Magnificent Doll (1946)




Director:     Frank Borzage. 

Starring:     Ginger Rogers (Dolly Payne, Dolly Payne Todd, Dolly Madison), David Niven (Aaron Burr),  Burgess Meredith (James Madison),  Peggy Wood (Mrs. Payne),  Stephen McNally (John Todd),  Robert Barrat (Mr. Payne),  Grandon Rhodes (Thomas Jefferson),  Frances E. Williams (Amy)

Dolly Payne Todd is torn between Aaron Burr and  James Madison


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Dolly Madison talks a little about some of the highlights of her life.  She remembers her first inaugural ball for the President of the United States.  And, of course, she remember that during the War of 1812 she saved many important documents and portraits before British troops set fire to the White House. But now she wants to tell the story of her earlier years.  She remembers back to the night her father returned from the Revolutionary War a changed man. 

Her family lived on a plantation with slaves in Virginia.  They were used to holding large affairs with friends and neighbors, which her father really enjoyed. But everything changed when father came home from the war.  Mother and Dolly had all his old friends and neighbors there to greet him, but he was not the least interested in this.  He thanked his guest for coming but says he must speak with his family in private. 

Dad takes his wife and Dolly into another room.  He says something that sounds very strange to his family.  He says that their true friends are not here.  Dad says he was wounded badly at the Battle of King's Mountain.  He lay there waiting for his death.  Just then out of a fog came an old friend, John Todd, that he had not seen for years.  Todd tells dad that this meeting had to have been an act of Providence.  He patches up dad's wounds.  John Todd was then killed by the enemy.  He took a bullet for his friend.  But before he died dad pledge to the man that he would return to the Quaker faith, free his slaves, sell his land and go to Philadelphia.  In addition, he pledge that his daughter would marry Todd's son. 

Dolly is absolutely shocked at this last promise.  But all her protests and tears were to no avail. She was forced to marry John Todd in a Quaker church.  Dolly, however, made it clear to her husband that she would never tell him that she loved him. 

After being married five weeks, Todd asks Dolly if her attitude has changed toward him.  She says she never promised him anything but hate.  John tells her how much he loves her and how terrible the pain has been because of his unrequited love.  And he now agrees that they never should have married.  This little speech actually touches Dolly's heart and she softens her attitude to him.  They kiss.  Less than a year later they have a baby boy.  Both parents are very happy with their new child. 

John brings Dolly an anniversary present.  He asks her about her attitude and she says that she is "content" with their marriage.  She admits she likes him and asks isn't that enough?  She still resents being force to be John's wife.  Dolly says she misses that part of her life that she lost because of her father and John.  She also resents never having that feeling of falling in love with the one she chose.  Dolly asks her husband not to asks her again if she loves him.  John says that one day she will come running to him and tell him that she loves him. 

A plague of yellow fever descends over Philadelphia.  Her father dies and then her boy.  Everyone is ordered to leave the city immediately.  The families pour out of Philadelphia like refugees from a war.  While moving out with his family, John decides to go back and help with the evacuation.  Dolly doesn't want him to go, but he is determined.   She tells him to come back to them.  He kisses her goodbye.

At camp, the group leader comes to tell Dolly that Mr. Todd was stricken by the fever and is back at the bridge.  Dolly runs to find her husband.  She finds him laying on some grass by the side of the road.  She runs over to him and tells him that she loves him with all her heart.  But John is dead.  She says:  "Now when I tell you, it's too late."  She asks her husband to forgive her. 

Dolly says that the next two years for her mother and her were bitter and lonely ones.  To make extra money they decide to take in lodgers.  A man comes to the door looking for a place to live.  He see a man putting up the sign for lodgers wanted.  He goes over to him and takes the sign down and tears it up.  The bold fellow says he will be a lodger.  He asks at the door to see widow Payne, but widow Todd comes to see him.  He is very aggressive and makes Dolly blush several times.  He says his name is Senator Aaron Burr of New York.  Not only does he want to rent a room, he promises to bring three other lodgers:  a French diplomat, a senator and a cabinet minister. 

Burr and Dolly go out riding.  He decides to give her the horse she is riding.  Burr tells Dolly that he likes her.  He kisses her passionately. 

Dolly and Burr bring their horses back to the stable.  Waiting there is none other than James Madison of Virginia.  He is really smitten with the look of Dolly Todd.  Burr knows Madison and says he will introduce him to Dolly at his earlier convenience.  Dolly runs a lodging place just around the corner. 

