Monday, December 21, 2015

Joan Finds Religion

A wealthy woman decides she has found religion in Susan and God (1940).  Joan Crawford stars as Susan Trexel, the estranged wife of Barrie Trexel (Fredric March).  Susan has been in England for several months, and as the action of the film opens, has returned to America, accompanied by her mentor, Lady Millicent Wigstaff (Constance Collier), the founder of Susan's new obsession.  While Susan's friends are not amused by her ardent proselytizing, they like her a lot more than they like her husband, a drunk who can be rather unpleasant in his cups.  They plot to keep the two apart as long as possible, to avoid the inevitable scene.  But, when Barrie and Susan finally do meet up, they agree to reconciliation of sorts, primarily for the sake of their daughter, Blossom (Rita Quigley).  Susan has one proviso - if Barrie takes another drink, she gets a divorce.

We are big fans of Crawford, and she does not disappoint in the film.  Susan's obsessive personality is very reminiscent of two portrayals that were years off - the over-the-top mother in Mildred Pierce and the maniacal homemaker in Harriet Craig. Crawford purposefully makes Susan annoying, with a patronizing voice and attitude that make you want to throttle her.  The minute we meet her, we understand her friends' mixed reaction to her return - she's unable to do anything without making everyone else a party to her interest. 

Crawford was stepping into some big shoes in this character - on Broadway (the play by Rachel Crothers opened in October of 1937), the role of Susan was played by Gertrude Lawrence.  Added to that, MGM had purchased the play for Norma Shearer (who is reputed to have turned it down due to her reluctance to play the mother of a teenager), and later considered Greer Garson (who, the year before had played her breakthrough role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips) for the part (briefly noted in the AFI Catalog).
Frederic March, usually a very powerful actor, plays Barrie as a very weak man.  The slightest pressure results in his again hitting the bottle.  It's hard to understand what Barrie and Susan ever saw in one another, because they are so totally different and so unkind to one another.  It sometimes feels that Barrie is still married to Susan so he has an excuse to drink.

Without giving too much away, we were disappointed with the story line, which we felt really needed a lot of tweeking.  The ending was too off-center, and felt as though it came out of nowhere.   The screenwriter is Anita Loos, no stranger to comedy, or to satire, but the film doesn't really continue the satirical tone that allegedly made the play popular, though this TCM article maintains that some felt the film improved on the play. Without comparison, it's hard to say, but we felt that the satire was severely muted by the film's conclusion.
The film is rich, however, in supporting players:  John Carroll in an exceedingly small part as Clyde Rochester, Nigel Bruce as 'Hutchie', Bruce Cabot as Michael, a very young Gloria De Haven as Enid, Blossom's rival for the affections of a boy and Rita Hayworth as Hutchie's young bride, Leonara.  But the person who really shines is Ruth Hussey as Charlotte, probably the only decent human being among Susan's cadre of friends.  Hussey is a longtime favorite - especially as Ray Milland's sister Pamela in The Uninvited  (one of my personal favorite films, and perhaps the best ghost story ever put to film - we can argue between that and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, but I digress).  She really never seemed to get the lead parts (which is a shame) - the preceding year, she had appeared for what seemed an instant as the over-efficient Miss Watts in The Women. She started in films in 1937, had the lead in a few "B" movies like Bedside Manner (1945), and eventually moved over to television, where she appeared in shows like Marcus Welby, M.D. (which starred her H.M. Pulham, Esq. co-star Robert Young) and The Jimmy Stewart Show (featuring her love interest in The Philadelphia Story).  Married for 60 years (and the mother of 3 children), she also performed on Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s (including the lead in State of the Union).  She died in 2002, aged 93.

While not the best of Crawford's film, Susan and God is rich in excellent performances.  Here is a trailer to get you acquainted:

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