Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! 85 years ago this week, the last original play by Rachel Crothers — one of the most prolific dramatists of the early 20th century — opened on Broadway. It was Susan And God, starring the great Gertrude Lawrence as a shallow society wannabe who comes back from Europe claiming to have experienced a spiritual awakening via a trendy new “movement” that she now intends to spread to all her friends. Couched in expressions of “love,” Susan’s understanding of her new spirituality, or God, asserts itself as a confessional form of radical honesty that quickly causes dissent among all her elite chums and in their complicated love lives, which crumble as a result of her intrusive observations.
However, even more complicated is Susan’s own love life — specifically, her dying marriage to Barrie, a well-meaning alcoholic she’s been trying to avoid, along with their painfully neglected teenage daughter, Blossom, who, like Barrie, yearns for Susan’s attention. After an embarrassing display of inebriation, Barrie uses his wife’s own religious arguments to successfully persuade her to spend the entire summer with them at their house — on the condition that he won’t drink, and at the end, he’ll finally give her a divorce. The next few months prove to be a success, as Blossom blooms into an attractive, happy young lady and Barrie intentionally avoids the bottle… but despite having a better time than anticipated, Susan remains eager to get back to her work spreading her misguided movement, intending to sermonize about her success in changing the lives of her friends, her daughter, and her sobered-up husband. This angers Barrie, who feels like he’s been used solely for Susan’s bogus mission, and he walks out, giving her the chance to finally realize what love/God really is for her — at home with her husband and daughter — just in time for a curtain reconciliation and a happy ending.
The play was a success, running from October 1937 to June 1938 — the same month that an excerpt of the production, featuring Gertrude Lawrence, was broadcast locally on a television set at Radio City in demonstration of this coming technology. Susan And God was also adapted to radio in 1946, with Bette Davis taking on the lead role, previously played by Joan Crawford in M-G-M’s splashy 1940 big screen version — which had a script credited to Anita Loos, direction by the famed George Cukor, and a cast that also included Fredric March, Ruth Hussey, Rita Hayworth, and Constance Collier. Having recently both read the play and seen the 1940 film, the latter is now the subject of this entry, for I was curious to see how this picture, which was well-received at the time but has since become quite unpopular today, actually fared.
To my surprise, I found that the film was incredibly faithful to the Rachel Crothers play — with the biggest difference being the “opening up” of its action to a greater variety of locales, and more time spent during the period where Susan and her family are operating as a happy unit — a period that really only constitutes one scene in the original text, with most of the referred-to action with Blossom and her friends (who are now seen) occurring off-stage. Additionally, the film makes the choice to show us Susan’s spiritual pals as well, including the woman who inspired her (Lady Wigstaff, portrayed by Constance Collier), giving them a centerpiece and even a musical number led by Cecil Broadhurst — “Wise Old Horsey” (a song affiliated with an actual contemporary religious movement called the Oxford Group). The result of these changes is partially positive — it’s good to see more of the burgeoning bond between mother and daughter — and partially negative, for the spot in the play that Loos’ screenplay extends is essentially the weakest. That is, in attempting to provide more gravitas to the shoddiest section of the play, the film only elongates it… without totally fixing it.
To that point, what I ultimately found true about the movie is that its flaws and merits are the exact same as the stage play’s. The latter is at its best when it’s satirizing daffy Susan’s cruel application of her newfound spirituality as she inflicts it upon her gobsmacked friends, all the while ironically refusing to show any type of love, not to mention confessionary honesty, on behalf of her own situation and towards the people in her life who most deserve it. That’s a really funny comic premise and one can imagine Gertrude Lawrence just selling it. In fact, I think Joan Crawford also handles this part of the film — which is indeed its most fun — splendidly. Reviews at the time were kind and held her up favorably to the standard of Lawrence, but I actually don’t see much “Gertie” in Crawford’s portrayal. I do note, perhaps, a light spoof of Norma Shearer (who allegedly turned down the role because she didn’t want to play mother to a teenager), and a bouncy high-energy performance that I could understand viewers today not believing. But I think Crawford is deliberately BIG — she’s filled with the love of God, after all — and I think that’s exactly what’s needed to sell this kind of ridiculous character.
Where the film stops becoming fun, however, is the same place where the play does — when it gets mired down in the relationship between Susan and Barrie, and the summer agreement that begets wild contortions in tone. To wit, the last part of the picture is so unfunny that it practically negates all the good humor that came before. These swings from comedy to drama are unpleasant (because they’re not as motivated as they could be), and frankly, I think they’re the consequence of weak plotting — a weakness that, again, Loos’ script somewhat hopes to allay by better justifying the happy ending (showing us Susan’s slow turnaround), but, again, this only extends the action and in turn emphasizes a central flaw in Crothers’ narrative design: Susan’s “ultimate test” of faith (versus family). In the film, it’s predictable and un-suspenseful, because we’ve already seen her change. On the stage, it’s different; we don’t see her transformation, and only hear her tell of it at the very end — but it’s far less believable, because it comes out of nowhere. So, it doesn’t work terrifically in either medium.
I think this can never be a satisfying climax, for it merely forces Susan to choose where she’s going to spend her time: with her “movement” or her family. That doesn’t complete the promised satire of the first act, where her vapid spirituality actively menaced her friends and revealed her to be a giant hypocrite. To dramatically finalize this thought — and maintain the piece’s comic vitality (avoiding any more tonal whiplash) — I think Susan And God desperately needs a centerpiece where the actual tenets of Susan’s new religion, or at least her warped perception of how to apply it, are put in direct conflict with the good/needs of her family… like, for instance, if her righteous honesty were to devastate and do harm to her daughter and husband, whom she’s now come to love. That is, if Susan had to pick not just where to focus her energy — but actually had to choose between following her new religion or protecting someone she loves from it — she would then have a rich and motivated arc related to the play’s comic premise, for she would realize not only that she belongs with her family, but also that her trendy society idea of God is precisely opposed to real love. That would accentuate the drama’s satirical bent and give its central character a smarter, more complete evolution.
Again, this fuller dramatic arc is missing in both the play and the movie, which go for a shallower alternative, and while the movie tends to get bad reviews today, it really is a standard screen adaptation of the original, where the same trajectory is followed, and the same shortcomings exist… So, I should like to clear the reputation of M-G-M’s 1940 film now by saying that it isn’t inferior to the play, at least not textually, and if you seek to malign it, your issues are actually with the source material. (Incidentally, although this wasn’t her best, Crothers was a great writer — check out When Ladies Meet, and the 1933 Pre-Code film version specifically, for proof.) And, as for Crawford, again, I find her charming in the parts of the film that, like the play, comedically fulfill the premise. But not even she can elevate material that naturally isn’t at par. Perhaps Gertrude Lawrence was better able to lift these strained proceedings — but, alas, both her performance, and that historical live 1938 broadcast, have been lost to time, leaving behind this polarizing film adaptation as a mere memento.
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more of The Nanny!