The only impressive thing about The Toy Wife (not good, not admirable) is the film’s ability to keep going professionally, no matter how stupid it gets. There are no easy outs in the picture; even when people start dying off to up the tragedy, there’s still a seemingly endless amount of run time remaining. The film only runs ninety-five minutes but seems like 195 years.
(The present action is something like six years, it gets a little unclear towards the end).
The problems with Toy Wife start before the action does. They start in the opening titles, when Theresa Harris’s credit as “Pick” appears onscreen. As in, holy shit is there going to be a slave named “Pick” in this movie? The answer is yes, yes indeed there is going to be a slave named “Pick” in Toy Wife. Because slavery is very important to Toy Wife. How wonderful it was for all the Louisianans to have slaves. There’s even a scene where—apparently in an attempt to humanize the character—rich widow Alma Kruger gives the gift of Jesus to her “black people.”
Toy Wife is based on a French play from the nineteenth century. The play is based in Europe. So screenwriter Zoe Akins added all the horrific racism. Whether it was her idea, the studio’s, or producer Merian C. Cooper’s… well, they’re all responsible and accountable regardless of who had the idea. And it’s not like Akins’s script would be good without all the racism. Akins’s script is the problem with the film. Director Thorpe staying engaged enough to get through the slough of a story… again, it’s not commendable but it’s impressive. One hopes other folks would have quit instead of putting this tripe to screen.
The Toy Wife of the title is “lead” Luise Rainer. She’s the younger daughter of wealthy plantation owner H.B Warner (who’s barely in the movie and comically bad when onscreen). Barbara O’Neil, in what turns out to be the film’s worst role, is the older sister. Warner moved the family to Europe when Rainer was just a baby. Now they’re back; in the source play, Rainer’s character is sixteen; in the film, her age is never mentioned, but she’s clearly not supposed to be twenty-eight like Rainer.
Because then it wouldn’t make sense when “leading man” Melvyn Douglas, who’s eight years older than Rainer, calls her “child” in the movie. At least he doesn’t do it during one of their chaste but not too chaste love scenes. Editor Elmo Veron does know how to imply with his fades.
O’Neil has been in love with Douglas since childhood, except once they return he’s only got eyes for Rainer because he’s a gross old man and she’s a flirt. Douglas wants to propose, O’Neil talks Rainer into accepting. Rainer, meanwhile, would rather be with Robert Young. He’s a drunken rich boy, a lot more fun than serious Douglas. But she acquiesces and marries Douglas and the film skips forward four years.
Or five years. Whatever.
Fast forward to the future—Rainer is still a bunch of fun, Douglas is still a stuffed shirt, they just now have a four year-old son (Alan Perl, who’s awful). After Rainer seduces Douglas for a little morning nooky, Douglas decides he’s going to go visit O’Neil (who never told Douglas or Rainer she was in love with Douglas) and beg her to come manage the house. Because… wait for it… Rainer’s way too nice to the slaves. She doesn’t work them hard enough.
O’Neil agrees, moving into the house and assuming the head of household role, including dictating toddler Perl’s childcare. Douglas is just happy someone is making the slaves behave, Rainer slowly gets more and more miserable her sister has assumed her role, and Young’s back to try to seduce Rainer away.
Will this assortment of loathsome human beings ever find happiness?
And O’Neil gets more loathsome, then it gets qualified, then gets less, then gets more. Same goes—sort of—for Douglas. Rainer meanwhile never gets any character development, even when it’s obvious her character has changed circumstances. She has no reaction to them, not in script or performance. Apparently Rainer hated the movie, but whatever. It’s not like she broke into the vault and had the prints burned.
All the performances lack in one way or another. Sometimes because of the script, sometimes because of the actor. It’s not really worth itemizing the film’s failures on a granular level. Toy Wife has zero potential. Even if you equivocate away the grossness, it’s still a terrible, boring motion picture. Technically, it’s competent, but never anything better.
The Toy Wife is a dreadful experience. All 195 years of it.
Directed by Richard Thorpe; screenplay by Zoe Akins, based on the play by Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Elmo Veron; music by Edward Ward; produced by Merian C. Cooper; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Luise Rainer (Frou Frou), Melvyn Douglas (George Sartoris), Barbara O’Neil (Louise), Robert Young (Andre Vallaire), H.B. Warner (Victor Brigard), Theresa Harris (Pick), and Alma Kruger (Madame Vallaire).