Susan and God (1940)

31 03 2014

This film came in-between two of Joan Crawford and George Cukor’s more celebrated collaborations, The Women in 1939 and A Woman’s Face in 1941. I can’t speak on behalf of the former, but in comparison to the latter, it falls quite short of that film’s promise. What we have here is something of a failed comedy, an attempt at “religious satire” and whether it succeeds or fails is beyond me because the idea of a religious satire just seems so stale and uninteresting to me. The limitation of such a commentary makes the humor all a bit simplistic and if satire is meant to provide a larger critique of social life, then that is missing here. Despite this being a laborious viewing and one of Cukor’s more boring efforts, it actually is interesting, albeit in a way that is unintentional. The film glosses over an interesting dynamic involving self-image and public perception. It doesn’t save the film, but it does suggest that even when he was boring, Cukor was still interesting.

1

Wealthy socialite Susan Trexel returns home from her European vacation with a surprising announcement for all of her friends: she’s found God. Although they all act supportive of her new lifestyle, many of them are skeptical of it as nothing more than another mask for her to try on, a personal trend that will soon fade into obscurity. The most skeptical is Susan’s husband, Barry, who she seeks a separation from. Using their daughter Blossom as motivation, Barry coerces Susan to spend the summer together with her husband and daughter. Barry’s intentions are to make Susan see the error of her ways, and realize that she needs to keep the family together. At the same time, Barry himself begins to find himself increasingly interested in Charlotte.

2

All of the relationships emphasized here are remarkably dull. Susan’s relationship with Barry goes so in tune with typical drama that one feels the sensation of it working too perfectly, even as the setup itself is completely nonsensical. The entire film goes a great length to show Susan’s own unrest with Barry. This is something that is reinforced up until the final minute when the two inexplicably reunite. Everything gets tied up nicely because this is a Hollywood film, but it’s so jarring that it seems conscious of the unreal way the couple’s feelings manifest. The screenplay is based on a play byRachel Crothers, which was reworked by Anita Loos. Despite the presence of women in the film’s writing, the discourse suggests something remarkably misogynist. Susan’s spirituality is just an act, and she just needs to be won over by Barry. She finally submits to his constant pressure, which seems heartbreaking enough, but maybe it is even more so when the film treats their relationship working out as a happy ending. All of her complaints about Barry are thrown out the window. Susan is constantly framed as a superficial individual so we’re led to expect any reservations she had about reuniting with Barry were trivial and silly.

3

It’s important to distinguish that the film does position its perspective with Barry. We’re told to sympathize with him, feel his hurt and anguish by the flaky Susan breaking his heart. The fact that he never bothers to listen to Susan is also a fault of the film. I could here say then that it is sort of brilliant in that a woman’s voice being muffled by a man’s own heartbreak is something that happens so frequently that the film manages to capture this phenomenon. I think, instead, that this is the film’s biggest fault. It allows Susan no room to breathe, or even wear a face of concern. Her only problems that the film bothers to articulate to us are immediate and none of them are crucial. In reality, her disappointment in her marriage might have been the very thing that motivated her to become religious, or even pretend to be religious. This is where Cukor actually stumbles upon something kind of brilliant: the film unintentionally illustrates the problems that come when self-image doesn’t match perception.

4

To use a modern example, think of Susan’s spirituality along the lines of modern Hollywood stars and their philanthropy. I find nothing especially wrong with someone using their fame to call attention to certain issues, but often this is only done in service of an image. Modern celebrities, particularly white and male ones, have control over their self-image. This is why Bono’s name evokes images of starving third-world children just as much as it reminds of us his actual music. I suspect that Susan here is actually attempting something similar. She might really be religious and Bono might really have concerns for every starving child alive, but the broadcasting of this personality implies that it is somewhat performed. Bono, as white and male, does gain control of his image but Susan has no such luck. Her spirituality is her trying to take control of how she’s perceived, but it is ultimately undone by Barry’s control. The film attempts to mock her at every turn for her vanity, but there is something tragic about her destination. She never changes how people see her, and more importantly, she’s forced back into marriage that despite the swooning Hollywood love music, she is actually against. In the middle of this forgettable “religious satire” there’s an engrossing and devastating portrait of someone whose voice can’t be heard.

5

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