, makes the ultimate sacrifice. Her acting is subtle, with little inflections of movement, facial expression and tone and may be one of the best performances of her brief career. She has martyred herself, but doesn’t act like one because she truly loves both George and Frou Frou.
On the other side of this domestic conflict is Luise Ranier as Frou-Frou. Already the winner of two Oscars, she was deemed difficult because she was demanding better pay. Her casting in The Toy Wife was a punishment of sorts. I disagree with most reviewers about her portrayal of Frou-Frou. She does play her over the top and very dramatically at times, but it suits the young, self-absorbed Frou-Frou very well. This is a woman-child who loves fun and beautiful things. She’s exuberant, living each moment to the fullest with no thought for long term consequences. But she’s also sweet, generous and eventually learns to be self-sacrificing as well.
Though the film tries to frame Frou-Frou in a negative light due to her selfishness, she is ultimately a victim who redeems herself. Her sister practically pushes her into a marriage she is unprepared for, but she learns to love her husband and adores her son. Her husband comes to disdain her nature, the very personality traits he married her for. It’s completely unfair for him to expect Frou-Frou to be something she is not. Ranier manages to make Frou-Frou a very sympathetic character, at least in my eyes. Though her ultimate sacrifice is not well-thought out, her character’s growth in maturity and wisdom is beautifully depicted by Ranier. The final show-down between Louise and Frou-Frou is absolutely the highlight of The Toy Wife, thanks to O’Brien and Ranier and the depth of buried emotion that they allow to explode on screen. They make the break between the two sisters the ultimate tragedy in a story already full of it.
The differences between the two sisters are further highlighted through gorgeous costumes by Adrian. Everything about Frou-Frou is fussy, from her elaborately curled and coiled hair to her layers of lightly colored frothy skirts and bodices with ornamental, feminine trim and furbelows. Meanwhile, Louise is dressed more discreetly and soberly in clothes with straight lines, darker colors and less adornment which belie her responsible nature.
I also found the settings by Cedric Gibbons a very interesting choice, which probably reflect The Toy Wife‘s stage origins. Unlike Gone With the Wind and Jezebel, there are no real outdoor scenes or grand statements of wealth depicted by large interior spaces decorated with flourish. Instead, all the action happens inside the rooms of the characters’ private homes. And these homes are not ornate or lavish, but rather understated in their elegance, though its’ clear their inhabitants have money to spare.
One of the greatest flaws of The Toy Wife is its’ depiction of slavery which modern audiences might find offensive. However, since slavery itself is an offense and morally wrong, I think films like this should feed our outrage against it. Another major weakness of the film is the lack of development given to the male love interests George and Andre, played by Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young. Young especially suffers as he gets the least amount of screen time, but they both come off a bit as one-note characters.
Speaking of the men, the love triangle between them and Frou-Frou reminded me a bit of Anna Karenina, though sadly all three characters suffer by that comparison. The film would have fared better if it had kept the focus on either the romance or the sister bond. This lack of focus, makes the romance angle so weak as to be almost ridiculous. The only reason the sister relationship doesn’t suffer is due to the caliber of performances given by Ranier and O’Neil.
Still, despite it all, I found The Toy Wife to be better than I anticipated and expect I will enjoy watching it again some time in the future.