Susan and God (1940): Cukor’s Serio-Comedy, Starring Joan Crawford and Fredric March (My Cukor Bio)

After the hilarious comedy, The Women, which was a smash hit, George Cukor was assigned to direct Susan and God, based on Rachel Crowther’s play, which became one of his worst features.

Grade: D+ (* out of *****)

The heroine, Susan Trexel, is a flighty, self-deluded upper-crust woman, who drives her family away when she temporarily experiences a religious conversion.

Susan comes home from Europe obsessed with a new religious fad, which she tries to impose on her jaded friends. But gradually, she comes to realize that her withdrawn daughter and alcoholic husband need her emotional support and compassion, and that charity truly begins at home.

Unlike most of Cukor’s films, Susan and God lacks a sympathetic character at its center. As a character, what Susan needed, Cukor jokingly said, was a good spank from a man. As much as he tries, he can’t salvage the movie’s stuffy dialogue and tedious plot.

MGM had purchased the rights to the play Susan and God for Norma Shearer, but the star turned it down because she didn’t want to play a mother with a teen-age daughter. She feared it would reveal her real age.

As in the past, the next star down the line at MGM was Joan Crawford. Cukor wasn’t thrilled, and not because of the unpleasant “knitting” incident on the set of The Women.

Since Susan and God was a high comedy, Cukor hoped to transform Crawford into a comedic performer, just as he had done successfully with Rosalind Russell in The Women.  Cukor thus demanded that Crawford submit completely to his unrelenting discipline. But Crawford lacked the necessary skills to pull off the role. Cukor was frustrated since he was unable to stretch Crawford’s skills–she was simply not a comedienne nor an actress apt for delivering subtle dialogue.

Cukor did help Crawford to broaden her range, and she would give her best performance in a Cukor film a year later, in A Woman’s Face, in 1941.

Fredric March, who had worked well with Cukor before on The Royal Family, was cast as the distressed husband, who takes to drinking as an escape from his frivolous and insensitive wife.  But as accomplished as March was, he, too, was defeated by the script and gave a listless performance.

It didn’t help that was no chemistry at all between Crawford and March, who subscribed to different styles of acting; March also resented the fact that Crawford got top billing.

By Cukor’s standards, none of the performances in the film was good, and he considered it as one of his worst films.

Panned by critics, the film was a commercial failure that did not even recoup its budget.

Rita Hayworth

There was a small role of a society woman in the film, and Cukor, against MGM’s advice, cast a sexy young actress by the name of Rita Hayworth.  Sensing that there was something special about Hayworth, Cukor gave the makeup people specific instructions on how to make her look even more beautiful than she was, and subsequently Susan and God served as one more step on Hayworth’s upward way to Hollywood stardom.

Joan Crawford as Susan Trexel
Fredric March as Barrie Trexel
Ruth Hussey as Charlotte
John Carroll as Clyde Rochester
Rita Hayworth as Leonora
Nigel Bruce as “Hutchie”
Bruce Cabot as Michael
Rose Hobart as Irene Burroughs

Constance Collier as Lady Millicent Wigstaff
Rita Quigley as Blossom Trexel
Gloria DeHaven as Enid
Richard Crane as Bob
Norma Mitchell as Hazel Paige
Marjorie Main as Mary Maloney
Aldrich Bowker as Patrick Maloney

If your want to know more about George Cukor, his movies and his stars, please read: