This month, Clark Gable is paired with the Grande Dame of the screen in this scandalous pre-production code romance, Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise.
Garbo is Susan (born Helga), an illegitimate orphan raised in shame by her aunt and her cruel husband, who treats her like a slave. He picks a man for her to marry “so you won’t be without a wedding ring like your mother”. When the man tries to rape her, she runs away in a rainstorm, seeking shelter in a barn owned by architect Rodney (Gable). Rodney lets her stay with him and soon they are in love. When he leaves for a business trip, her uncle finds her and she runs away again, to Lenoxville, where she happens upon a traveling circus. She adopts the new name of Susan Lenox and becomes part of the act and can’t fend off the advances of the circus manager. When Rodney finds her, he is furious that she has become a fallen woman and leaves her. They run into each other again in New York, where she is now the mistress of a politician. Susan becomes determined to get Rodney back and prove to him she can be a one-man woman.
This is really a sad story. A girl told she was worthless from birth, all because she was illegitimate (definitely ages this film, doesn’t it!) Garbo shows deep-rooted angst as she decries her poor mother who never had a ring to make her worthwhile and her child-like excitement over Clark’s promise to get her one is both adorable and sad.
I am not the world’s biggest Garbo fan. I am more intrigued by her unique personality and her hermit lifestyle than I am a flag-waving fan, although I do enjoy Camille and Ninotchka. Before I saw this film, I was extremely skeptical. Brutish early 30’s Clark paired with the theatrical stylings of the snooty Garbo? Talk about a mismatch. But you know what? It works. The romance here is sweet and innocent (at least at first!) and they are believable together.
Clark had just erupted as the new-and-hot male lead in Hollywood when this film was released. Apparently Garbo requested that he be her costar for the film because he was an up and coming star and wouldn’t overshadow her. She later became dissatisfied with the script and with him and did not show up to the set for several days, threatening to retreat back to Sweden, as she tended to do. L.B. Mayer convinced her to come back after numerous script revisions. Clark found her behavior extremely unprofessional and did not like her aloof attitude. After that their relationship was frosty through the rest of filming. Garbo later referred to him as a “wooden” actor.
Clark is definitely the background to Garbo’s foreground in this one, and that is ok. It’s an entertaining pre-code even when he is not in it. But when he is….he is at his young, chiseled best. Lovelorn, punching the bad guy, sweeping the girl off her feet—classic early Gable.
He’s a real boy scout in this one. My favorite scene is at the beginning when he is trying to convince her not to be afraid of him (since the poor thing has had reason to fear literally every man she’s been acquainted with in her life) and after unsuccessfully trying to get her to talk, he tells her: “Never mind. We won’t talk about you at all. No sir. You know what we’ll do? We’ll talk about me. You know who I am? No? Well, I’ll tell you. I’m Rodney, Mr. Spencer’s little boy. I’m thirty, white and unmarried. I’m really a very fine fellow–never unkind to animals, never kick babies in the teeth, always courteous when drunk.” It’s a cute little moment.
Although the romance is very sweet, Clark does get in quite a few not-so-subtle digs at “fallen woman” Greta:
“You know, you’re the only woman I ever wanted to build a fence around and have all to myself. Yeah, you built the fence–an army of men!”
“Why ask anything different from me? Every other man you knew took you at your own price–nothing! This time I’ll take you as I find it!”
“Marry? Say, all you need is the price of the marriage license. Just the price, not the wedding, just the price.”
“He just called me a sap. Well he was right–a sap not to realize how cheap you are!”
“I should have paid you off, thrown a few dollars on the bureau–that’s the kind of language you understand!”
“She’ll treat you as she treated me–when the next man comes along…only it won’t hurt you because you’re used to her kind of woman!”
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.