Saturday, February 6, 2021

Stubs - Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise)

Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931) Starring Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Hersholt, John Miljan, Alan Hale Directed by Robert Z. Leonard Screenplay by Wanda Tuchock Based on the novel Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise by David Graham Phillips (New York, 1917). No Producer Credited (Irving Thalberg) Run time: 75 minutes USA Black and White Melodrama, Pre-code

David Graham Phillips was an American writer and novelist who was killed by a paranoid named Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, a violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1911. Goldsborough thought Phillips had cast literary aspersions on his family, to be more exact, he thought Phillips had used his sister as “as a model for the complaisant heroine" of the novel. After shooting Phillips, Goldsborough turned the gun on himself, shooting himself in the head.

After his death, Phillip’s sister Carolyn organized his final manuscript which was published, as Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, 6 years after his death, in 1917. The film was notorious when it was released, supposedly for the sexual relationships Susan goes through in the book, and which are hinted at in the film. Apparently, Irving Thalberg heard some women in the office talking about the book, so he bought the rights to the novel in 1931. King Vidor was initially set to direct the picture and actresses Lynn Bernager and Marjorie King were attached. Vidor was replaced by Robert Z. Leonard.

Married to silent star Mae Murray, Leonard formed with her Tiffany Pictures and made eight motion pictures that were released by MGM. A former actor in silent films himself, Leonard was nominated twice for Best Director for The Divorcee (1930) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

The film went into production in late May 1931 and lasted until early July of that year. Released in the U.S. on October 10, 1931, the book’s reputation caused the film to be held up by British Censors who banned it from theaters in that country. Some editing and a name change to The Rise of Helga allowed it to be released. Considered a hit, the film made $1,506,000 from a budget of $580,000.

We see Helga being raised through the use of shadows.

If the name change, Susan to Helga, seems confusing, the film explains. Helga Ohlin (Greta Garbo) is born to her mother out of wedlock. The mother dies in childbirth, but the Doctor (Russell Simpson) saves her life, even though her Uncle Karl (Jean Hersholt) thinks it might be best if the baby dies, too.

Helga Ohlin (Greta Garbo) as a woman. There is the hint of sexual abuse from her Uncle.

We see her raised in shadows as the girl is raised as a maid and is possibly abused by her Uncle. There is a hint that it might be sexual as well but that is never spelled out or discussed in the film. Finally, the shadow grows into adulthood. Her Uncle, without asking her, has arranged for her marriage to Jeb Mondstrom (Alan Hale), a loutish farmer.

When the rainstorm outside prevents Mondstrom from going home, he stays downstairs and drinks. After a few, he decides not to wait until their wedding night and goes up to Helga’s room and tries to force himself on her. She fights him off and escapes into the woods. She comes across a cottage and is chased into the garage by the household dog. She hides in the garage and when the dog’s owner comes out to see what the commotion is about, he meets Helga.

Rodney Spencer (Clark Gable) finds Helga hiding in his garage and invites her in.

Rodney Spencer (Clark Gable) comes from well-to-do parents and he's in his father’s cabin working on a design for a bridge he’s prepping for a contest. He invites Helga into the house and gives her his room to sleep in after having her change out of her wet clothes into one of his robes.

The next morning, she makes him breakfast and he convinces her to stay with them. He takes her fishing and she manages to catch a fish. While they’re fooling with her catch, Rodney takes her in his arms and kisses her. Love at first sight.

Helga and Rodney are on the verge of getting engaged when he has to leave on business.

A few days pass and the two seem to be on the verge of getting engaged. But Rodney has to take a few days to turn in his bridge design. He drives her partway to the train station but when she walks back to the house, Uncle Karl and Mondstrom are waiting for her and plan to bring her back with them. She doesn’t want to go and while Rodney’s dog attacks Karl, Helga steals their horse-drawn carriage and escapes. Mondstrom kills the dog to stop it from attacking the Uncle.

Helga ends up in the caboose of a traveling circus.

She heads to the train station, hoping to catch Rodney but the train she jumps on is not his train. Instead, she finds herself in the caboose with members of a traveling circus. One of the troopers, the tattooed woman Madame Panoramia (Cecil Cunningham) decides she’s a good luck charm and encourages Burlingame (John Miljan) to hire Helga to replace a dancer who has recently left. Calling herself Susan, she’s good enough for the role and gets the job.

For a brief time, Helga becomes Burlingame's (John Miljan) mistress.

Helga writes Rodney to meet her in Marquette but one day when the local sheriff is looking for Helga, Burlingame hides her in his private room and takes advantage of her. For a brief time, Helga is Burlingame’s mistress.

Rodney gets the letter and is waiting backstage when the circus is in Marquette. Helga and Rodney are both very happy to be reunited. However, Burlingame, thinking Rodney is just another fan, demands that Helga be in his quarters in five minutes. Rodney, shocked by the relationship, leaves her there. Soon after he’s gone, Helga up and quits the circus.

Helga has Rodney invited to a party at her lover's apartment and tries to humiliate him.

