Sunday, June 9, 2024

Every other man took you at your own price—nothing!


Directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Written by Leon Gordon, Zelda Sears, Edith Fitzgerald, and Wanda Tuchock, as well as, in an uncredited capacity, something approaching half the staff of MGM (based on the novel by David Graham Phillips)

Spoilers: moderate

I've observed before, probably more than once before, that MGM in the 1930s did not mind at all getting into a rut when it had a good thing going.  Thus when Greta Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie, proved a hit in 1930, of course they remade it three times in barely the space of a single year.  The more charitable way to put it would be to call them variations on a theme, but basically all of the three movies Garbo made subsequent to Anna Christie told the exact same story that Anna Christie did: a woman's past as a prostitute complicates a romance in the present, love straining against the day's conservative sexual mores till it either triumphantly wins or tragically loses.  So, yes, since they could have different endings, they're not exactly exactly the same.  Nor are they the same in quality: notwithstanding any criticism of how they typecast their star or how the much-broader movement of fallen woman melodramas (just an enormous fraction of the film business in the early 30s) fits into the history of gender politics, I hold Garbo's first two movies after Anna Christie, Romance and especially Inspiration, to be extraordinarily good, substantial improvements on the pretty bad Anna Christie in every posssible respect.  In no small part, this was thanks to director Clarence Brown, at long last, finding his sound legs for the first time (he was also responsible for the dreariness of the Early-Sound-in-all-the-worst-ways Anna Christie); it's partly attributable to Garbo finding hers, too.  Mostly, though, it's just because Romance and Inspiration ditched the biggest distinguishing factor of Anna Christie's story, its squalid proletarian setting, in favor of less brutish surroundings, such as suited both Garbo and this studio's storytelling capabilities better, while also promising less brutish men for her to interact with.  This is to say that the other big way they improved on Anna Christie was casting male leads who were meeker and sweeter in how they pursued love on the screen, and, behind the scenes, maybe didn't outright hate their infamously-disagreeable co-star.

So guess where Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) lands, when it comes to its immediate predecessors' improvements?  Now, it isin fairnessmore of a remix of Anna Christie, hybridized with its two follow-ups, so while its opening ten minutes are essentially nothing but a cinematic rendition of Anna's origins, as were relayed via monlogue in the 1930 film (though this is, incidentally, an improvement all by itself), by the end of Susan Lenox, it's played itself across the whole spectrum of American class, with most of the middle devoted to Garbo, elegant courtesan; and the variety of that is, itself, something of a plus.

In theory, of course, it's not any "remake" of Anna Christie, nor even a knock-off; it's an adaptation of a major American novel, or at least an American novel you could use as an improvised weapon during a home invasion, the final work of David Graham Phillips, most famous for his muckraking journalism, though it was in fact his fiction that got him assassinated in 1911, when a concert violinist perceived that an earlier novel of Phillips's, The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig, had accused his sister of being a whore under a literary gloss.  Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (the parentheses are, I think, a creature of MGM marketing, though in either case it'd be a runner-up to Flesh and the Devil as the best title Garbo ever starred under) could, accordingly, only be published posthumously.  I understand it was partly published from his notes, and evidently not churned through much of any editing process.  I even had half a mind to read Phillips's book (hey, I enjoyed The Green Hat well enough), but imagine how absolutely dizzying it was for me to discover that the film of itall of 76 minutes long!adapts a novel that spans two volumes and about one thousand pages.  That it's an adaptation of any of that thousand-page book might be hypothetical: I did glance over the first twenty pages, where our heroine is already born with the name Susan Lenox (in the movie it's a pseudonym*) and grows up in a middle-class household, whereas, so far as I feel like determining, the book, or at least its first phase, is about the social consequences of bastardy.  That's more-or-less incidental in the movie, which only has a need to orphan its heroine; in its first phase, it's a lot more about growing up on an impoverished Swedish-American's farm, unless I'm interpolating one too many details from Anna Christiemaybe it's not a farm, I'm not sure that's explicitly spelled outbecause this otherwise resembles that film's off-screen inciting incident almost precisely.**

As for its male lead, it got Clark Gable, at Garbo's requestJohn Gilbert had been promised the role, but history is silent on whether this was just Irving Thalberg's perfidy, or if Garbo took an active part in nixing her ex from the part.  She soon regretted it, anyway; they did not like each other and never worked together again.  However, Gable was presently working his way up the Hollywood ladder, and while it was from a place already nearer the top than he had been just a year beforePossessed hadn't come out yet, but A Free Soul hadhe undeniably stood to gain more momentum from Garbo than she could have possibly gained from him, and he was not going to let something as mere as his co-star's hostility faze his performance, nor let any resentment make its way into the film, at least not unnecessarily.  (They do, after all, spend more than half the movie hating each other.)  Plus, Gable was just a good actorand a true-blue movie star, not always the same thing, and this might be the earliest performance of his where I've seen his star quality shine throughso he also wasn't going to just be bowled over by Garbo, either.  I don't think you'd get that they weren't on friendly terms from their one film together, but despite her reputation for unprofessionalism and misery, Garbo was a pretty good actor herself.

