Our first Shamedown of the new year! I think 2023 is going to be fun, at least movie-wise if nothing else. And if anyone would like to know what a Shamedown is, our instigators at CinemaShame have all the information here. Off we go…
Who’s made New Year’s resolutions? I have, sort of–I’ve been trying to do more HIIT and kickboxing, resurrect my dormant piano skills and go through the Bible in a year, among other things. Therefore it only seemed fitting to start off this year’s Shamedown’s with a look at the 1940 Joan Crawford-Fredric March vehicle, Susan and God, a running duel between real changes and fake ones among the upper class set. I’ve seen a few clips and outtakes from this movie but never the whole thing, so watching it was a pleasant surprise.
The movie opens with Barrie Truxel (Fredric March) stumbling out of a movie theater, clearly drunk and disoriented, but instead of going home he goes to a club, where he knocks back a few more spirits. When Barrie finds out his wife, Susan (Joan Crawford) is coming back from Europe on the Normandie, and possibly bound for Reno next, he sobers up, sticks a carnation in his lapel, and takes his and Susan’s daughter, Blossom (Rita Quigley) down to the dock to meet the ship.
Susan, however, is not there, because apparently she left the ship somewhere else, but she’ll meet Barrie at home, or so her assistant says. Heh. Not quite. Susan heads straight to see her friends and neighbors, who are all waiting for her to come back, and they all notice she’s a little, er, different. She’s perky and effusive to the point of loopiness, and no one can get a word in edgewise. She won’t drink, either, because she’s apparently found God.
And she wants to talk about it, although we don’t hear many of the particulars beyond Susan talking about confessing her sins to an unspecified group. After a few hours of watching Susan subtly manipulate everyone, and not for good, the group suspects something’s fishy and stage a fake confession to try and draw Susan out. Barrie shows up holding wilted tulips just as things are about to get dramatic and says he’s ready for a change. The group watches, gobsmacked, as Susan heads toward him like a cat after something shiny.
Both Barrie and Blossom, the latter of whom is an awkward, neglected teenager with glasses and braces, yearn for a stable home life. Blossom wants to come home for the summer instead of going to camp on breaks. Susan is aghast because she thinks Blossom loves camp and is suspicious of Barrie because he’s taken a sudden interest in their daughter. Not only that, but opening the house puts a wrench in her divorce plans. Barrie makes a deal with Susan, though: If he falls off the wagon, he’ll give her divorce papers and set her free.
Turns out the summer is transformative in more ways than one. Blossom and Barrie both thrive, and much to her surprise, Susan enjoys herself, even when the evening’s plans include a taffy pull in the kitchen with Blossom and her school friends. She even helps Blossom shake off her awkward phase. That doesn’t mean falling off the proverbial wagon isn’t a possibility, though. Barrie may go on a bender and Susan may buy a train ticket to Newport so she can get on with God’s work. Or will they?
Straight up, Susan and God is a sumptuously fun movie with some meat to it. There’s so much detail to take in here, from Adrien’s fabulous costumes to the sparky dialogue to the sneakily vigorous rhythm of the scenes. Joan Crawford in particular is shown off to her best advantage with everyone else following in her wake, even her co-star Fredric March, who stares her down with his usual penetrating intensity.
The film was based on a successful 1937 play by Rachel Crothers, which ran at the Plymouth Theater on Broadway from October 27, 1937 until June 10, 1938, giving two-hundred eighty-eight performances. Unlike the movie, which goes to several different locations, in the play the action all happens at Truxel family friend Irene Burrough’s house. Naturally, this means Irene, who’s played by Rose Hobart in the movie becomes a much more peripheral character, as do Barrie and Susan’s group of friends, and it also means we have less of an opportunity to find out what exactly Susan believes.
My guess is that there were elements of the play that had to be glossed over due to the Production Code’s dictum against disparaging portrayals of religion, especially Christianity, even though Susan’s beliefs look more like humanism and spiritualism. In fact, Rachel Crothers was apparently inspired by Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group, which was the forerunner of Alcoholics Anonymous and only nominally Christian, if that.
Also, several of Barrie and Susan’s friends are in what could have been considered controversial relationships at the time by the Hayes Office and for that matter even now, but a lot of the specifics are left out. Anita Loos, who had “cleaned up” The Women for Norma Shearer, now “cleaned up” Susan and God for Joan Crawford, and according to TCM, likely improved on its original form.
Also according to TCM, the movie did not do well for Joan Crawford because it showed her playing yet another unlikeable character, albeit a silly, flaky one, and coming off The Women, the public started to really dislike her. Three years later MGM would release Joan from her contract because she was considered box office poison.
Looking at the film nowadays, though, I don’t know if I agree with that assessment because Joan’s performance in the film is fantastic–she’s really believable, especially when things happen that show her up for who she is and reality catches up with her. Legend has it Joan Crawford could pick which eye to cry out of if asked, and seeing her performance in Susan and God, I kinda believe it.
And now for 2023’s first Pick My Movie Tag winner…
Kayla from Whimsically Classic!
Yeah, we’re going to stick with the Pick My Movie tag for another year, because it was fun last year and people are starting to get into it. And like last year, the mission is the same, namely to review something from one’s watchlist, whether streaming or physical media, and the longer it’s been on there, the better. Congrats, Kayla! As always, anyone who wants to jump in on this tag is completely welcome to (find the details and a banner here).
Okeydokey, the Great Muppet Guest Star Caper is coming up tomorrow and my co-host, Gill and I are raring to go. Hope you’ll join us! Thanks for reading, all, and see you later…
Susan and God is available to own on DVD from Amazon.
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One thought on “Shamedown #1: Susan and God”
I have my own “list of shame” from 2023 and already started going through it… So I know the feeling. It’s always satifying checking on movies we’ve only heard about, no matter if the movie is good or bad: it literally lifts some weight from our shoulders!
I haven’t seen Susan and God, but your review left me intrigued, especially about the “cleaning” from the original material.