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I Am Suzanne is recognized by many puppeteers as a milestone for puppet
movies. Yet, very few have seen it. I worked with the Yale Puppeteers
in the late fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties into their very
senior years. So being the youngest of their troop, the "Turnabouters",
I have many recollections. There are few of us left. Perhaps only Gene
Maiden and myself, Charles Taylor, have the knowledge of details
regarding the Yale Puppeteers.
I always wondered how the portrait puppets were created. My apprenticeship with Harry Burnett led me to believe that the fine portrait work was beyond his ability. There are clues in Punch's Progress,and Small Wonder, the biographies of the Yale Puppeteers and the latter book including Turnabout Theater. by Forman Brown, that led me to believe that work was carried out with someone with finer sculpting ability . Harry Burnett would have made the bodies, hands and heads of most of the characters but definitely not the true likeness of the puppets representing well known "portrait" personalities.
Harry gave me photographs of Lillian Harvey and Gene Raymond with their puppets. Many years later I happened on the puppet figure of Lilian Harvey without her head. I am pleased to have the headless puppet in my collection. Perhaps one day I can replicate the head to go with the torso. It is possible that the portrait puppets of Lilian Harvey and Gene Raymond were in the possession of the actors. Although, during the mid to late fifties, much of the puppets and personal possessions of the Yale puppeteers were stored in an elephant van by Jimmy Woods owner of Jungle Land. Vandals broke into the unguarded van and photographs, negatives, and antiques were strewn about the field. Many of the puppets had been stolen. This was between 1956 and 1959. Perhaps that is how the Lillian Harvey puppet "lost" her head! Many of these objects had been wrapped in newspaper and stored in boxes. We found some items had been pulled out of their wrappings tearing priceless antiques. I have a set of crèche figures that stood in the Turnabout Theater. Hat brims and small details were destroyed when they were pulled out and so they were left behind in the field. Other objects were totally lost. Fortunately, there were so many items that the thieves didn't scratch the depth of their treasures!
You can see a photograph of the Lilian Harvey and Gene Raymond puppets by going on line and type in Turnabout Theater then go to the Los Angeles Library | Regional History | Turnabout Theater - Then go to TT-001-804 no neg. It's many pages in but worth looking at the fun pictures of the Turnabout Theater family and Yale Puppeteers history. You'll see me in there too!
Another excellent source of information regarding I Am Suzanne, The Yale Puppeteers, Turnabout Theater would be Alan Cook of COPA, Conservatory of Puppetry Arts. Just type COPA puppets.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'I Am Suzanne' is an astonishing film, one of the most original movies I've
ever seen ... and yet it reminds me of several others. Director Rowland V.
Lee and his co-scenarist Edwin Justus Mayer are both severely underrated;
their careers are overdue for reappraisal, and this movie is a good place to
'I Am Suzanne' was apparently meant as a star vehicle for Lillian Harvey, an actress who seems highly artificial. Her accent is slightly too cut-glass, her performance (in this film, at least) too mannered. She is blonde and pretty, but not quite beautiful: her eyebrows have been plucked to within a millimetre of their lives, and her nose is slightly bulbous. The best performance in the film is by that excellent and underrated character actor Leslie Banks: he manages to invest some subtlety into a highly theatrical role which gives him legitimate reasons to chew the scenery.
'I Am Suzanne' has strong overtones of the later and better-known 'Lili', Edgar Ulmer's 'Bluebeard', 'Pinocchio', 'Laugh Clown Laugh', and also the weird semi-fantasy 'Zoo in Budapest' (starring Gene Raymond in a role similar to the one he plays here). The dream sequence in this movie reminds me of the trial scene in 'Alice in Wonderland' and also of 'Attack of the Puppet People' ... specifically, that science-fiction film's bizarre scene in which a woman, shrunk to doll size, is forced to co-star opposite a marionette in a puppet-show performance of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'.
CONTAINS SPOILERS. Suzanne is a beautiful young orphan who dances for coins in the street, and who is dominated by her Svengali-like guardian, who calls himself the Baron, It's clear that the Baron's interest in Suzanne is entirely exploitative: he makes money off her, and he lusts for her. The only implausible thing about this arrangement is that he hasn't tried to rape her yet.
