Based on the smashing success of Rachel Crothers' stage play, director George Cukor's Susan and God (1940) is at once an elegant 'women's picture' and a rather glaring example of its star - Joan Crawford's limitations as an actress. For although Crawford acquits herself quite nicely of the superfluous gadabout bitch that is Susan Trexel at the start of the film, she seems utterly unconvincing as the martyred female who has a truly religious experience where her family is concerned.
By 1940, Crawford's star power at MGM had seriously slipped from public favour. Despite some well timed diversions like The Women (1939) and A Woman's Face (1941) Crawford had lost her A-list calling at the studio; a fate similarly suffered by Garbo and Crawford's arch rival - Norma Shearer (whom, incidentally, turned down the lead in this film). Still, for a brief while L.B. Mayer continued to search for top notch entertainment to put Crawford in.
As immortalized on the stage by larger than life Gertrude Lawrence, Susan and God was an intercontinental winner on every level. And although Cukor's pacing for the film retains the stage narrative's poignancy as re-scripted by Anita Loos, the film as a whole comes across as just another garden variety melodrama from its vintage rather than truly outstanding entertainment.
Crawford stars as Susan Trexel; a vapid socialite who has just returned from Europe after embracing the religious teachings of Lady Millicent Wigstaff (Constance Collier). But Susan's affinity for religion is just like all her other hobbies; mere affectation that she perceives with herself at the center of its universe.
Susan arrives at the country home of Irene Burroughs (Rose Hobart) to discover her friends including Hutchins Stubbs (Nigel Bruce) and his newlywed young wife, Leonora (Rita Hayworth) lounging about in elegant repose. Also in company are Irene's lover, Michael O'Hara (Bruce Cabot), Charlotte (Ruth Hussey) and struggling actor, Clyde Rochester (John Carroll). Leonora and Clyde are rehearsing for his new play, she having given up the stage to marry the much older Hutchins whom she really does not love.
Moments before Susan's arrival, this band of friends waxes rather condescendingly about Susan's lack of commitment to her own marriage. In fact, Susan's husband, Barrie (Fredric March) has been reduced to becoming an alcoholic to cope with his wife's absences, while their child, Blossom (Rita Quigley) is an intelligent, though utterly shy and introverted girl in desperate need of a mother's love and care.
Upon sobering up, Barrie takes Blossom to Irene's in search of his wife. He is lied to by Clyde while the others lay in wait for his departure. Eventually, Susan shares her newfound religious philosophies with her friends who find them quaintly charming at best. Nevertheless, Susan waste no time in sticking her opinions where they do not belong. She encourages Irene to dump Michael and prompts Leonora leave Hutchins to resume her career on Broadway. In essence, Susan is a destructive force to all who know her.
For his part, Barrie truly loves Susan. More importantly, he genuinely cares about what happens to their daughter. In a last ditch effort to save his marriage, Barrie pleads with Susan to give him one more chance. In exchange he will give up drinking for good. Certain that Barrie will not be able to keep this promise, Susan agrees to the terms, unaware that Charlotte has already fallen in love with her husband.
When Millicent Wigstaff arrives in town, she stirs Susan's religious fervour to new heights. Susan takes an interest in Blossom that is fuelled more by her own need to generate a Svengali-like conversion of Blossom from ugly duckling to elegant swan in order to win the affections of handsome Bob Kent (Richard Crane). Blossom's transformation does indeed earn Bob's respect and as a result, Blossom declares that her mother will host a costume-themed birthday party for Bob and all her friends in two weeks.
Unfortunately, Susan is more intent on going to Newport to be a part of Wigstaff's latest revival. Leaving Blossom on the eve of her party, Susan incurs Barrie's wrath. Driven to drink once again, Barrie arrives at Charlotte's home intoxicated and proposing marriage. Although nothing would give Charlotte greater pleasure than to accept Barrie for her own, she refuses at the last moment. Having at long last discovered the true meaning of religious forgiveness, a chaste and tearful Susan returns home from the train depot to find Barrie waiting for her at home. She confesses to Barrie what a fool she has been and begs God to not let her fall from grace ever again.
Only a star with an ego like Crawford would attempt such a conflicted and dramatic role. Only a studio like MGM at its zenith could film it. And only a director like George Cukor is up to the challenge. That the final outcome falls considerably short of expectations seems to be no one's fault. Crawford is in rare and fine form as Susan, although as already mentioned, her forte is intuitively suited for the shallow socialite that populates a goodly stretch of the film's running time. Fredric March is sympathetically charming. Ironically, his scenes with Rita Quigley dominate the first third of the narrative, reducing Crawford's scene stealing to near cameo status.
Cukor amiably adapts the material with a certain lush flair, but Anita Loos' adaptation blunts much of the dramatic power of the stage original, due, in part to the censorship laws from the period. As such, this Susan comes across as more static than shallow, her interventions into the lives of her friends taking on a faint air of mean-spiritedness. Hence, what ought to have been a character flaw becomes a chronic manipulation instead and our sympathies for Susan never recover. In the final analysis, Susan and God is modestly agreeable entertainment. It did nothing to halt the downturn in Crawford's career at MGM and was only a moderate success at the box office.
Susan and God is a Warner Archive Collection offering and one that regrettably needs more work to make this transfer worth the price of admission. The gray scale can be well balanced, although certain scenes appear to have had contrast levels slightly bumped. There is a considerable amount of grain that registers at digital grit and more than a hint of edge enhancement that breaks apart fine background details throughout. Chroma bleeding is also apparent, particularly in plaids and checker-print costuming. The last third of the film appears to have been sourced from less than original camera elements. Here, the image is quite clumpy and softly focused and there is a considerable loss of fine detail - even in close ups.
The audio is strident with considerable hiss and pop present. This being an Archive title, there are NO extra features, save a brief theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)