Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Jean Harlow Collection: Suzy (1936)

Going in chronological order, Suzy (1936) is feature number 5 in the Warner Archive's Jean Harlow Collection. And, like Reckless (1935), it has an extra in the form of an audio program about the film -- sort of a 14-minute audio trailer for radio audiences.

And, just like Reckless (1935), Jean's singing voice was dubbed here by Virginia Verrill.

This World War 1 story is not entirely effective but, as can be expected, Jean makes for a plucky heroine.

Barely 25, Jean looks a bit more mature in this film. She struts around the backstage scenes with feminine swagger. That familiar mix of toughness and heart is here. Dorothy Parker worked on this script and it shows. Jean's dialogue is crackling in spots, not so much witty as realistic, world-weary. The actress works at making Suzy a bit hard in spots -- who can blame her for being a tough gal when producers are trying to get the showgirl into bed? -- but there's something sweet in Jean's performance that captivates a viewer.

When Franchot Tone's chauffeur-driven car hits Jean on a foggy London street, she works her charms on him and not some slimy producer.

What's sad when watching Suzy (1936) is that an astute viewer can see Jean really blossoming as an actress -- her confidence is just infectious in these early scenes! -- but the realization that she only had a year to live after this casts a strange pallor over the film.

The hints of her possible future talents are palpable. Clearly, she was growing as an actress and, with the right material, she would have ended up somewhere between Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard if she had lived.

Suzy's interactions with Mrs. Bradley (Universal Horror mainstay Una O'Connor) are well played and there's more subtlety in Jean's work here than in earlier parts, despite this being a somewhat broad role.

There are a lot of forced plot devices with Jean's marriage to Moore (Franchot Tone) and her implication in his murder. It's just all mechanical and labored stuff, frankly, and the film feels very episodic and unfocused as a result.

By the time that Suzy gets to Paris and is remarried to Cary Grant's dashing air pilot, it's just like watching another film. The tone is that different.

Grant is too cocksure here. It's an early role for the actor and while he's charming in spots, he's largely trying too hard. World War I breaks out, there's stock footage of aerial dogfights, and more intrigue when Moore shows up alive.

So what is Suzy? (1936) A drama? An espionage thriller? A soap opera? An action film? A musical comedy? YES!

And that's why it's still a failure. Those early scenes were better than what I remembered -- maybe the crisp DVD picture helped? -- but the rest of the film is a wreck and a mess.

None of this is Jean's fault. She tries but the script is just so alternately cavalier and hokey and overly melodramatic that she's doomed as an actress in this.

She seems a bit lifeless in the Paris nightclub scenes but who can blame her? The material is weak and Grant is a blowhard here. Sure, his character is a hotshot pilot but the very same things that would later make Grant such a charming presence are here in a more unrefined, less appealing, form. He's a prick, let's face it.

Suzy (1936) really is for Jean Harlow completists only. You can always skip the boring stuff here by hitting that Fast Forward button, I guess.