She becomes the lover of a wealthy New York politician, Mike Kelly (Hale Hamilton). In the meantime, Rodney has ruined his career by drinking. Helga, now known as Mrs. Lenox, secretly arranges for Rodney to attend one of her dinner parties and tries to humiliate him, but when he leaves, she realizes that she still loves him. She follows him to his boarding house, but he is gone without a trace. Kelly, who had told her leaving would be the end of things, has followed after her. He invites her to come back with him but she insists on going after Rodney.

We see her traveling by train from city to city, looking for Rodney. They both end up in Latin America. He’s working on a construction crew in the jungle. She takes a job as a dancer in a waterfront dance hall, waiting for him to come out on leave.

Helga throws herself at Rodney but he's not interested.

Meanwhile, kindly American millionaire Robert Lane (Ian Keith) is desperate for her to marry him. However, she’s waiting for Rodney. When she sees him, she practically throws herself at him but he’s not interested in her. A heavy drinker, he’s not even interested in other women either, even throwing one of the other waterfront girls over a second-story balcony to get rid of her.

Disillusioned, Helga arranges to meet Lane on his yacht the next morning. Instead, she goes to see Rodney one last time. Finally, sober and clean-shaven, Rodney realizes he’s been wrong and the two decide to try loving each other again.

In 1931, Greta Garbo was near the height of her popularity. Born in Stockholm Sweden in 1905, she first worked as a model before appearing in film commercials for the PUB Department Store. She was only 15 at the time. Finnish director Mauritz Stiller recruited Garbo, who had been studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre's Acting School in Stockholm, for a principal part in his film The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924). Stiller took the young actress under his wing and even though he never directed her again, their careers were intertwined. She made The Joyless Street (1925) with German director G. W. Pabst before through Stiller, she met Louis B. Mayer. Mayer was interested in Stiller but Stiller insisted that he would only come to Hollywood if Garbo went with him.

Initially, Mayer balked but after watching The Saga of Gösta Berling he requested she come to the states. However, more than six months after landing in New York and no word from the studio, Stiller and Garbo came to Hollywood on their own. Five weeks passed before a Swedish friend introduced her to MGM production boss Irving Thalberg. He arranged for a screen test, which went so well that he wasted no time grooming her for stardom.

Her first film, Torrent (1926), was a hit and Garbo’s performance was well-received. Thalberg cast her in The Temptress (1926). Originally set to be directed by Stiller, conflicts with Thalberg led to his being fired and replaced by Fred Niblo. The film had to be reshot and even though it was a hit, actually lost money. However, Garbo was already a star.

She made eight more silent films, three with John Gilbert as her co-star. The two would become lovers and though they never married did live together intermittently in 1926 and 1927. Gilbert helped her with her acting and helped her learn to deal with the studio bosses. Their films together included Flesh and the Devil (1926), Love (1927), and A Man’s Man (1929). Her final silent film was also MGM’s The Kiss (1929).

MGM had some hesitations about putting Garbo in sound films, worrying that her Swedish accent might impair her transition. However, her first sound film, Anna Christie (1930) was a big hit and she would be a major star for the next decade. Garbo was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Actress for Anna Christie, for Romance (1930) and finally for Ninotchka (1939). After Two-Faced Woman (1941), she retired from films.

While I have not seen a lot of Garbo films, it is easy to see how she dominates the screen every time she’s on. She’s captivating as Susan.

Clark Gable was at the beginning of his career when this film was made. He was not yet "The King of Hollywood" as he would be called. This would be one of 12 films he would make during 1931 and it's obvious that he is on his way to being a better actor and bigger star. Mourdant Hall, the film critic at The New York Times, in his review of the film said, “As for Clark Gable, who plays opposite her, he is often in a recitative mood, apparently waiting for his cue to get the words off his mind.”

The film suffers from a sense that things are happening more according to a script. Hall also observed “This film tells its story without much in the way of drama. Things happen according to schedule and one rather anticipates more than a few of the developments.” Hall points out “Robert Z. Leonard is an expert in the silent film technique of the popular form, but in his enthusiasm for a captivating scene he does not pay enough attention to the lines of the players.”

While many movies from this time seem to suffer from the love being rushed as if the characters have to be married the same day they meet. Here, Helga seems to spend so much of her life either trying to get revenge on or getting the attention of Rodney. You’d think that he would notice and either reciprocate or call it off long before the film’s end.

Also, one of the prevalent themes in the movie is the idea that since Helga/Susan was born out of wedlock that her moral compass is eschew, as if that circumstance dictates it. When Rodney finds out about Susan and Burlingame, he doesn’t let her explain or give her the benefit of the doubt. He just assumes that because of her birth she too is loose. This, of course, is not how most people believe today so that can get a little old, but you have to watch films at the time they were made and the time they portray rather than the time you’re watching it in.

I do like some of Leonard’s techniques as a director. Using shadows to show the passage of time is very effective, even nearly 80 years later. However, as Hall points out, more attention should have been spent on the script. Not sure if Leonard is to blame for the script but it does negatively affect the film.

Still, I would recommend the film to fans of either Garbo or Gable. Garbo, especially, transcends the film’s weaknesses. You almost can’t help but watch her. This is the first and only pairing of two of the biggest stars MGM had. It’s too bad that they were never reunited as it might have been interesting to see them work together again. Maybe with a better script the end result would have been more satisfying.

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