|Released by MGM | Directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Our female lead is threatened with rape and abuse constantly before turning to prostitution and gold digging.
Susan Lenox: It’s A Man’s World
“I think the most amusing thing about men is that they mistake cruelty for character. They can’t forgive.”
That line is a turning point in Susan Lenox <Her Fall and Rise>, and it’s not a good one. Up until it, Susan is completely correct in assuming all of this. In the world of the film, she’s been degraded by men, attempted to be raped by a man who she’s being forced to marry, made love to one good man and then spurned by him, and then finally raped before deciding the only way to succeed is to sleep her way to the top. In a world ruled by men who use virginity as the only meaningful symbol of goodness, sexual violence becomes a weapon that they wield with casual malice.
It’s a bleak outlook, a spiritual prequel to 1932’s Blonde Venus which would take the idea to its logical extremes. But Susan Lenox, whose first thirty minutes are a moody, bleak emotional piece on the ugliness of being a woman in a world of unbridled patriarchy, to borrow a phrase, wants its cake and to eat it too.
Let’s start from the top just to keep everything straight. Born to an unwed mother who dies during childbirth, Helga (Garbo) is raised by a demanding, cruel uncle named Ohlin (Hersholt) who becomes obsessed with keeping the girl’s hopes firmly in check. Much of her raising on a remote, cold farm is told as shadows against a barren wall, with Helga growing into a near mute trapped in a Calagari-esque nightmare. He hisses, “What’s in the blood is there. And no one can change it.” When her uncle arranges her to marry the corpulent Mondstrum (Alan Hale), who decides to take his wife a little early and without her consent. In a scene reminiscent of The Wind, she runs out into the stormy night and into a world she knows nothing about.
There, things get better. Well, better before the fall. Hiding in the garage, she’s come upon by the congenial Rodney (Gable) who invites her in and, hey, doesn’t try and rape her. They have an instant sweet chemistry, and she spends the night. He spends the next day teaching her to fish (which does not go well) and making love (which presumably goes better). But Rodney has to run and enter a bridge design contest, as you often must do, leaving her alone to be chased after by her uncle once more.
She hides away in a circus where she unfortunately has to face an unbearable choice– to be taken back and forced into marriage or to allow the ringmaster to rape her. Rodney discovers her choice and storms off in a huff, refusing to listen to her rationale since she’s become tainted goods and beneath contempt. In revenge, she promises him that old line about her bedroom being open to every man but him from now on, etc, etc.
A year, maybe more later and Rodney has become an alcoholic mess, while Helga has snuggled comfortably in high society. She has a friend bring him to an upscale party in New York to show off and prove that she’s found happiness without him. That’s where that line up at the top comes in, and it’s unfortunate response. Because, up to this point, Helga– who now calls herself Susan Lenox– is absolutely right. She finally found a way to manipulate that system for her own gain and has succeeded. And only at the cost of the self respect Rodney had denied her so many years ago anyway.
But Gable turns on her, angrily explaining that he’d come back to beg for her to forgive him later only to find her gone. He calls her a parasite and storms off once more. She realizes he still loves her and she must still love him, thus beginning a cross country search
The last third of the movie drags unforgivably as Helga and Rodney dance around each other more. Susan warbles, “This hurt that we have inflicted upon each other– it’s become a bond. Nothing can break it.” Upon the audience, too, as the bleakness (and shadowy visual wit) fades and we’re stuck in doomed romantic relationship where Rodney is simply too stubborn to forgive Susan for her transgressions.
The script and story, especially the parts of a woman expressing her sexual prowess as a spiteful weapon, smell heavily of Norma Shearer’s escapades in The Divorcee, but the frustrating, empty back end reeks of Strangers May Kiss. This is one of those movies Roger Ebert used to complain bitterly about, where one quick and simple conversation could save everyone a massive amount of time and hurt feelings, but then they wouldn’t have the run time they so desperately needed.
The shift in mood cheapens its brutal honesty about men’s manipulations and cheapens it to another woeful romance story. Will Gable and Garbo get together? I wouldn’t take any bets on it. That ending is all about romantic fidelity, and how staying truly in love with one person can help you overcome all of the vile cheapness in the world. Love conquers all, the movie implies. It’s an old sentiment, and feels even older now. The movie doesn’t earn it.
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Trivia & Links
- Based on the 1917 novel Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise by David Graham Phillips. The novel was posthumous since Phillips, a famous muckracker, had been killed in 1911 by a mentally ill man who’d thought that Phillips had based a fictional character on his sister. The novel, containing the aforementioned themes of rape and prostitution, was controversial upon its release. You can read the full book for free online here.
- Considering the controversy surrounding the original novel, it’s not surprising the movie ran into censorship problems. From TCMDB:
When the film was finished, the notoriety of the novel alone was enough for British censors to ban it from release. With a few swift cuts, however, it was finally approved in the UK with a new title: The Rise of Helga. Though Susan Lenox went through as many as two dozen writers and the pairing of Garbo and Gable was awkward, the film did make money. There was talk of starring the two together again in the movie Red Dust (1932), but it was not to be. Gable made Red Dust with Jean Harlow instead, and Gable and Garbo never made another film together.
- In case you weren’t paying the closest attention during the credits, the film’s title is Susan Lenox <Her Fall and Rise>. However, it’s rarely referred to that online. Since brackets are a key component to the HTML and other web languages for indicating commands, older browsers would have tried to read “<Her Rise and Fall>” as a command and not displayed it! In fact, that’s exactly what WordPress tried to do with it in the headline up at the top of the article. That leads to many people using brackets, parenthesis or a colon. Also of note: the film’s surtitle, Her Fall and Rise, is indeed reversed from the way the cliche usually goes, which has confused a number of people including, from what I’ve read, a few poster designers. So don’t feel too bad if you get it mixed up!
- Gable whistles “Singin’ in the Rain” as he dries out Garbo’s clothes early in the film.
- Fan site Dear Mr. Gable has a ton of contemporary reviews as well as some behind the scenes info about the two leads, who, it seems, did not hit it off very well. Their full review goes into detail about the dog that appears in the film:
Fun fact: Clark’s loyal canine companion in the film, Major, was actually his own dog. I’ve heard two versions of that story–one is that the dog was already Clark’s and when he learned that they needed him to have a dog for the film he volunteered his own and they didn’t even need a dog trainer because the dog did whatever Clark told him to do already. The second story is that the dog was a trained movie dog and at the end of the film Clark loved him so much he paid the dog trainer double what he was worth the keep him. I tend to believe the first story myself.
- Garbo Forever has more screenshots, trivia (such as the rumor that Garbo did her own dubbing for the film’s German version), and, of course, a Barbie doll wearing that crescent moon number that Garbo dons in the film. No, really.
- The contemporary New York Times review is mixed:
There is Miss Garbo’s compelling performance, splendid camera work and praiseworthy atmospheric effects, but the dialogue is often choppy and most of the incidents are set forth rather hurriedly.
- Tons of gorgeous stills over at Doctor Macro.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
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