Handsome young Tony (Raymond) is a puppet-master who becomes so enamoured of Suzanne's beauty that he asks her consent to make a marionette in her likeness, so that 'Suzanne' (the puppet, not the woman) can star in Tony's shows. There are several very impressive set-pieces, in which the marionettes perform enjoyable routines. The only flaw in these delightful sequences is that Tony is ostensibly manipulating the marionettes, yet it's clear that actor Gene Raymond is being 'doubled' by some experienced puppeteers. Comedic actress Florence Desmond, well known in England at this time for her deft impersonations of film actresses and celebrities, provides the voices for several of Tony's marionettes.
The Baron hopes to make more money off Suzanne: the woman, not the puppet... although Suzanne symbolically *is* a puppet under his domination: it's this sort of layered symbolism that makes this story so fascinating. The Baron bullies Suzanne into performing a tightrope act. She falls and injures herself. Now her dancing days are over, and she might not even walk again.
Lillian Harvey convincingly depicts Suzanne's confusion and immaturity, even though the actress is slightly too old for this 'Lill'-like role. She feels attracted to Tony ... yet she also feels jealousy towards the puppet-version of herself, as Tony seems to be more interested in the marionette Suzanne than in the real version. Eventually, she shoots the puppet version of herself! This prompts the film's most remarkable set piece, a nightmare sequence that reminded me of 'Puppet People'.
In her nightmare, Suzanne dreams that she has been put on trial for murder: the murder of her puppet-self! She finds herself in the dock at a Kafka-like trial, with a puppet jury, presided over by the King and Queen of Puppet Land! It would have been easy for this sequence to slide into absurdity, and I had a whole flotilla of wisecracks ready for the King and Queen of Puppet Land: Do they run a puppet government? Can they pull a few strings? If the marionettes find Suzanne guilty of murder, will they string her up? Remarkably, this film expertly maintains its balance between fantasy and reality, between imagination and delusion.
Is it possible to rate a movie 11 points out of 10? No? Then I'll have to rate 'I Am Suzanne' a lowly 10 points out of 10. Why didn't Lee and Mayer follow this triumph with another great film?
Tony (Gene Raymond) is a poor but likable puppeteer. While his
marionettes are charming, his audience is tiny. One day he sees the
vivacious Suzanne (Lillian Harvey) performing on stage and he's
enchanted...so enchanted that he wants to design a puppet after her.
However, her manager won't allow Tony or anyone to get close to his
protégé and this is because he carefully manipulates her and degrades
her talent in order to keep her believing she needs him to be a
success! This guy, the Baron (Leslie Banks), is a real jerk and when he
asks her to marry him, you assume it's not out of love but more a
business proposition to keep her under his wing. Tony is convinced the
Baron doesn't love Suzanne and tells her...at which time her
concentration is disrupted and she takes a terrible fall during the
For the next several months, Tony takes care of Suzanne and nurses her back to health...even though it appears she'll never dance again. Slowly, very slowly, she begins to recover--during which time she learns puppetry from Tony. Sadly, during all this time the Baron never sees her. After all, she's no longer of use to him. But when he learns she's recovering, this manipulative jerk springs into action...and does his best to sow seeds of discord in the blossoming relationship between Suzanne and Tony. Tony himself doesn't help it any when he starts to take it for granted that Suzanne no longer wants a life on the stage but with him and his marionettes. What's next?
