by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film Charles and I watched last night was Suez, an historical spectacular from 20th Century-Fox in 1938, directed by Allan Dwan — his first big-budget extravaganza since he’d helmed Douglas Fairbanks’ last silent, The Iron Mask, nine years earlier — and starring Tyrone Power as Ferdinand de Lesseps (interestingly pronounced with the accent on the last syllable, unusual for a French name) in his 20-year struggle to build the Suez Canal. The film was a follow-up to the previous cycle of historical films in which Fox had depicted characters bearing the names of, and more or less based on, real people — notably The House of Rothschild, Clive of India and Power’s star-making turn in Lloyds of London — and also an entry in the late-1930’s cycle of disaster movies kicked off by MGM’s San Francisco (set in 1906 and depicting the earthquake and fire in a sequence that even by modern standards remains an impressive and utterly believable piece of effects work) and including Goldwyn’s The Hurricane (1937) and Fox’s (and Power’s) own In Old Chicago.
It was also a follow-up to Power’s role as Count Axel Fersen in Marie Antoinette, made on loanout to MGM and released two months earlier, in that Power once again portrays the frustrated love interest of a French queen. When the film opens, De Lesseps is dating Spanish countess Eugenie de Montijo (Loretta Young, in the last of her five films with Power) when she’s noticed by the president of France, Louis Napoleon (Leon Ames), nephew of the original Napoleon Bonaparte, whose takeover of the French government and eventual proclamation of himself as emperor was the event that inspired Karl Marx’s famous bon mot that “history repeats itself — the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” She’s invited to a big state ball, along with de Lesseps and his friend Vicomte René de Latour (Joseph Schildkraut), and an Egyptian fortune teller (Frank Lackteen) predicts that Eugenie will have a troubled but great life and will wear a crown, while de Lesseps will spend his life digging ditches. Louis Napoleon then overhears de Lesseps take over from the fortuneteller and ridicule the president — and he determines to marry Eugenie and, to get rid of the competition, sends de Lesseps to Egypt to assist his father, Count Mathieu (Henry Stephenson), as French consul.
Egypt’s political situation was a bit offbeat at the time: technically it was part of the Ottoman Empire, under control of the Sultan in Istanbul (which the script by Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson, based on a story by Sam Duncan, persists in calling “Constantinople”), but it had its own native ruler even though he was referred to as a “viceroy” and it was also heavily influenced by Britain. At the time de Lesseps shows up the viceroy is Mohammed Ali (Maurice Moscovich), and his son and heir is Prince Said (J. Edward Bromberg). De Lesseps acquires another love interest in Toni Pellerin (Annabella — imagine, at least one French character in the cast played by a real-life French person!), granddaughter of the consulate’s sergeant (Sig Rumann — whose German accent, passed off as the speech pattern of Annabella’s ancestor, is a good example of how classic Hollywood thought one foreign accent was as good as another — which is how Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman ended up playing Frenchwomen in Morocco and Adam Had Four Sons, respectively), and one day when de Lesseps and Toni are out in the desert he spies the valley of the Isthmus of Suez and decides that he’s going to benefit the world by building a canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. He goes back to Paris to try to launch a company to build the canal, but runs into resistance from Louis Napoleon’s technical experts (who claim that the Red Sea is 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean and therefore a canal would flood the harbors in the south Mediterranean) and also from the powerful British diplomat, Sir Malcolm Cameron (Nigel Bruce in a surprisingly serious, non-foofy and effective performance), who doesn’t want France to gain commercial advantage from owning a canal even though de Lesseps has promised it would be open to all the ships of the world and, if that actually happened, it would make it easier for Britain to send its ships to and from its dominion in India.
One really quirky aspect of Suez is it’s actually two movies in one, rather arbitrarily glued together at the halfway point: the first is an intrigue about French domestic politics and the second, considerably more interesting, is about the actual construction of the canal. The intrigue centers around Louis Napoleon’s desire to emulate his famous uncle and become not merely president but emperor of France. Standing in his way is the Assembly, controlled by a pro-republican party involving de Lesseps’ father and the Vicomte René de Latour (just why a viscount is so interested in preserving democracy is something Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson never quite explain). Rioters in the street demand that the Assembly dissolve and thereby remove the last roadblock to Louis Napoleon’s absolute power — and de Lesseps’ friend Victor Hugo (Victor Varconi, Pontius Pilate in the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille King of Kings) is inspired by it all to write Les Misérables — and Louis Napoleon tricks de Lesseps into getting his father to adjourn the Assembly by writing a paper promising not to arrest any of his political opponents. No sooner is the Assembly adjourned that Louis Napoleon’s security people are arresting René and all the other leaders of the opposing party — and de Lesseps’ father is so upset by his son’s apparent treachery that he immediately drops dead of a heart attack. On the urging of Eugenie, now his wife, Louis Napoleon authorizes the French government to finance the Suez Canal — only de Lesseps, knowing that if he goes ahead with the canal now it’ll just look like he was paid off for his treachery, abandons the project and sinks into despair until Toni comes back into his life and talks him into pursuing the project again.
