Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hollywood and God

Hollywood, I think, has always had an odd relationship with organized religion. On the one hand, you had some fairly religious people working: Cecil B. DeMille comes to mind, as do devout Catholics like Loretta Young. By the same token, they knew there was a big audience for movies that told uplifting religious messages, which is one of the reasons for making religious epics like the silent Ben-Hur, or even a non-epic movie with a clear religious message such as The Jazz Singer. Still, Hollywood has always been a den of iniquity, with a lot of boozing and sexing going on -- even virtuous Loretta Young got knocked up out of wedlock, of course. And a lot of what got into the pre-Code movies seems quite deliberately inserted to appeal to people's more prurient natures. I think, though, that we all have some of this double standard, as I both enjoy a good, "shocking" pre-code, be it the shocking subject material of Night Nurse or the fleshfest of Gold Diggers of 1933, yet can enjoy clearly religious movies that aren't too preachy, such as The Bishop's Wife. Thanks to the restrictions of the Production Code, however, the studios couldn't be too openly critical of organized Christianity. Perhaps a movie like Elmer Gantry could have been made before the Code, but even then I don't think it would have had the power the 1960 version did. Still, there's an interesting movie poking fun at religion coming up this afternoon on TCM: Susan and God, at 2:15 PM ET.

Joan Crawford plays Susan, a self-centered socialite who seems to do nothing but annoy everybody around her. That is, until one day she discovers God, in the form of some weird do-gooder branch of mainline Protestantism (at least, that's what I think the religion is supposed to be; the actual theology is never really explained). Susan's response to finding God is to become even more obnoxious, pushing God into every single one of her relationships and alienating all of her old friends even more, trying to break up marriages and engagements because Susan doesn't deem then right for each other in her new-found thinking. Also put upon by all this are Susan's husband Barrie (Fredric March), and their teenage daughter Blossom (Rita Quigley), who just wants to be a normal teenager. Barrie, unsurprisingly, turns to drink as he finds that Susan's Jesus kick is taking preference over the marriage. (Can you blame him? Who would want to be married to this creep?) Fortunately, though, the Jesus kick might just be like the sort of shiny toy a cat plays with: if you can find a new shiny toy to distract the cat with, you might get its mind off the original one.

Susan and God is interesting, although ultimately, I think it's not a success. It doesn't really have much to say about religion; in fact, any fad could have been used as the "shiny toy" to bedazzle Susan. Susan's character is unlikable, but in a bad way. There are unlikeable characters who fascinate us; Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole comes immediately to mind, as do the John Dall and Farley Granger characters in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. Crawford's susan, on the other hand, is just one you want to smack across the face every time she shows up on screen. This overpowers a cast that had all the firepower MGM could bring to a movie: in addition to March, there's Ruth Hussey as a friend who's attracted to Barrie; Rita Hayworth and Nigel Bruce as a married couple; Marjorie Main as Susan's maid; and a young Gloria DeHaven as one of the teenagers Blossom wants at her big party. This being MGM, the sets and the costumes are great too, but it all seems done in service of Crawford -- or, perhaps more honestly, the script. Still, Susan and God is worth giving a look.

You'll have to do that looking on TCM, though, as the movie hasn't even been released to DVD on the Warner Archive.

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