Mr. Madison cannot wait for Burr's convenience.  He goes to the lodging house and presents himself saying he wants to be a lodger.  Burr introduces him as a bachelor, but the father of our constitution.   He also mentions that Madison is from Virginia.  Because Dolly wants to do something nice for a fellow Virginian and because he looked like he wanted the room so badly, she gives him the room that was promised to Judge Sear of the Supreme Court. 

Burr tells Dolly that he is taking her to a play, but instead takes her to a tavern.  There are some pretty rough customers there and two of them get into a fight over a barmaid.  They fence each other and one wounds the other in the forearm.  For this the barmaid knives the winner in the back.  Then all hell breaks out and the constables arrive to break it up.   Burr takes Dolly out the back way.  The police try to catch them, but Burr drives away with Dolly in a carriage.  He stops along the way back home and kisses Dolly. 

Coming home Burr kisses Dolly again.  She kisses him back.  To her Burr is a bit dangerous, but she finds this somewhat exciting too.  Dolly goes upstairs to go to bed.  James Madison saw all this because he was sitting by the fire in the semi-dark in a large chair that hid him from view. 

In the morning, James Madison has some tactics of his own.  He enlists Dolly in a political campaign of his.  He tells her that he has a bill that prevents any American from engaging in the operation of slave ships.  He knows this is a topic dear to Dolly's heart.  James wants Dolly to host a dinner for a number of politicians to create the right atmosphere to get the politicians to side with Madison and his bill.  Dooly seem intrigued.

Dolly does serve as hostess at her place and she acts like a seasoned political wife.  Everyone has a good time.  After dinner Dolly tells James and her mother that she had a wonderful time.  James says:  "The things that you said and the things you made them say, maybe just the thing we need to pass the bill tomorrow."  Dolly replies:  "I never felt so important in all my life." 

The next morning while dusting a chandelier, Burr kisses her on the back of her neck.  She tells him about the dinner the previous night and the bill.  Burr just tells her that the new law will be unenforceable.  Dolly starts to argue with him, but he changes the subject to say that he is taking her out. 

At a fancy ball, Burr and Dolly dance.  She tells Burr that if she were a man, she thinks she would really like politics.  Burr tells her that he will be the next president of the United States. 

On Sunday morning James takes a walk with Dolly.  They talk about the topic of marriage and James asks Dolly if she is thinking about marrying again.  Yes, she says, but the next time she must be deeply in love before marriage.  She would also like her next husband to really need her.  Then she starts talking about Burr, which upset James.  She says he has some good qualities, but is a bit full of himself. 

Dolly is having tea with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.  Burr comes in and joins them.  Jefferson is running against John Adams for the presidency.  Burr looks stunned by the news. And he doesn't like it that James and Dolly had a hand in this. 

On a picnic with Dolly, Burr rests his head on her lap.  He starts getting deep into politics.  He says that he's glad about Jefferson being chose because when John Adams defeats him, both Jefferson and James Madison will be removed from the picture.  Dolly asks Burr if he doesn't like Madison?   Apparently not that much.  He also says that James Madison is madly in love with Dolly, as he himself is.  Burr disagrees with the politics of Jefferson and Madison.  He says the United States is extremely divided.  The United States are not very united with regions like New England and the South very much at odds with each other.  He predicts that the USA will break up and he will be able to pick up the pieces. 

Dolly doesn't like Burr's politics.  Then it gets worse when Burr says one day he will rule without elections and rule without Congress.  Dolly has to walk away from him.  She says:  "That's treason!"  Burr says it calls it destiny.  Dolly replies:  "You frighten me." 

Dolly is so troubled by her conversation with Burr that she goes to see Madison.  He is very happy to see her.  She says she has a lot of questions for him.  Dolly wants to know if the USA experiment in democracy fail?  Madison says he has the same fears as she has, but he says they just can't let democracy fail.  Dolly is absolutely entranced by his idealistic descriptions of the necessity for democracy.  And it's this idealism and his willingness to fight for freedom that she loves.  She suddenly tells James:  "I love you."

Dolly tells her mother that the kind of love James and she has is the kind of love that will last forever.  She will tell Burr the bad news.  When she sees Burr she tells him that she is going to marry James Madison.  Burr becomes very angry. He grabs her so strongly that she has to tell him that he is hurting her.  He kisses her, but she demands that he let her go.  He lets her go saying:  "You'll never forget me!"  And, he says, he will never forget her. 