De Lesseps goes to Egypt with the promise of financial guarantees from the French government and rights to the land from Prince Said, who has since taken over from his dead father as the viceroy of Egypt, and work on the canal proceeds (represented by an animated white line crossing the relevant portion of a map of Egypt) despite an attempt at sabotage. A group of Arabs steals some explosive from the canal’s builders and uses it to blow up the cliffs overlooking the canal — in a scene I thought was the most spectacular effects footage in the movie, more exciting than the famous sandstorm scene later on — but that causes only a temporary delay. Much more serious is Louis Napoleon’s decision to pull funding for the Canal because he’s facing war with Prussia over the disputed provinces of Alsace and Lorraine (the war actually happened in 1870, France got its ass kicked, Louis Napoleon lost his throne and ultimately France was governed by the Third Republic until Germany kicked its ass again in 1940 and split France into a directly occupied zone and a nominally independent nation ruled by the collaborationist regime at Vichy — so we’ve suddenly leaped forwards only two decades without any of the film’s principals looking visibly older!) — de Lesseps returns to Paris to lobby the emperor to continue funding the project but is told that Louis Napoleon canceled it as a gesture to Britain to get its support, or at least its neutrality, in the coming war against Prussia.
De Lesseps then goes to Britain himself to try to get them to support the canal, and the prime minister (George Zucco — a year later he and Nigel Bruce would again appear together in a film for Fox, as Professor Moriarty and Dr. Watson, respectively, in the second Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) declines — but fortunately just in time there’s a disraeli ex machina as Benjamin Disraeli (Miles Mander, cast after studio head Darryl F. Zanuck’s first choice, George Arliss — then living in retirement in his native England nine years after having played Disraeli in a Zanuck production at Warners that won Arliss the first Best Actor Academy Award for a sound film — turned it down) wins the next British election and, committed to a policy of overseas expansionism, bankrolls the canal and de Lesseps gets to finish it. Alas, while he was waiting for the outcome of the British election de Lesseps also had to contend with an enormous desert sandstorm (prefaced by a cyclone effect similar to, but less convincing than, the one in The Wizard of Oz a year later) that filled in much of what had already been dug, collapsed the two enormous wooden towers that contained the workers’ water supply, buried many of the workers themselves under sand and dispatched Toni Pellerin, who’s shown tying de Lesseps to a building beam so he doesn’t blow away before the sandstorm grabs her and she goes flying to her doom in the desert.
In the book Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer, based on a series of interviews film historian and later director Peter Bogdanovich did with him in 1968 and 1969, Dwan explained how he and effects technician Fred Sersen did the famous sandstorm: “I got about a hundred of those huge airplane fans we use to make wind and lined them up. … At first they were blowing sand, but I had to discard that because it would cut the skin off people, so instead we used ground-up cereal that we threw in front of the blades. The people had to move through that all day long, and I’m telling you, that was an ordeal.” For the scene in which Annabella’s character was blown into the sandstorm and killed, “we had to put her on a wire and fling her through the air,” Dwan recalled. Dwan also said that the original script called for a much longer and effects-driven sandstorm than the one that finally got into the released film, and he got some of the extra scenes eliminated by telling Zanuck that filming them would have upped the budget by $200,000. “You start one of those things, you don’t know when to quit,” Dwan told Bogdanovich in words a lot of modern filmmakers would do well to heed. “There’s a limit to effects. You can blow too many things down — you still have your story. … They had overwritten it by two reels — got fascinated with destruction.” (Whatever interest I had had in seeing the most recent version of King Kong evaporated when I read that the film was three hours long; director Peter Jackson left in all his spectacular effects scenes even when they slowed down or totally stopped the momentum of the story, whereas the filmmaker of the 1933 version, Merian C. Cooper, cut the film to the bone, taking out many of the most elaborate and difficult effects shots in order to create a movie with non-stop thrills.)
Dwan acknowledged that he wasn’t a fan of big effects movies in general — he mentioned two of his relatively unambitious silent films, Big Brother and Manhandled, as examples of the kind of filmmaking (“simple, honest stories that happen to people”) that more appealed to him — and he also told a quite charming anecdote about the threat of de Lesseps’ heirs to sue him over the film: “We gave him a romance with Eugenie, and they objected to that, so they took us to court. And the court told them that this picture did so much honor to France that no matter what they thought as a family, the case must be discarded, and they threw it out of court.” As a movie, Suez is a bizarre mixture, vivid, exciting drama one minute and treading on the thin edge of silliness (and occasionally going over) the next. Tyrone Power is too impassive an actor to be believable as the driven de Lesseps, but he’s good-looking and charismatic enough to carry the film anyway. Loretta Young knew her role was mainly to be a piece of set-dressing, so she decided to go whole-hog with her wardrobe and work with her designer, Royer, to make the largest hoop-skirts of all time — thereby forcing the set builders to widen the doorways so she could get those insane clothes through them.
Annabella is actually the best of the principals — tough-minded, spirited and obviously a far better match for de Lesseps than that stuck-up Eugenie (and a much better match for Tyrone Power off-screen, too: they fell in love during the making of this film, married a year later, and though they didn’t stay married they remained friends until Power’s death in 1958). The supporting cast is a wet dream for fans of the great character actors that populated and enlivened so many American movies during the classic era — there’s even an almost apparitional appearance by Brandon Hurst as Franz Liszt in the early scene at Louis Napoleon’s reception — and overall Suez emerges as good light entertainment, hardly the film it could have been with a rangier actor as de Lesseps (as hard as it would have been to believe in either of them as a Frenchman, what it really needed was one of the Warners edge-meisters like James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart) and a film that explored the dark side of his background (the allegations against him that he was an agent of the British government and he was employing slave labor in building the canal — not to mention the even darker sequel, in which de Lesseps tried to build a canal in Panama, went bankrupt and was arrested, convicted and imprisoned for defrauding his investors, although the case was overturned on appeal), but a nice slice of Hollywoodized history even though its cheery disregard of historical fact was summed up by a British critic who wrote, “What would Americans think of a British film of Kentucky, with Lincoln as a plantation owner courting Harriet Beecher Stowe to the strains of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’?”