A note on Susan and God (George Cukor, USA, 1940)

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Susan and God.jpg

Beginning with The Women in 1939, George Cukor directed three out of Crawford’s next four films,  Susan and God (1940) and  A Woman’s Face (1941) being the other two. Only the first was a box office success. Thus, Cukor could be blamed for pushing her along the career slide that would end her MGM contract in 1943. But certainly she always credited him with helping her find herself as an actress. He expanded her range into comedy in The Women . And the basis of her later persona —  the embattled and tough survivor of so may noir trials — often erroneously credited to Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), can in fact be found in the first scenes of A Woman’s Face. So Cukor’s direction of Crawford can be seen as Phoenix-like, the birth of one indelible persona born out of the ashes of another. He was the premier ‘Women’s Director’ of the studio at a time when MGM boasted Hepburn, Shearer, Garbo, Greer Garson, Lana Turner, Judy Garland etc so Crawford was certainly lucky to get him.

I’m amused at the poster’s billing the film as ‘the gay comedy of high society that ran eight months on Broadway’. Clearly, 8 months was then considered a long and successful run in a way that it now isn’t. The film is such a bore that it almost took me eight months to watch it, having stopped and started and stopped over and over again. The cutline also offers a clue as to Crawford’s failure in the part. It’s a ‘High Society’ drawing-room comedy that calls for sophisticated and  stylised playing. Something Cukor was greatly adept at (e.g. The Philadelphia Story) and something Crawford is so ill-suited to she’d never try again. Part of the problem is that as Cukor, always astute if tactful, says, ‘Whatever she did, Joan did wholeheartedly’1

Susan (Crawford), flighty and self-involved, escapes her failing marriage to a drunk (Fredric March) and ignores her maternal duties by going to Europe where she’s influenced by a new religious movement. Arriving home morally re-armed, she sets about fixing everyone else’s life to the point of destruction. The part calls for the brittle, airy, light but stylised playing that Gertrude Lawrence brought to it on Broadway. Imagine Hepburn’s playing of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, when Tracy’s trying to perform the image of herself journalists expect to find, and you get some idea of what Cukor is aiming for. This is too much of an ask of Crawford, who is simply leaden and false throughout.

Cukor does his best. He certainly knows how to showcase her. See the magnificent and classic star entrance he affords her above. All the characters talk about her, discuss her character, comment on her actions. Then we see her arrival: Joan Crawford magnificently gowned and in a speedboat. But then note how it’s meant to be Joan Crawford as Susan, and how her speaking of the  ‘darlings, darlings, darlings ‘ line just about sinks the whole enterprise. It goes from bad to worse. She’s meant to be funny in each of her faux–solicitous-but-really-bitchy exchanges with each of the other guests yet doesn’t get a laugh on any of them. Yet, note too that nasty push out of the way Joan Crawford/Susan gives the character played by Rita Hayworth. Was it directed that way? Was it something Crawford did that Cukor kept in? In either case, it’s delicious and part of the reason the film is worth watching.

Everything about the film is top-drawer. It’s a big-budget film getting the full MGM treatment.  And almost everything about the film is good:  Fredric March witty and convincing in the drunk scenes — a specialty of his — but also endearing as he begins to understand his daughter and acknowledge his responsibility in her well being. Patrick McGilligan, Cukor’s biographer, writes that, ‘The film can be recommended only for the contrasting intensity of Fredric March, her costar. March, with his pork-chop face, plays her alcoholic husband, trying to win the heroine back for the sake of their daughter….Cukor’s films are full of sympathetic alcoholics–curious, for a teetotaler. However, March’s haggard believability is at odds with the dreary comedy, as if he had stumbled through the door of the wrong soundstage.’ 2

But good as March is, Susan and God has other things to recommend it: There’s Ruth Hussey, delicious as Crawford’s competition. Rita Hayworth is also  very memorable in an early role and  Cukor deserves credit for instantly assessing her strengths. See in the clip below how he captures her gliding through the dance floor in a scene that resolutely does not in itself call for it. How she moves instantly announces her as a star (and thus perhaps the Crawford push mentioned above). And Cukor was a great believer in the power of the actor’s movement in films. In relation to Crawford he says, Crawford’s ‘real talent is the way she moves. All she has to do is walk across the room, from one side to the other, and you notice something very special is happening. The way she carriers herself, the way her arms move…the position of the head…she attracts attention simply by moving and she arrests you. She wouldn’t have to open her mouth — just walk — and she would be superb. But look, she did that in the silent films, didn’t she’3. To which one can say that the film is evidence of what he both says and hides. Yes, she did do that in the Silents and yes she does that here. But more is needed here. This is a film about talk, and how one talks, and the differences between what one says and what one means.

The film’s source material is not very good and the filmic adaptation really needed to be a soufflé. Adrian’s costumes vary from striking to silly to ill-fitting but cannot in themselves be blamed (see above). A soufflé could encompass those elements. But what is deadly to this particular genre is earnestness and effort. And here Crawford is entirely to blame. She simply cannot rise to the occasion.However if we are taught to admire artists that take risks, surely our admiration shouldn’t be restricted merely to those that make a success of them. Here Crawford is game, she tried, had a spectacular failure, rose above it. Once more rather akin to her persona in the post-war years. The film is not a success in itself but did help give shape to a persona in a very successful post-war career.

José Arroyo

  1. cited in Donald Spoto, Possessed, London: Hutchinson, 2011, p.147
  2. 2 Patrick McGilligan, Cukor: A Double Life New York: St. martin’s Press, 1991, p. 160
  3. Robert Emmet Long, ed.George Cukor Interviews, p. 46.Richard Overstreet Interview, 1964.

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