Today we reminisce about
Directed by George Fitzmaurice
Starring: Jean Harlow, Franchot Tone, Cary Grant, Lewis Stone
Suzanne “Suzy” Trent (Jean Harlow) is an American chorus girl working at the Melodies of 1914 in London. Although she is talented and successful in her line of work, she is unhappy living in relative poverty trying to make it on her own. All attempts to find higher paying jobs in the entertainment industry have ended up badly, with her attaining lead parts only to learn that she is also expected to give social and sexual favours to her bosses. Not exactly being that type of girl, she goes back to the chorus line and waits for her luck to change. Her ultimate wish is to get married and settled down so that she can have a better life, preferably with a man who has a lot of money.
One evening as Suzy is rushing to a job interview, she almost gets run down in the thick London fog by a Rolls-Royce belonging to Terry Moore (Franchot Tone). Thinking that the filthy rich man of her dreams has finally fallen into her lap, Suzy lies about her situation and tells him that she is a successful actress. She also fibs about the poor part of town in which she lives, telling Terry that she is staying over with a friend when he offers to drive her some place. Suzy is happily surprised when he suggests that they meet again the next day to go to the horse races, accepting with enthusiasm. When Terry comes to pick her up, his Rolls-Royce is nowhere in sight and instead, he is driving a beat-up old jalopy. She quickly makes a quip about the sudden change in vehicle to which he promptly responds with a remark about her exaggerations the previous evening. They both have a laugh at each other’s expense and higher-than-thou façades, later enjoying a wonderful day at the races along with Terry’s friend Knubby. He shares his flat with Knubby and offers for Suzy to come live with them. After she helped them win big at the races, they both consider her to be their good luck charm. In any case, Terry learned that Suzy was about to be thrown out of her boarding house so he is happy to offer her a place to stay.
Terry is perhaps not exactly what Suzy had in mind as a suitor but he lives a decent, modest life and has a good job along with having several projects on the side, including working on his inventions after-hours. He takes her to his factory to show her a stabiliser he is trying to perfect but their visit is cut short when his boss, an older woman who speaks German, walks in on him right before Suzy is able to hide from sight. She orders Terry to leave immediately which he feigns in order to sneak Suzy out of the building. However, they stick around a little longer when the boss leads a German-speaking couple (including a mysterious, well-dressed woman) into her office. When the boss realises that Terry is still there, she gets very angry until he pretends that he can speak and understand German, thereafter earning him an out-of-the-blue promotion. He asks no questions about it and instead is overjoyed because he has a much better situation to offer Suzy, who accepts his marriage proposal. They are married that very evening.
As the newlyweds come back home to celebrate their union, the enigmatic German woman from the factory suddenly appears at the door. She fires several shots, seriously wounding Terry. As he falls onto the ground seemingly lifeless, Suzy is panicky and distraught hearing the landlady call for the police. When she hears that she may be blamed for the shooting, she flees the flat and boards the next boat to Paris where she will join her friend Maisie with whom she worked in London. Upon arrival, she admits the situation to Maisie who is very sympathetic and helps her get a job as a Parisian chorus girl at the Café des Anges. It is also during this time that the start of the First World War is declared.
The two women are big hits at the cabaret and it is not long before Suzy catches the eye of André Jean-Paul Charville (Cary Grant), a famous French aviator who comes to see her every night. His attraction to her is genuine though it is unknown how serious he is about her since he has a reputation for being a womaniser. Suzy immediately falls in love with him but restrains herself somewhat because she still has a broken heart from her first marriage. She eventually tries to sail back to America with Maisie but caves in when André meets her at the dock, professing his love for her and asking her to marry him. (André knows nothing about Suzy’s past.) They become husband and wife and after an 8-day honeymoon, they go and live in at the Charville family estate with Andre’s father, Baron Edward (Lewis Stone). The Baron quickly takes to the young woman despite his reservations about his own son’s behaviour about which he is very displeased. The couple do not have much time together before André is called off to fight in the war effort. During his leave, Suzy and the Baron grow close and develop a father-daughter relationship.
