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This film is an odd one in Joan Crawford's MGM films, but entertaining and
well worth viewing for one of Crawford's better, more carefully
performances. Originally purchased for Norma Shearer (who balked at
the mother of a teenager), this dramatic comedy provides a fine framework
for one of Crawford's few successful comedy portrayals. Widely faulted at
the time for too closely copying Gertrude Lawrence's stage performance (in
the same role), today it is apparent how much originality and commitment
Crawford brought to the part of Susan, a flighty upper-crust socialite
bent on bringing her newfound religious enlightenment to her family and
friends, with disastrous results.
Frederick March turns in a fine, delicately shaded performance as Susan's long suffering husband who is driven to drink by her fecklessness. Majorie Main, as Susan's down-to-earth housekeeper, almost steals the film and Rose Hobart gives a brilliant, tense performance as Susan's unhappy best friend.
This is a first rate MGM production of its day, with stunning costumes and brilliant supporting players. This film has often been overlooked by fans and critics alike, but it offers many delights and highlights excellent contributions by George Cukor, the director, and the rest of the MGM production team. The subject (born again religious mania) is, as more than one film critic has noted, rather an odd one for Golden Age Hollywood to have touched on at all, but it is handled with care and Susan, in the end, emerges a wiser, happier woman. No Joan Crawford fan should miss it!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Wow. This was one odd little Joan Crawford flick! Joan is a
self-centered spoiled rich lady. And then suddenly, she has a religious
conversion and she spends all her energy on God. The problem is, that
is soon becomes apparent that the self-centered and histrionic lady is
actually the SAME person she always was--she just annoys everyone
around her in a new way by talking about God. At times, she talks as if
she has somehow found a direct link to God and has "inside
information". Her conceit is incredible. And, by the end of the film,
this dizzy and shallow dame is on to her next obsession.
Overall, this isn't a great film--especially since Joan's character is awfully broad and difficult to believe. But it is entertaining and strange enough to merit a look.
I LOVE this film. Cukor made it the same year as PHILADELPHIA STORY and it has the same exact feel and tone. This film was definitely eclipsed by the Hepburn one but deserves to be revived. Crawford is magnificent. I have never seen her play comedy like this and under Cukor's direction she excels. It proved what a versatile actress she could be. I don't understand comments like "she gives a poor imitation of what Gertrude Lawrence did on-stage". I highly doubt the person who wrote that ever saw the original stage production. He says he heard Lawrence speak lines from PRIVATE LIVES on a recording with Noel Coward and obviously that is what Joan was trying to imitate. Joan does not imitate other people and Cukor would never have allowed her to. I find it odd that when Crawford stretches herself in character parts like RAIN, SUSAN AND GOD, THE WOMEN, and A WOMAN'S FACE her public, and more importantly MGM, did not support her when she is obviously and magnificently broadening her horizons and simultaneously doing great work. THE WOMEN was the only one of this bunch that was a hit. But MGM never seemed fit to promote Joan for an Oscar. Watch this film and you will be surprised at this twist in the MGM Crawford. I think her transition at the end is remarkable and the character of Susan really grows and changes. I'm sure it was difficult for Crawford to portray a flighty, ditsy, scatterbrained woman but she really connects with something in this. I watch this movie at least twice a year. People complain it is stagey and long but with dialogue this good I'll take it over a movie half its length. The supporting cast is great. Watch Rita Hayworth in an early role. Fredric March, as usual, is brilliant and wonderful alongside Crawford. This is Joan's best comedy; and more than that, an excellent film. It's subject matter resonates today with it's "new age" religious fervor. I only wish Cukor had directed her in more because she responds soooooo well to him. Imagine if he directed GOODBYE, MY FANCY or TORCH SONG. Ah well, you can't have everything.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
1939 is usually credited as the greatest year for first rate memorable
Hollywood classic films (something between a dozen and twenty five).
But 1940 had several notably great ones: "The Grapes Of Wrath" and "The
Philadelphia Story" were among them. The latter has been called the
"wisest" fairy tale from Hollywood. An interesting reading of a
sophisticated Broadway play hit by Philip Barry - possibly one of the
few comic dramatists of that period comparable to Eugene O'Neill. Barry
was lucky to have Katherine Hepburn head a first rate cast on Broadway
including Shirley Booth and Joseph Cotton. And Hepburn headed a similar
great cast with Ruth Hussey, Jimmy Steward (his Oscar role), and Cary
Grant in the MGM production directed by George Cukor. "The Philadelphia
Story" remains among the perfect social film comedies of all times.
