' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Suzy (1936)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: Suzy (1936)

Released within five months of each other in 1936, both “Wife vs. Secretary” and “Suzy” placed its primary star, her eminence, Jean Harlow, in that old plot warhorse, a love triangle. Yet in the former film it wasn’t really a love triangle at all. It was something of a commentary on the love triangle, and on the idea that women must pit themselves against men, and that what we see when we see a man and a woman isn’t always what we think we see. It’s really a wonderful film. The latter, however, is a far more traditional variant of the Love Triangle. It harkens back to Harlow’s big splash, “Hell’s Angels”, where her character came between two dueling pilots and it presages Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor”, where Kate Beckinsale’s character comes between dueling pilots, by sixty-five years. Because in “Suzy”, yes, sure enough, Jean Harlow comes between dueling pilots, and it generates about as many sparks as either one of those other love triangles, which is to say it generates none. It’s a multi-purpose stadium movie, one that haphazardly combines romance and espionage-ish intrigue and action. The late-game aerial dogfight is so misplaced it goes to show that even Hollywood’s Golden Age had its fair share of giant spiders.


In fairness, the screenplay, based on a novel, though haphazardly if reviews of the time are to be believed, does its leading lady no favors, forgoing imagination and snap, crackle, pop dialogue for rote formula and basic repartee. Harlow’s Suzy, an American showgirl in 1914 London, marries an Irish inventor, Terry (Franchet Tone), only to run afoul of a sinister German plot that leaves her new spouse dead, or so she thinks. We knew he’s not dead, even as she flees in fear of being framed for his murder, all the way to Paris where she quickly jumps into the arms of another man, French aviator Andre Charville (Cary Grant), and gets re-married. Neither of these relationships, however, are outfit with any kind of discernible passion, particularly because Suzy is written as having no plan aside from getting a man and getting married.

Andre is a playboy. He has affairs, and she knows, and his father, Baron Edward Charville (Lewis Stone), knows, and no one does anything about it. Her character is beholden to some sort of fear of being alone but none of this comes through in the writing, which just wants to spur the film toward a melodramatic conclusion. Nor is it conveyed in the acting, which often struggles to get on the same page. Harlow seems to be taking all of this rather seriously, another attempt at dramatic acting that she was only just beginning to pursue at this point in her career, while Grant seems to view the entire ordeal as much more of a lark. When his character is caught red-handed he barely bats an eye. Neither he nor she even appear to have real feelings for one another, an idea worth exploring but one which the film ignores to instead bring her first husband back into the mix to re-ignite the triangle of love.


It’s a shame that Harlow and Grant never got the opportunity to play off one another again. Their careers, of course, were at very different junctures in 1936, even if neither of them knew it. She would be dead, horribly, a year later. He would release “The Awful Truth” a year later and begin his ascent to the top. In “Suzy”, however, Harlow was still trying to get a handle on genuine dramatic acting and Grant’s flawless embodiment of debonair had yet to kick in. Here he comes across more like a douche frat boy. It’s easy to wonder how peak Grant might have matched up with a more honed Harlow. Alas, it was not to be.

There is, however, one moment when “Suzy” lights up, and, tellingly, it’s when she gets away from the measurements of the triangle. It’s her and the Baron, a grumpy old man who, improbably, has come around on his daughter-in-law, viewing her with affection and fearing for her well-being when he realizes his son is cheating on her. Harlow often needed a larger-than-life performer to play off because, well, she was larger-than-life. But here she finds a different gear, a lower gear, a tender gear, a melancholic gear. She accepts his concern and downplays, even if Harlow lets us pull the curtain ever so slightly aside to let us that downplaying it is merely her defense mechanism. And in that moment, Lewis Stone hurts for her. It’s a paternal love, and the only love “Suzy” ever makes convincing. It’s enough to wish on a hundred-million shooting stars that Jean Harlow could have lived to see all her talent through.

2 comments:

mercatiwriter@aol.com said...

Wonderful writing

joel65913 said...

This was one of the last of Jean Harlow's pictures I caught up with, I still have two left to see of her starring films-Goldie and Iron Man-but I despair of ever seeing them since they seem either lost or in such bad condition they aren't shown.

Anyway I sat down to watch Suzy with great anticipation since I love both she and Grant and think Tone is undervalued but I agree the picture is a miss for them all. It starts well enough but about a quarter of the way in it falls apart. The script's pretty crap no matter who played the lead but Joan Crawford would have made more sense. It is truly a shame that Jean & Cary were never paired in a comedy since it was such a strength for both. Even her next film Personal Property, which was no prize winner either but was at least a comedy, would have suited the pair better. Grant would have certainly made more sense as a faux English butler then the actor cast in that part, Robert Taylor!