What that leaves open is whether Susan Lenox is a good movie, and we can check that off: with some pretty serious caveats, it is.  I went in without any special expectations from its director, Robert Z. Leonard, who is not by any means obviously in the same league as Clarence Brown but rather one of MGM's hacks who simply developed a consistent enough track record to get huge projects like The Great Ziegfeld thrown his way.  But I was pleasantly surprised on that count, for it's by a pretty big margin the best-directed thing I've ever seen from him (potentially including The Son-Daughter, which he pitched in on when Brown took a few sick days), and that "best direction" starts off immediately as we visit the raw-boned and ugly home of Swedish (well, at least Scandinavian) immigrant patriarch, Karl Ohlin (Jean Hersholt, a Dane and punching his Scandinavian brogue up to Muppet ethnic stereotype levels, even past where he was in the next year's Emma, where I already suspected it was a put-on).  As we learn through a series of acutely-angled shots up the steep stairs to his house's upper storey, Karl's daughter has just given birth out of wedlock, and died; her baby, however, survivesand Karl would rather that she hadn't.

She'll be called Helga, and in a series of dissolves that, amongst other things, make Susan Lenox feel like it still has a foot in the silent era (in a good way), the shadows of increasingly-large girlchildren cast themselves on the starkly-undecorated far wall, in every case doing some menial chore in a house without the slightest hint of love or affection, till finally the silhouette becomes, unmistakably, Greta Garbo's.  Karl intends to forcibly marry her off to a neighbor (Alan Hale), almost expressly just to get rid of her, but a storm kicks up, and the neighbor is permitted to stay the night after their brusque betrothal meeting, whereupon he decides to not even wait till they're officially married to begin the marital rape, and Leonard orchestrates this danger with some great theatrical flair, armed with a howling storm outside, the heavy blacks and still-threatening angles in garbographer William Daniels's imagery, and Garbo's own native ability to turn subtle facial expressions into powerful emotional appeals.  It's especially impressive that Leonard doesn't even manage to intentionally (or unintentionally) stumble into comedy, given Helga escapes principally because her would-be rapist bangs his own head on a crossbeam; but file that away because blundering into comedy will come up again, in the worst place it could, and let's not get the idea that this is any kind of flawless movie.

Helga flees into the night, and after miles of rain-soaked forest, finds shelterreluctantly, at first, in her terrorwith architect Rodney Spencer (Gable).  He's a lot nicer than the last man she just met, and though he has something vaguely like the same idea, he's not beast enough to act on it without invitation and, with his dog as his conscience (which is to say, with some intentional comedy), intuits it's a pretty bad time to make a move.  But they do grow together over the next little while, Helga staying in his house (it's meaningfully-enough pre-Code), and marriage is increasingly contemplated as time goes by.  But when Rodney's called out of town, Helga runs across her grandfather, still looking for her to trade her for a mule or whatever it was he hoped to get out of the deal, and while I'm fairly certain it makes little sense for Helga to have a need to run at this point (patriarchy and all, yes, but she's not legally chattel), she perceives that need and absconds onto a circus train, which works out well for about a half hour, but she's penniless and exploitable, and the fate she escaped in her grandfather's house is visited on her anyway by the sleazy ringmaster (John Miljan).  Rodney eventually manages to get to her, but he misunderstandsdamn near willfully misunderstandsand she repays his cruelty in kind and becomes the kind of woman he's accused her of being.  The next time they meet, she'll be "Mrs. Susan Lenox," high-society companion, and he'll be a washed-up drunk whose last botched job nearly killed people, and the story and Garbo are a little ambiguous as to whether her object here really was to rub his face in this reversal, or if, in securing him some work, she was trying to help her old love, and only when she unexpectedly encountered him in the flesh did she suddenly remember that, actually, he deserved to suffer instead.  But either way, there's something that connects them that can't be destroyed, no matter how much they've grown to hate another.