I think the success of "The Philadelphia Story" explains the movie production of "Susan and God" in the same year. It has the earmarks of a copycat affair. A Broadway hit (starring Gertrude Lawrence), the film was produced by MGM, directed again by Cukor, and had Ruth Hussey in a major supporting part (the stars being Joan Crawford and Fredric March - their only film together, by the way). If "The Philadelphia Story" dealt with life among the rich of Philadelphia's Mainline, "Susan and God" dealt with the rich of Long Island's "Gold Coast". One of my favorite lines is when March tells his daughter (Rita Quigley) that he walked from their estate to Roslyn 15 miles away. That area is so crowded with small towns these days, for the big estates of the rich have moved into the Hamptons long ago, so the dating of the film becomes apparent.
But "Susan", while interesting, falls short of the success of "The Philadelphia Story". In place of Hepburn's "Tracy Lord" discovering her frailty after making herself into a self-proclaimed Goddess, we have Crawford's "Susan Trexel" discovering the shallowness of her professed new religion as she finds the pleasures of motherhood and wife-hood with daughter Blossom and husband Barrie. Cary Grant (C. K. Dexter Haven) was driven to drink by the harshness of his marriage to Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story", while March's "Barrie" becomes a drunkard due to his deep but unreturned love from the selfish Susan. Though Virginia Wiedler was Hepburn's younger sister in "The Philadelphia Story" she is not in the same predicament there as Quigley's "Blossom", who is hoping to see a family unit reappear before it is too late (however, it does resemble the torment Wiedler had as the daughter of Norma Shearer facing her parents' divorce in "The Women").
See, there are a lot of similarities between the two films. But while people flock to see "The Philadelphia Story" (and it even was remade into a successful musical in the 1950s as "High Society", "Susan and God" languished and disappeared. It certainly was not due to the failure of the director or cast. Cukor certainly knew how to create the right rich atmosphere of the Long Island set. March, Crawford, Hussey, Bruce Cabot, Rose Hobart, Nigel Bruce, John Carroll, a young newcomer named Rita Hayworth, Constance Collier, and Marjorie Main all show their performing values. It's even interesting to note an early performance by Dan Dailey (almost silent) as a publicity man.
But the story just doesn't seem catchy enough. Tracy is not a bad person in "The Philadelphia Story", just a trifle self-righteous (hence that last name). She gradually realizes she has to be more human. So does Susan, but she insists on forcing her religious views on everyone in sight (at least in the first half of the film - the sudden appearance of a drunken March stops her in her tracks). The results are that the marriage plans of a close friend are smashed, and the marriage of Bruce and Hayworth threatened. Susan does this all claiming that the others must discover what God wants them to do - do the correct thing. But that ignores their humanity in a worse way, especially as Susan keeps confusing her view of the correct thing with God's. The result is we never really cotton to Susan as we did with Tracy. We want Tracy to save herself, and find contentment. We don't really care at the end if Susan (even after an apparent self-revelation) straightens out. If the film is good for anything, aside from watching March and Crawford acting really well, it is seeing the close patterning of Crawford's performance on that of Gertrude Lawrence. It makes it easy to imagine that stage superstar on camera for a change.
The reason Joan Crawford is so dreadful in this film is that she is desperately trying to imitate the actress who originated the role on stage: Gertrude Lawrence. Lawrence's charm and individuality must have gone a long way toward making this play a hit on Broadway. Perhaps it's even a good play, but Crawford's unfortunate overplaying is so distracting that it's hard to judge. One can get a good idea of how Lawrence delivered lines by listening to a scene from the 1930 comedy PRIVATE LIVES which she recorded with Noel Coward. After hearing this recording, it's very clear what Crawford was trying - and failing - to do.
Another of the forgotten gems of Crawford's career. This trifle of a play, (which reads badly) is transformed by George Cukor and an all-star cast into a marvelous film. It's Joan Crawford on speed, Freddy March doing his dour drunk, Ruth Hussey, Nigel Bruve, Rita Hayworth, Rose Hobart, Bruce Cabot, and Marjorie Main all thrown into some of the most glamorous settings, costumes, and situations there can can be in an MGM film. Then, the fun starts. Crawford is a marvel as Susan, (who knew anyone but Billie Burke and Rosalind Russell could talk that fast?) who truly believes that only by wrecking the lives of all around her with her judgments and opinions can she help them be truly happy. The funny lines abound; Marjorie Main:"Look at this hallway, 'frighten Dracula." Also, after the argument between Susan and Barrie that sets up their "happy" family summer together, look at the strange sado-masochistic smile on Susan's face after Barrie's threatened to hit her with a chair and she realizes he may not be the sop she thought. See this film if only to see Crawford in a truly champagne comedy.
Please take careful notice of the billing in the title of this film.
It's about a society woman, Susan Trexel, who has taken up religion as
some kind of a new fad. Ms. Trexel is rather full of herself and she
would no doubt approve of the Deity getting second billing in a play
about her life.
Susan and God, a play by Rachel Crothers, ran on Broadway for the 1937-1938 season for 256 performances and starred Gertrude Lawrence who got rave reviews for her performance as the Long Island society woman who is so full of herself that she neglects husband and daughter for her various fads. She's embraced a particular type of Christianity in which it's believed confession is not just good, but necessary for the soul. Not only your confession, but you must apparently be brutally frank about everyone around you.
