Saturday 28 March 2020

Movie Review: Susan Lenox (Her Fall And Rise) (1931)

A torrid drama and romance, Susan Lenox features the only teaming of Greta Garbo and Clark Gable in a sometimes overheated love story mixed with the struggles of a woman defining her own way in life.

Helga is born to an unmarried mother who dies during childbirth, and raised by cruel uncle Karl (Jean Hersholt). As soon as the adult Helga (Garbo) reaches marrying age, Karl arranges for her to wed the boorish Jeb (Alan Hale). Helga wants no part of a loveless marriage and escapes into a stormy night, ending up at the cabin of engineer Rodney Spencer (Gable).

They fall in love, but when Rodney has to travel to Detroit, Helga has to again escape the clutches of Karl and Jeb. She joins a traveling carnival and assumes the identity of Susan Lenox, cozying up to the show's leader Wayne Burlingham (John Miljan) for safety. When Rodney comes looking for her he is disgusted by her indiscretion, rupturing their relationship and leading Susan towards a new bohemian lifestyle.

Clocking in at a quick 76 minutes, Susan Lenox is an adaptation of the at-the-time scandalous (and posthumously published) 1917 novel by David Graham Phillips. Director Robert Z. Leonard works from a tight screenplay (co-written by four people) to slim down the 900 page book into a compact story of one woman taking on the world and determined to deal with men on her own terms. And Leonard sneaks in some clever introductory scenes using nothing more than shadows on the wall to summarize Helga's difficult upbringing.

Despite an obsession with the objective of snaring a man for legitimate marriage, the story's early feminist streak is impressive. Helga refuses to marry the man assigned to her, strikes out on her own during a stormy night, wins Rodney's heart, and when fate tears them apart, does what she needs to do to survive and then thrive. As the years roll on she gains a world weariness but never loses sight of her sense of self-worth, and keeps her eyes on the one prize that matters.

Many of the dialogue scenes exhibit signs of awkward clunkiness, and the heat between Garbo and Gable reaches only lukewarm temperatures, her aura of sophistication floating well above his well-intentioned gruffness. Despite the film's brevity the scenes between them are prolonged and stray into repetitiveness, until a most abrupt ending ties everything up with a sharp emotional U-turn.

Better are some of the set designs, including the final location of "Puerto Sacate". The dancehall bustles with shady hustlers, drowning miseries or seeking fortunes at a peripheral and seedy port hub. Susan Lenox absolutely knows what she does not want out of life, but will need to transition through unlikely outposts to secure what she craves.

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