That, all of it, is some pretty great Garbo Movie; I guess the novelty really doesn't wear off, though there's plenty of novelty in the smaller details, at least, above all a rather lovely first act (well, once we're out of Karl's rape house) where if you, like me, enjoy seeing dead beautiful movie stars frolic while pretending to go on dates to the old fishin' hole, you'll get a lot of value out of it.  It is, anyway, still fairly novel for Garbo, who didn't have that many movies where she got to be a normal person essaying a normal happiness, and, probably powered by her more mythological-feeling turns, watching Garbo just be her (radiant, goddesslike) version of "normal" is a disorienting but extremely agreeable experience, and Gable is likewise very charming.  (So if that's the side your bread's buttered on, just flip the nouns and pronouns on everything I just said, although Gable had many more opportunities in his career for his rendition of "movie star normal," so it's not as unique though it was out-of-the-oven fresh in September 1931, when Gable's existing claims to romantic lead fame were predominantly BDSM-porn-by-other-means assholes.  And so Gable is, as that implies, just as adept at his uglier, angrier scenes, and here the jerkassery that was likewise a big part of his screen persona is, perhaps for the very first time, used well.)  That leads into the ongoing romantic tragedyit's a nice detail, which we learn only much later when "Susan" does, but Rodney did try to find her years ago, to apologize for his giant misogynistic blow-upand the two pursue, and retreat, and spiral downward in mutual agony.

There's some strong, smart filmmaking throughout the middle here, notably a piece of sound designpretty damn remarkable for 1931where Helga's about to fall prey to the ringmaster where the driving, pounding noise of the train ramps up real high in the mix, and although we're spared the sight of it by a fade to black, the sound alone is already just about unbearably obscene.  I'm also terribly impressed by the time-compressing montage that details the upwards swing of Helga's "fall," an unusually-disciplined example of the art that tacks into the cyclic notions of the screenplay, basing itself on repeated imagery of circles, and which is at least taking its cues from the avant-garde work of Slavko Vorkapich presently making itself known in Hollywood, though I see no reason not to credit editor Margaret Booth (a talent in her own right) with how successful it is; and, agreeably enough, part of that success is that, equally and alike with its more geometric preoccupations, it's based on a superb cavalcade of cool new Garbo hairstyles.

It's a bit of a wonder that we got a coherent screenplay out of this at all; there were seven times as many uncredited writers as credited ones, and Leonard wasn't even the original director, replacing King Vidorwho'd tried his hand at the screenplay, and was happy to get himself loaned to Samuel Goldwyn rather than continuing to try to push his way through the crowd.  And yet it's actually a reasonably tight little repetitive epic, right up until it fucks up its rhythm, which unfortunately happens at the end.  The movie is, probably, too short for what it wants to do76 minutes is a pretty small space to fit in an awful childhood, and a life-defining romance, and years of dissolutionbut smooshing it into such a tiny volume does mean that barely a minute goes by without it hitting you with another melodramatic punch in the gut.  Then it trips, unwisely going two cycles in a row of Helga pursuing Rodney (it really needed to be the other way around, here at the end), which makes her more incomprehensibly bound than the movie realizes, because at this point Rodney has really gotten lost in the swamp of his own making, and he's somehow an even bigger dick than he was before.  (There's a few dimensions of self-awareness, involving yet another man (Ian Keith), whose apparently-genuine kindness and understanding is probably supposed to make our lovers' self-destructive gravitational attraction even more ironic, but it plays extremely bluntly, more like a vast team of screenwriters heaving this cumbersome thing back onto pre-established story rails.)

At this point, even Leonard is losing track of his movie: there's an insane beat where Gable, having been accosted by an over-enthusiastic floozie at the Mesoamerican dive bar Helga now works at, throws her off a fucking balcony, which can play in no way but as a wild jokenobody even, like, reacts to itand, shit, it's undoubtedly very sexist, but it's well-framed bit of cartoonish physical comedy, and I admit I laughed at it.  But it happens in the final eight minutes of a soul-blasting romantic melodrama (the immediately-adjoining shots on either side of it don't even really acknowledge the freakish shift in tone), and whether such a bizarre gag belonged in any configuration of this movie, it sure as hell didn't belong in this configuration, this close to the melodramatic climax.

It leaves the film feeling terribly unbalanced, and kind of like exactly what it was, a movie where everyone involved, Leonard on down, didn't even like it anymore (Garbo, of course, hated it from jump street), and just needed to get it finished, even if they had no idea how, and the ending had to be hammered out in one sleepless night because it had to be shot tomorrow.  It's a shame, because as well-trodden ground as the material was, by the same token it doesn't feel like ending up even slightly a mess should've been possible.

Score: 7/10

*As the poster indicates, in other territories it used variations on "Helga."  Definitely money well-spent on those adaptation rights, Thalberg.
**Meanwhile, from my (admittedly very vague) comprehension of the novel, its subsequent phases, involving stardom and a string of lovers and a self-isolating tendency, are more like a premonitory biography of... Greta Garbo.  Weird!

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