Today, I'm reviewing Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931), starring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable.
This article is part of the At the Circus Blogathon hosted by Critica Retro and Serendipitous Anachronisms.
Greta Garbo was perhaps the least likely old Hollywood star to run away and join the circus, but the radiant Swede performed under the big top in MGM's 1931 melodrama, Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise).
Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) tells the story of a young Michigan woman named Helga (Garbo), who grows up in an abusive household. When her domineering father (Jean Hersholt) attempts to marry her off to loutish drunk Jeb Mondstrum (Alan Hale), Helga runs away. She happens across handsome architect Rodney Spencer (Clark Gable), and they quickly fall in love, but she is forced to run away again when her father and Jeb find her new home. Helga changes her name to Susan Lenox and embarks on a series of adventures that include becoming a circus performer, a Manhattan socialite, and a dancer in South America.
Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) is based on a controversial 1912 novel from journalist David Graham Phillips, that was still considered quite scandalous in 1931. In fact, MGM executive Irving Thalberg let producer and director Robert Z. Leonard go ahead with the project because the book was still quite popular among the studio's secretaries -- the audience for MGM's great female stars like Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Garbo was mainly young working women -- and British censors threatened to ban the movie based on the title alone (the movie was eventually released in the United Kingdom under the title, The Rise of Helga).
The resulting film is a turgid melodrama that is one of the more unusual movies in Garbo's filmography. Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) does have interesting cinematography, at least in the early scenes -- the sequence where Jeb pursues a terrified Helga is like something from Frankenstein (1931) -- and the supporting performances are all fine, but Garbo is essentially miscast in the lead role. She could excel at playing normal parts in the right circumstances (see Anna Christie, Ninotchka), but she was always at her best when radiating an indefinable air of mystery and glamour. Farm girls from Lenoxville, Mich., who claw their way to the top out of sheer grit and determination is right in Joan Crawford's wheelhouse, and I've always thought she would have been a better casting choice for this movie.
|Greta Garbo in a publicity still for Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931).|
The circus portions of Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) are the most interesting parts of the movie. Garbo's belly dancer costume is quite an eyeful (all you need to know about pre-code Hollywood is encapsulated in costume designer Adrian's barely-there ensemble), but the most interesting parts of the circus scenes are their depiction of the societal constraints of thirties America. Much like Freaks (1932), Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) shows the circus as a home to people who had no place in regular society. For some, like the tattooed lady, Madame Panoramia (Cecil Cunningham), it is because of their unusual appearance, but for Susan/Helga it is because her status as a so-called "fallen woman" supposedly made her unfit to have a place among "decent people."
In fact, Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) is a fascinating commentary on women's place in the world. From the time she is born, Susan is the helpless pawn of men, whether it is her cruel father or the lecherous circus manager (John Miljan), but it is she, and not the men who abuse her, who must bear the shame and disgrace for her deeds. In fact, the movie has a bittersweet ending that, while leaving Susan in a better place, doesn't guarantee a lifetime of happiness.
Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) is available on DVD.