The film's plot tells a fictionalized account of President of the United States Andrew Jackson and an innkeeper's daughter, Peggy O'Neal. The real-life Peggy O'Neill had a central role in the Petticoat affair that disrupted the Cabinet of Andrew Jackson.
In 1823 Washington D.C., Major O'Neal (Gene Lockhart) and his daughter Margaret "Peggy" O'Neal (Joan Crawford) run an inn that is frequented by politicians. Peggy is outspoken for a woman of her time, and when Tennessee senator Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) visits, she affectionately refers to him as "Uncle Andy."
Peggy is secretly in love with the well-known Virginia senator John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas), but her feelings are seemingly unrequited. When new inn resident "Bow" Timberlake (Robert Taylor) refers to Peggy as a "tavern girl" while drinking, John slaps him in defense of Peggy. Bow soon falls in love with Peggy himself and proposes, but she refuses, but her feelings lie with John. John spurns her advances, thinking that she is too young and does not really mean it, but begins to have a change of heart. When he finally realizes that they are both in love, however, he learns from Bow that Peggy has finally consented to marry him. Peggy again talks to John about their future, but John again rejects her, thinking that the younger Bow would be a more suitable husband.
On the night of their marriage, "Uncle Andy" hears a commotion in their room, and can't believe that Bow and Peggy are married. But instead of reading their marriage license, Bow shows Peggy his orders. He must leave for a three-month tour of duty aboard the USS Constitution the next day. However, when Constitution returns to Washington, Peggy learns that Bow has died when his men lost track of him.
In 1828, John returns from being the Minister to Russia. Peggy is excited to see him, and he tells her how unhappy he was so far from Washington. At the same time, Jackson is elected U.S. president amid a campaign of verbal attacks aimed at his wife Rachel (Beulah Bondi), whom he inadvertently married before her divorce from her first husband was final. Soon after the election, Rachel dies after asking Peggy to look after Jackson. Having been close to Jackson since the beginning, Peggy becomes his official hostess and confidante. Fulfilling Rachel's premonition, this causes many of the Washington political wives to gossip and snub her. At the same time, Jackson comes under political fire from Southerners such as John Randolph, who feels he has turned against them by his stand on state rights.
At a ball, Peggy's childhood friend, "Rowdy" Dow (James Stewart), wants to fight Southern senator John C. Calhoun (Frank Conroy) because of an insulting remark about Peggy, however, she interrupts and asks him to dance instead. Seeing Rowdy and Peggy dancing, John returns home, but is followed by Peggy, who once again professes her love. This time, John admits his own love and they plan to marry. Soon after telling Jackson what has happened, however, Peggy realizes that differing political views will never allow her and John to be happy, and they part.
A short time later, Secretary of War John Eaton (Franchot Tone), who has loved Peggy for years, proposes. She is fond of him, and believes, like Jackson, that marriage will bring her respectability. A year later, Rowdy comes to visit and tells Peggy that John Randolph has been shot and is near death. She asks Rowdy to take her to see her John, who was shot by Sunderland (Louis Calhern), a Southerner trying to prevent him from revealing to Jackson a proposed violent rebellion. John dies contentedly after Peggy's visit. On the way back to Washington, Peggy and Rowdy's coach is accosted by Sunderland, who demands safe passage to Washington in exchange for not revealing that he has seen them. Rowdy throws him out, but soon Jackson's cabinet members and their wives come to him to demand that Peggy be sent away from Washington. When Peggy arrives at the meeting, Jackson lies by saying she was sent to see John Randolph by him and that Rowdy was asked by John Eaton to accompany her. Jackson then demands the resignation of his entire cabinet, except for Eaton.
Finally, Peggy, who knows that even Jackson's kind lie will not lead to her acceptance in Washington, asks him to send John Eaton as the special envoy to Spain where she knows that they will find contentment.
Howard Barnes in the New York Herald Tribune noted, "In the title role Joan Crawford is handsome, although century-old costumes do not go well with the pronounced modernity of her personality. She makes of Peggy Eaton a straightforward and zealous figure....[A] show that is rich with trappings and accented by moments of moving intensity."
However, writing in the New York Times, film critic Frank Nugent thought there was "not enough hussy" in the performance, and wrote, "Miss Crawford's Peggy is a maligned Anne of Green Gables, a persecuted Pollyanna, a dismayed Dolly Dimple."
Beulah Bondi was nominated for an Oscar in the best supporting category and George Folsey received a nomination for cinematography.
The Gorgeous Hussy was one of Crawford's highest grossing pictures during her years at MGM. At a cost of $1,119,000, it was also the highest budgeted film she had made up to that time. The film grossed a total (domestic and foreign) of $2,019,000: $1,458,000 from the US and Canada and $561,000 elsewhere. It made a profit of $116,000.