André receives much publicity for his heroic efforts but spends as much time away from the family estate as possible. In fact, no one knows that he is married and he openly flirts with other women in clubs and cabarets. He eventually gets wounded in an expedition and is placed in a convalescence home where he and Suzy are finally reunited. Much to her stupefaction, she crosses paths with a very alive Terry who is now a major in the British military and who is working with the French. This is quite the situation for the both of them with Suzy deciding to tell André the truth. Where in the world could the story possibly go from here? 🙂
Background & Thoughts
1936 was a busy moment in Jean Harlow’s career with her starring in four films that year: Riffraff, Wife vs. Secretary, Suzy and Libeled Lady. Jean had worked as hard in both 1931 and 1932 though she did not earn a great deal of critical acclaim for most of her roles; her luck only changing with Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust after signing with MGM. She was well established as a leading lady by the time she filmed Suzy and was considered one of MGM’s most popular actresses.
Details about the box-office performance of Suzy are not readily available but it is safe to say that the film was not a critical darling. Any praise was directed towards Franchot Tone and Cary Grant, who had yet to explode to stardom. Even though Jean Harlow received top billing and was in the majority of scenes, her interpretation was considered average. It is difficult to suppose why she was not given more credit as she had successfully played similar roles in the past.
Elements of the story are a little questionable but I found the story as a whole to be quite unique and it surprised me because I had no idea of where the plot would head after a certain point. I was not sure of how I liked the couple of Suzy and Terry at first as I felt that they had more going as friends than as lovers. However, seeing Suzy with André was very unsatisfying, making the reintroduction of Terry a blessing in disguise. Playing a morally corrupt character was nothing new to Cary Grant though being so unlikable in a role was just that. André’s conceitedness and complete lack of courtesy for his wife was unnerving and had I been in Suzy’s shoes, I would have spoken up about the situation long before though I can appreciate that André brought her consolation when she needed companionship.
It is intriguing to see some sensitive subjects and details given prominence all the while managing to bypass the strict Hays Movie Production Code. There is a point in the film where André and his friends are drinking absinthe, a controversial alcoholic drink that would be banned less than a year after the onset of World War I and which was a taboo liquor in 1936. In regard to André’s dalliances, there is no secret surrounding his infidelity and he is even shown in private quarters with one of his mistresses. Their bedroom attire certainly more than suggests coitus. A last point surrounds the graphic deaths of some of the enemy pilots, who are shown being burned alive and crashing violently to their demises. These particularities would likely not shock the average modern viewer but knowing the constraints imposed by the Code, they certainly do stand out to me as being rather bold.
In my love for Classic Film, I was a bit of a latecomer in getting to see Jean’s work and really did not think much of her at the time, only knowing that she had left this world tragically early. Several years ago I purchased a small collection of her films issued by TCM but it was not enough to show me her full range although I thought she was absolutely darling in pictures like Dinner at Eight and Wife vs. Secretary. Having been further exposed to other actresses from her time like Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck, I have slowly built a grand admiration for the style of films made during the Pre-Code era and throughout the 1930’s.
Personally, I thought she was perfectly cast in Suzy and had excellent chemistry with both of her fabulous leading men. This is a role that allowed her to be vulnerable at the same time as it gave her the possibility of showing off her talent for drama. The character of Suzy could sometimes give the impression that her bark was bigger than her bite but deep down she was a kind-hearted dreamer who genuinely cared for the people around her. Even her landlady at the boarding house, who was under the strictest of orders, did not have the heart to evict her because she liked her so much. I found Jean’s portrayal to give Suzy a great sense of level-headedness but also exposed the flaws of youthful judgement, such as when she fled from London without enquiring about what happened to Terry. She was not perfect but you wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt because she deserved to live a happy existence. It is very painful to see her betrayed by André and the ambiguous ending is not exactly a relief to her suffering though you, the viewer, can daydream beyond that point to give Suzy a better life.
My absolute favourite scenes in the film were between Jean and Lewis Stone, later to be best known as Judge James Hardy in MGM’s Andy Hardy series. Lewis appeared in three other films with Jean: Red-Headed Woman, The Girl from Missouri and China Seas. For me, it felt as if they both had a great deal of admiration for each other and it was so nice to see them together.
I am glad that the memory of Jean lives on so brightly and that I have had the chance to get to know her better as an actress. There was certainly something very special about her. This TCM tribute narrated by Melanie Griffith poignantly sums up “Baby’s” all too brief life and career better than I could ever attempt to myself.