Thomas Jefferson does lose to John Adams in the election.  Jefferson and Mr. and Mrs. Madison go back to Virginia.  Dolly and James lived at his estate Montpelier.  He served for four years in the Virginia legislature.  Dolly describes the years as happy ones.  At home James receives a letter from Jefferson.  He plans of running for the presidency again and will run with Aaron Burr as vice-president in order to bring in some northern states.  At the bottom of the letter, Jefferson writes: "Dolly, I'm counting on you to keep things running smoothly." 

Dolly and James move to Washington, DC.  On the night of their wedding anniversary they want to be alone, but several politicians come to their place to say that they have been tricked.  Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr received with same number of votes, 73.  Now the House of Representatives will have to decide who the president will be. 

Alexander Hamilton comes to see Burr.  He urges him to stop this farce.  After all, Burr ran for the vice-presidency and not the presidency.  What he is doing is dishonest and repugnant.  Buur just asks his servant to show Mr. Hamilton to the door. 

Dolly comes to visit Burr.  He urges him to change his course, to stop this pretension to the presidency.  She says that once Burr said he loved her and if that is still true she wants to to do as she asks.  Burr thinks about it for a moment and says he won't go to Washington, DC to further his own cause.  He then tells Dolly that she came because she know it is not over between the two of them.  Burr also says he will find some way to have Dolly at his side. 

Burr did yield and takes the vice-presidential spot.  President Jefferson now appoints James Madison his Secretary of State.  The widower Jefferson also asks Dolly to be the official hostess of the city of Washington and of the White House.  The Madisons visit the White House.  John Adams and his wife were still there and the White House was far from being finished.  Construction was still taking place.  Mrs. Adams showed them the three feet of water that flooded the basement. 

When the construction was finished, Dolly says that they gave wonderful parties.  Burr arrives at one of the parities and gets a cool reception.  Dolly says at last he has come to one of her parties.  Burr is bitter about what happened to him   He says that Jefferson, Madison and Dolly robbed him of the presidency.  And now both Madisons have prestigious positions in Washington.  He says to Dolly:  "I moved down, while you moved up."  He leaves the party.  Shortly afterward, the news arrives at the White House that Aaron Burr fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton and has killed him. 

Burr is gathering a private army around him.  He is telling everyone that they are going to fight against Mexico.  One evening a rider with a message arrives to tell Burr and company that government troops are on the way.  Burr tells his men that they will stop them; one good ambush and they will run away.  A man in the crowd says Burr is talking treason and rebellion and he for one will not fire on American troops.  Burr protests and tries to stop the men from leaving him, but he has no success.  He screams that he will take all the southern states under his control and then fight the north. 

Burr is in prison.  He pays his barber to deliver a letter for him to Dolly.  The fellow does hand not letter personally to Dolly.  He asks her to come to Richmond.  Dolly asks her husband if she should go, but he tells her she has to make that decision for herself.  She says:  "People will talk."  Her husband says he will live with whatever decision she makes.  Dolly thinks about it into the night until she decides to go to Richmond.  Her black servant Amy is shocked and tells Dolly she does not like this.  Dolly says that she would pity any man facing a possible death sentence. 

In Richmond Dolly overhears men saying that Burr's lawyers argued that Burr had not committed any treason.  He may have talked about it, but he didn't do anything.  They are afraid that the court might let him go.  Dolly goes in to see Burr in his cell.  She tells him she came to give him her sympathy.  Burr says he doesn't need her sympathy.  He paid someone to get the verdict to him as soon as the decision is made.  He has the verdict now.  It is not guilty. 

Burr says that they love each other.  She says that the people are going to hate him.  Burr tells her to let the people hate him.  I wants them to hate him.  He will be known and feared all over and this will help him gain power.  He says he will put a crown on her head. 

When the crowd outside learn of the not guilty verdict they start turning into a mob that wants to lynch Burr.  One man starts up on a little stand and whips the crowd up.  Dolly is very brave.  She gets up on the platform and tells the people that they must not be a lynch mob.  Then a man who saw her with Burr in the jails accuses Mrs. Madison of carrying orders from the politicians in New York to tell the court to set Burr free. 

Dolly launches into a stirring speech about how mob rule is the opposite of democracy.  She says:  "You and I must live the example of a free people."   James Madison arrives in a coach just in time to hear Dolly's speech.  Dolly tells the crowd that she just talked with Burr and he wants the people to fear and hate him.  He figures this will bring him more evil people that will side with him.  She urges the crowd to turn their backs on Aaron Burr and let him peacefully pass by them into oblivion.  And that's what they do.  The men all turns their backs to Burr as he simply walks away form the courthouse.  Mrs. Madison goes over to her husband and says:  "I love you very much." 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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