I knew a woman many years ago when I lived in New York. She was a union official, the treasurer of a local. This was an office she used the way Susan Trexel uses her new religion, to become the world's biggest busybody, interjecting herself into everyone's business. When you're a busybody by nature it's great if you can find a religion that says God requires you to be one.
I wish I could give Susan and God a higher rating. But the fault lies with Joan Crawford who apparently made the mistake of seeing Gertrude Lawrence in the play. Someone who's never seen or heard Gertrude Lawrence might not catch it and just think Crawford is too mannered in her portrayal. But her inflections are unmistakable, her imitation of Lawrence just keeps coming out. She should have been a little more Joan Crawford in her performance.
That's a pity too, because apparently Crawford got both Louis B. Mayer and George Cukor to get the film rights to Susan and God in the hope of broadening her range as an actress. I couldn't say she succeeded here.
Fredric March plays her long suffering husband, a likable man driven to drink because of his wife and young Rita Quigley plays her shy daughter who Crawford has no time for. Rita Hayworth, a screen goddess to be, has a small role as a young actress who has married producer Nigel Bruce for her career. You can tell easily she was going to be a star.
Fans of Joan Crawford might like seeing her trying something different, but sad that it wasn't more of her in the role.
Having just watched the amazing A WOMAN'S FACE, ran across this comment thread and I am so glad to see this title has fervent admirers. I am definitely one. Watched it many years ago and was absolutely floored by Joan's performance in this, as atypical for her as A WOMAN'S FACE but in a completely different direction, high comedy. It is one of the all-time greatest comedic performances in my book, and yet remains tragically obscure, in both her and Cukor's filmographies. Of course, it is so over-the-top that it runs the risk of being pigeonholed as just another campy Joan Crawford display, and yet if you cast out your preconceptions about her you will see a multi-layered characterization that is at once absurd yet never condescending, expertly timed delivery that seems totally effortless. I simply cannot wait for a DVD of this!
Watching this film, the lead role of Susan seemed to call out "Norma
Shearer" to me, and sure enough, reading up on it, the rights to the
play were purchased by MGM with Shearer in mind. Norma Shearer and Joan
Crawford were both fabulous movie stars but with different gifts. You
could not call either one of them great, visceral actresses so it was
always best to lead with their strengths. Crawford's was drama. Shearer
had a slightly wider range. This is just my opinion.
"Susan and God" is the story of a ditsy woman, unhappily married to drunken Frederic March, who takes a trip and comes back with religious fervor gained from a new group that emphasizes God, his guidance, and telling the truth. She then proceeds to wreak havoc on her entire social set and manages to break up one marriage and one near-marriage. March agrees to stay sober if she'll give their relationship a chance, and with their somewhat neglected daughter, Blossom, they spend the summer together. Ruth Hussey is a friend who is in love with March.
Crawford is an absolute disaster in this role, speaking very fast in a high-pitched voice that is supposed to represent her dizziness. She mugs, she poses, she wears absurd outfits (with the exception of the gorgeous one she wears to go to the train). It's a completely mannered, external performance. Shearer would have been much more natural in the role. Crawford is annoying. When it comes down to doing the more dramatic scenes in the film, she does much better.
The rest of the cast is very good, including March, Hussey, Rita Quigley, and a young, lovely Rita Hayworth. Due to Crawford, this comes off as rather strange, and it took me a while to realize it was supposed to be a comedy.
Odd film especially for a Crawford vehicle about a shallow socialite
who takes up religion on a whim with an overly simplistic ending.
It's easy to see why Joan accepted this after Norma Shearer's vanity got in the way of her taking the part, she wouldn't play a part of a woman with an almost adult child. Norma would have been much more right for the role since her facile, sometime brittle superior air was more in line with the part than Crawford's earthiness although she tries to submerge it. Susan was definitely different for Joan who at this point was looking for challenges cracking that she'd play Wally Beery's grandmother if it was a good part!
The film suffers from not having anyone to really root for outside the minor character of the main couple's daughter Blossom. Both Joan and March's characters are selfish, and for the most part, thoughtless fools.
This was the screen debut, in a wordless bit, of Susan Peters and Dan Dailey in a slightly larger part. Also keep a sharp eye out for Joan Leslie and Gloria De Haven in tiny parts just starting out.
Someone who has a larger part and actually attracted quite a bit of notice for this picture moving her forward to larger parts than she had been cast previously is Rita Hayworth. She's ravishing although not quite fully arrived at her star persona just yet. Still a brunette she handles her small supporting role well injecting a touch of pathos into a sketchily drawn part.
Points to Crawford for trying to stretch her established persona but while it's an admirable attempt the results are mixed.
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