This is a very charming picture and your heart aches for poor Suzanne. After all, she never is allowed by anyone to choose what she wants. Plus, she's so neglected and mistreated by the Baron-- and this is a sharp contrast to the amazing and very sweet marionette shows throughout the film. My only quibble is some of these sequences go on a bit too long. Still, it's an unusual film and somewhat reminiscent of both "Svengali" and "Lili". Well worth seeing...and oddly, a very pink movie since someone thought it was a good idea to tint this black & white film!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across an old VHS documentary about the
famed - in the puppetry world - Yale Puppeteers and their Turnabout
Theatre. The documentary discussed how, in the early thirties, they had
been asked to create a marionette sequence for a Hollywood film. The
tape also showed a few scratchy but tantalizing scenes from the movie
that included an elaborately staged musical sequence, some sort of
trial run by Satan and some cameos by marionette versions of the Marx
Brothers and Charlie Chaplin. Having an interest in puppetry . . .I
needed to find that film. After an exhausting thirty seconds of
google-ing, I found the name of the film, the stars and the fact that
it seemed to have fallen into public domain and out of print. Luckily,
some enterprising gentleman - and there seem to be many - had managed
to get what appeared to be an old VHS copy of the film burned onto a
DVD and was selling it on Ioffer. I offered and it arrived a few days
later. I would have preferred that the quality of the DVD had been
better, but I was able to watch it. Obviously a "B" picture, but still
very enjoyable. As has been noted by other reviewers, Miss Harvey plays
Suzannne, the main dancer and star attraction in a Paris theater. She
is, in most ways, the puppet of her manager who tells her what and when
to do everything and controls every aspect of her life, even attempting
to control who and how she loves. Tony is a puppet-master at a failing,
small theater nearby. Tony's whole life revolves around puppets to the
point that it is the only way he can deal with people: as puppets. He
even resorts to using a puppet to get to know Suzanne after he becomes
smitten with her.
When an accident changes circumstances for Suzanne, she develops a closeness to Tony and, at one point, becomes his puppet. But, after a fun little dream sequence and a sort of puppet trial, Suzanne manages to sever the strings but maintain the connections and Tony learns that people aren't puppets. As one would expect since its 1933, all ends well.
The film suffers from the limited budget, a script that is never quite as good as its concept and themes and by a lead actress who is decent, but not great. There are, though, some fascinating dance sequences where Miss Harvey is thrown around the stage like a puppet. The marionette work is lots of fun with glimpses of performances, the puppeteers in action and even some of the puppet construction. It is, in many ways, a rare and wonderful glimpse at the power and popularity that puppetry had at one time.
After he lost out in a power struggle at Paramount, Jesse Lasky went to
Fox, where he produced some innovative pictures that were not
particularly successful at the box office. This is one of them.
Most of what is interesting about this movie is the opportunity to see the handiwork of a couple of marionette companies of the era. Otherwise, there is one clear case of miscasting (Gene Raymond is supposed to be the neurotic scion of five generations of puppeteers who has a better relationship with his puppets than human when he looks and acts like a college football star) and some more subtle mistakes in acting and directing: Lilian Harvey is directed in the opening scenes as so withdrawn that I thought she might be playing an idiot, but as she gains in self control and knowledge, she becomes audible. Leslie Banks is quite amusing in a brief foray into the colonies and Georgia Caine handles the confidante-out-for-herself role very well.
Although this is a visually striking film, there are script problems. There is an interesting subtext about the relationship of identity and control as various people insist that they are Suzanne, the Lilian Harvey character, before the matter is sorted out. Had the film makers had a little more confidence in their audience, this might have turned into a better movie.
You have probably never seen a movie like "I Am Suzanne!" Read the
summary and you will get a feel for it, and it will save me from trying
to explain why this is such a rewarding, heartwarming film - and those
are adjectives I seldom use. I just wonder where the idea came for this
picture - 'original' is hardly the word to describe it.
I think it is basically a love story and would be rated 'G' today, as it would have great appeal to children; think "Hans Christian Andersen" (1953) but minus puppets, and that would approximate the depth of the plot. The principals are childlike, and behave like children would think adults behave. Bland 30's leading man Gene Raymond is the puppeteer who thinks his marionettes are almost real, and Lilian Harvey is an unhappy dancer. They fall in love, although she is a greater success than he; few come to see his puppet shows and she is a celebrity.
Special mention should be made of the Yale Puppeteers, the real stars of the piece. When they are on-camera they steal the show, as much as possible for dolls on strings. So good are the Puppeteers that the dolls come to life in the several different set pieces they are in. I always thought puppeteers just stood above the puppet stage, but here they have intricate walkways to follow the movements of the puppets. The whole novel effect of the picture is fascinating and might have been better with a replacement for Raymond. Also if Fox spent a few more dollars on the production.
This one is worth it if you can find it. It comes in one-strip color but my copy was slightly blurry. Find a good movie pirate and buy it.
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