Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Cast: Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Hersholt, Alan Hale, John Miljan, Hale Hamilton
Susan Lenox is a really strange movie. I’ve seen it several times over the years, and my opinion on it has changed constantly. Initially I was so bewildered and caught off guard by it that I really disliked it, but the more times I watch it, the more I enjoy it. It’s one of those pre-code films where the following conversation probably took place in the editing room…
“It’s okay as a 90 minute movie.”
“But if we cut it down to under 80 minutes we can schedule more screenings and make more money.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“Yeah, but don’t cut out any of the sex.”
What resulted from the studio’s interesting editing is one hell of a sexy, surreal, downright strange romantic melodrama.
Garbo plays Helga, the illegitimate child of a dead mother of bad reputation. She grows up under the tyranny of her uncle, who’s so worried she’s going to turn out like her mother that he decides to marry her off to a brute. One stormy night, said brute tries to rape her, and Helga flees into the forest. She stumbles upon a cabin where Rodney (a dashing Gable) is staying. He takes her in, and the two fall in love. Soon, Rodney has to go out of town for a week for work. While he’s gone, Helga’s uncle catches up with her, and she’s forced to take off.
From there it’s a really strange and pretty heartwrenching melodrama about Helga trying to find her way back to Rodney and all the horrible things they go through to get there. During this journey, she’s forced into becoming a “fallen women” and Rodney rashly condemns her and ditches her.
I’m a sucker for movies about people in love treating each other horribly, and this is a really early example of those kinds of films. Helga, hurt by Rodney’s dismissal, allows herself to continue along the path of a fallen woman, almost just to hurt Rodney. The film is really a fascinating look at a really intense relationship between two people who are so twisted and screwed up that they’re only happy when they’re miserable together.
In addition to the strange nature of the Helga and Rodney’s relationship, the settings of the film add to the bizarre atmosphere. It starts off in America, but in a strange wilderness of America that’s almost a fantasy world, which is appropriate with Helga beginning her life in a sort of Cinderella story, to escape and find her prince charming. during her journey back to Rodney, Helga ends up as a circus performer, and that in itself… well, well obviously that whole section and all those people are weird in an of themselves. The story than shifts to what is, I assume, the Park Avenue world of New York where Helga (now known as Susan Lenox) is being kept by a politician. For this very short section of the film, Garbo plays one of her few “modern woman” roles, and fits into the skin nicely. After this part, the story moves to a seed South America bar, where the atmosphere is rowdy, to say the least. The constant change in scenery and tone is startling, but where I found fault with that upon my first viewings, I now see it as a strength of the film. Susan Lenox is a fast paced romantic melodrama. It almost feels like and adventure film, and those jarring movements between time and setting help keep thing fresh and exciting.
This was the only pairing of Garbo and Gable. Having two such dynamic personalities on the screen certainly adds to the explosiveness of the film. Their personalities clash and merge and explode over and over again on screen. In reality, Garbo and Gable couldn’t stand each other. Perhaps that helped with the explosive nature of the couple on the screen. At the same time, though, Gable is really the only male costar Gable had who could make her really seem like a girl. Garbo was an extremely sexy woman, and all of her costars (Gilbert, Douglas, Nagel, etc) embraced and enhanced her as a woman. But only Gable was really able to accentuate the basic romantic girl inside of Garbo. It’s a surprising, unexpected pairing, but it works so well.
Likewise, Garbo’s performance is kind of unexpected. This really isn’t the kind of character one would ever think of when thinking of regal, mysterious Garbo. The vamp, the tragic heroine, the mystery. This role is nothing like any of those things. In Susan Lenox, Garbo gets to something very primal in her nature that I don’t think she ever touched in any of her other roles. She accessed a really deep romantic side, and a deep aching hurt for this character that she doesn’t show in most of her performances. The more I see of this film, the more I think that it may be her best performance.
Gable is his usual rough, rugged self. This was his first starring role where he wasn’t playing a bad guy or a heavy. It’s a pretty emotionally complicated role for an actor to really start his starring career with, but Gable plays it with perfect ease.
Susan Lenox is definitely a weird movie. On all fronts, it’s not something you’d expect it to be. But after adjusting to those unexpected things, it’s easy to see this is something unique and special.
By Katie Richardson