Released to cinemas in June 1938, The Toy Wife was Luise’s first film made since winning her second Academy Award. A tale of love, deceit and unbridled passion, it is set in the Louisiana of the mid 1800s, before the outbreak of the civll war, and is clearly a product of the bandwagon begun in 1936 with the publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. David O. Selznick had already snapped up the rights to that particular cash cow, but it left the other studios with plenty of similar material to play around with and tap into an expectant audience (Warner’s had their go with Bette Davis in Jezebel in the same year). Selznick International Pictures were making waves and headlines with their worldwide search for a star to play Mitchell’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara and ‘Scarlett fever’ was sweeping the nation; rival studios had plenty of time to get ahead of the game and release pictures of a much lower quality, but with the same heady mix of romance and high drama, with huge frocks. The Toy Wife is MGM’s attempt to grab a piece of the Gone with the Wind pie.
With such pretensions it will always come off as a poor niece to Selznick’s all-conquering classic, but there is much to enjoy in this lightweight but entertaining frolic. Luise plays the youngest daughter of plantation owner Victor Brigard recently returned from Paris, where she has spent most of her childhood, and eager to sample the delights of Louisiana, especially New Orleans, where she hopes to find a husband who will “do exactly as I please!” Luise is in her element as Frou-Frou (so-called because of the sound of her swishing silk dresses which can be heard wherever she goes), a petulant little minx who never grows up. Her coquettish charm has never been better used than here, ensnaring her men with little more than a cheeky smile and a flash of those enormous, flirtatious eyes. Sadly, Frou-Frou traps the wrong man, the man with whom her stoical sister is in love and she is destined for an unhappy ending. For a full synopsis (including spoilers) you can read Picture Show magazine’s ‘story of the film’, which describes, in detail, all the action, and features some stills.
The story itself had been around the block somewhat. MGM were struggling to find suitable roles for Luise and writers had been ordered to ‘write a Luise Rainer picture’. What this meant I’m not exactly sure, but their take on the frivolous Southern Belle was somewhat encumbered by their star’s German accent; nevermind, relocate the action to Louisiana and give the character a French backstory and that sorts out that problem right off the bat. The only credited writer is Zoe Akins, who had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for her play The Old Maid (based on Edith Wharton’s novel) and had scripted Camille (1938), but the story has its origins in an 1869 play by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, later adapted and translated by Augustin Daly. Film versions followed in 1914 (in America, starring Maude Fealy), 1918 (in Italy), 1923 (in France), and it was remade again in 1955 (with Dany Robin), but none, including The Toy Wife, elevated it above its B movie status.
It was clear at this time that Luise was out of favour with MGM, despite her Oscar success. She had been pushing for better roles and a higher salary and in this film she achieved her first and only solo star credit, with her name above the title. Filming began in March 1938 under the title Mlle. Frou Frou; to keep costs down, and to make this her movie MGM surrounded her with a handsome cast of seasoned players, but no stars. This included Melvyn Douglas, a sophisticated leading man who had made his name in stock theatre before appearing opposite Fay Wray in The Vampire Bat (1932) and Claudette Colbert in She Married Her Boss (1935). When Luise appeared at a Q&A in 2010 she was asked to choose her favourite leading man; she chose Douglas, finding that he amongst the majority of the cast and crew was interested in acting, not just making a movie. His career in theatre, television and film lasted until his death in 1981, and he matched Luise’s achievement of two Academy Awards, winning for Best Supporting Actor in Hud (1963) and Being There (1979). As Frou-Frou’s mature older sister, Louise, Barbara O’Neil is the perfect antidote to her sibling’s frivolity. O’Neil gives a warm, maternal performance with great restraint and is the one for whom the audience’s sympathies lie. This maturity stood her in good stead when she played Ellen O’Hara (Scarlett O’Hara’s mother) the following year in Gone with The Wind, despite being only three years older than Vivien Leigh. As her suitor, Robert Young, an MGM contract player who, nevertheless, had acted opposite some of the studio’s most popular leading ladies (Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Helen Hayes) gives a credible, unshowy performance, and Theresa Harris gives a delightful comic turn as Frou-Frou’s maid, “Pick”.
Sadly for all concerned the film wasn’t a success. Luise was less than happy about the quality and budget of the production, but similarly the public (and critics) seem to have decided that she had overstayed her welcome. Her demands for better roles, whilst perfectly reasonable in her position, and her reluctance to play the ‘film star’ had turned fans against her. Critics, who only a year before were raving about her now seemed to find her too much. The New York Times said that “…Miss Rainer’s ‘toy wife’ is wound too tightly for anybody’s comfort” and there was a definite backlash from American critics after beating out Garbo for the Oscar earlier in the year. The Los Angeles Times critic called her a “manneristic actress of limited range,” but she still had her admirers; Australia’s The Age raved, calling the film an “artistically directed” production and commending Luise’s “superb acting and magnetic personality.” In just over a year Luise had gone from the toast of Hollywood as O-lan in The Good Earth to lead actress in a series of B movies; her mismanagement by MGM was criminal and Luise, understandably, had had enough. There were only two more films (The Great Waltz and Dramatic School), both also released in 1938, before she reached the end of the line and the end of her Hollywood career; she was never going to win this particular fight, Louis B. Mayer saw to that.
The Toy Wife is now available on US Region 1 DVD in the Warner Archive Luise Rainer Signature Collection.
The Toy Wife
with Melvyn Douglas, Robert Young, Barbara O’Neil, H.B. Warner
Directed by Richard Thorpe
Produced by Merian C. Cooper
Screen Play by Zoe Akins
Musical Score by Edward Ward
Recording Director: Douglas Shearer
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons
Associates: Harry McAfee, Edwin B. Willis
Women’s Costumes by Adrian
Men’s Costumes by Gile Steele
Photographed by Oliver T. Marsh, A.S.C.
Film Editor: Elmo Veron
Luise Rainer as Gilberte Brigard (Frou Frou)
Melvyn Douglas as Georges Sartoris
Robert Young as Andre Vallaire
Barbara O’Neil as Louise Brigard
H.B. Warner as Victor Brigard
Alma Kruger as Madame Vallaire
Libby Taylor as Suzanne
Theresa Harris as “Pick”
Walter Kingsford as Judge Rondell
Clinton Rosemond as Pompey
Clarence Muse as Brutus
Leonard Penn as Gaston Vincent
Alan Perl as Georgie