Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our series on the Pre-Code films of Clark Gable, the first male star to get a spotlight here on That’s Entertainment! Over this past year, we’ve actually covered a handful of Pre-Code Gable films during our examinations of the works of some of his frequent leading ladies. This blog has already featured: A Free Soul (1931) with Norma Shearer, Possessed (1931) with Joan Crawford, Red Dust (1932) with Jean Harlow and Mary Astor, Hold Your Man (1933) with Jean Harlow, Night Flight (1933) with Myrna Loy and Helen Hayes, Dancing Lady (1933) with Joan Crawford, It Happened One Night (1934) with Claudette Colbert, and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) with Myrna Loy. We’ve also covered two of Gable’s Post-Code films with Joan Crawford: Forsaking All Others (1934) and Love On The Run (1936). In the Gable series, we’ve covered Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), The Secret Six (1931), and Night Nurse (1931). Today…
Susan Lenox (Her Fall And Rise) (1931)
A farm girl runs from her abusive suitor to a series of affairs in the big city. Starring Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Hersholt, and John Miljan. Based on the novel by David Graham Phillips. Adaptation and continuity by Wanda Tuchock. Dialogue by Leon Gordon and Zelda Sears. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.
The only pairing of Gable with Garbo (who will eventually be the subject of her own series of posts on this site), this unquestionably Pre-Code film tells the primal tale of a runaway country girl who falls in love with her rescuer, only to fall from grace when she must once again escape, and later rises to prominence as a girl of questionable morality. Garbo is great, Gable makes what he can out of his unfortunate part, and the story is — at a reasonable 76 minutes — passable.
“Helga, born out of wedlock, has been an object of scorn to her uncle, Karl Ohlin. Certain that only an early marriage will keep her from the same fate as her mother, Karl arranges for Helga to wed loutish farmer Jeb Mondstrom. The night before their proposed wedding, however, Mondstrom tries to rape Helga and she runs away. In a heavy rainstorm Helga makes her way to a nearby house and is befriended by Rodney Spencer, a young architect. Rodney’s kindness changes Helga’s view of men, and the two fall in love. Rodney proposes just before an important business trip, but Helga must again run away when Ohlin and Mondstrom find her. She jumps on a circus train in Lenoxville and is befriended by Madame Panoramia, the tattooed lady, who introduces her to Burlingham, the circus owner, as Susan Lenox. Helga writes Rodney to meet her in Marquette, but before he arrives, she is forced to become Burlingham’s mistress when he hides her from Ohlin and Mondstrom. When Rodney realizes what her relationship to Burlingham is, he rejects her as a tramp. Heartbroken, Helga goes from one man to another until she becomes the mistress of wealthy New York politician Mike Kelly.
“In the meantime, Rodney has ruined his career by drinking. Helga, now known as Mrs. Lenox, secretly arranges for Rodney to attend one of her dinner parties and tries to humiliate him, but when he leaves, she realizes that she still loves him. She follows him, but he is gone. Despite Mike’s plea for her to come back, she travels from city to city looking for Rodney, eventually winding up as a singer in a waterfront dive in Latin America. She has learned that Rodney is working on a construction crew in the jungle and plans to wait for his return, despite that fact that kindly millionaire Robert Lane wants to marry her. When Rodney does wander into the dive and sees Helga, he only wants her like any other waterfront girl. She throws him out in disillusionment and plans to meet Robert on his yacht, but the next day she goes to see Rodney one last time. Sober for once, Rodney realizes that he has been wrong, and they both decide to stop hurting each other and start to love again.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
At first a slow-moving film, Susan Lenox is best when the only subjects on screen are Gable and Garbo. Their early and uncomplicated love affair is the most enjoyable part of the film — and the scene in which Gable helps Garbo catch a fish is utter magic in its simple joy. (Folks, Garbo laughed and played comedy long before 1939’s Ninotchka.) Things take a dramatic turn when Garbo goes back on the lam and joins the circus. The narrative, in terms of the enjoyment found in the elementary beauty of their chemistry, is downhill from there.
Interestingly, however, this is where the film becomes delightfully Pre-Code. Garbo is forced to become the mistress of the circus owner, and when Gable tracks her down and learns of the arrangement, he disowns her. From there, Garbo does exactly what Gable said she would — essentially, she becomes a whore. Gable falls off the wagon (he plays that well) and there’s a lot of back and forth, with Garbo planning to go off with a rich man, until they both come to their senses and reunite. Garbo, like Shearer, Crawford, Harlow, Stanwyck, and Hopkins, is one of the most important actresses of the Pre-Code era. And like many Pre-Code pictures, it’s a woman’s film, which means we’re meant to sympathize more with them than with their male love interests. (Think of Norma’s husband in 1930’s The Divorcee.) Gable, who can usually remain likable while playing utter unlikable characters, doesn’t quite win the battle here. The script does him in. His position is understandable, but because we are so invested in Garbo and understand her plight, we’re forced to like him less. And, thus, the rest of the picture, while wallowing in Pre-Codeness, is a less entertaining watch (for me, at least).
So Gable fights an uphill battle with his character. But he shines in his scenes with Garbo, who turns in an outstanding performance throughout the entire picture. She’s truly marvelous. And though this script, while not without its moments, is precisely mediocre, Garbo makes it better. I only wish she and Gable got a chance to better show of their chemistry in a later film. Because the glimpses we got here (in the early parts of the film) were unyieldingly satisfying. Imagine: an MGM King with an MGM Queen.
Come back next Friday for another Gable film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!