The year 1938 marked a decided turning point in Hollywood’s output; the dream factories churning out lavish entertainments with greater frequency and success than ever before. The crippling circumstances of the Great Depression and the looming threat of another World War had driven audiences into the air-cooled theaters; Hollywood only too eager to capitalize on their careworn necessity for escapism. Alas, Darryl Zanuck’s Suez (1938) could hardly be considered a worthy contender among them; distinguished only by the presence of 2oth Century-Fox’s latest star; heartthrob, Tyrone Power whom Zanuck had elevated to A-list status with this lavishly appointed costume drama. Suez is reported to be a retelling of how the canal connecting Suez to Port Said was built. In the late 1930’s Hollywood’s verve for colonialist adventures and Far East exoticism took precedence at the box office. Obviously, it filled a need. Hence, Suez seemed to suggest an intriguing blend of the two, peppered with historical significance. And the picture did not disappoint – at least, not Zanuck or the studio who reaped rich rewards from its distribution.
Alas, the Philip Dunne/Julien Josephson screenplay veered wildly from the truth into an obtuse action/adventure yarn peppered in tragi-romance: Power’s dashing Parisian architect/engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps twice denied devoted companionship from not one, but two of Fox’s leading ladies; frequent costar, Loretta Young (cast in the ephemeral part of the Countess Eugenie de Montijo) and France’s latest import, Annabella (as Toni Pellerin). Power and Annabella were carrying on a hot and heavy affair behind the scenes of this faux epic, whose other claim to fame remained its adrenaline-charged sandstorm, in which Annabella’s winsome ingénue risks - and loses - her life to save her beloved from flying debris. Power and Annabella would wed a year later, the marriage lasting barely a decade.
At 24, Tyrone Power was far too young to play De Lesseps, who was actually 64 at the time construction on the canal was completed. But what did such inaccuracies matter when Power’s star was ascending faster than Jupiter? Still, his name above the title had yet to prove its worth. But Zanuck was confident Power’s looks alone could sell tickets, especially among female fans. Thus, he was willing to gamble a good deal of time and money on Suez, gussying up its absurd back story with vintage accoutrements. As such, Suez decidedly looks the part of the grand Hollywood epic without actually excelling as one. Indeed, Suez was as much a source of pride for Zanuck as he intended it to compete on the same level with MGM’s pictorial lavishness.
Unlike the other majors, who had begun production during the silent era, maturing to prominence through the last ten to fifteen years of Hollywood’s infancy, 2oth Century-Fox was a relative newcomer, amalgamated only since 1935. Three short years later, thanks to Zanuck’s management, it was a force to be reckoned with; a major without ever having started out as a minor. Alas, on Suez, Zanuck’s reach for greatness exceeded his grasp; the Dunne/Josephson screenplay a silly mishmash; Allan Dwan’s direction strangely void of that necessary visual spark to show off Bernard Herzbrun and Rudolph Sternad’s gargantuan sets to their best advantage.
Worse for the film, the romantic element at the crux of the story is sorely lacking; the love-making between Power’s enterprising young buck and Loretta Young’s bedeviled Miss more haughty and exclusive than anything else, while Power’s flirtations with Annabella, miscast as the uncivilized ingénue, fairly reek of incongruously slapped together screwball comedy. Finally, there is Allan Dwan’s lackluster direction to consider; the movie lumbering along a series of disjointed vignettes, periodically fading to black whenever Dwan can think of no better logic or visual device to string together his story. Suez is extremely episodic, and such a shame too, since Zanuck has obviously lavished his studio’s tangible assets on a showcase immaculately lensed by J. Peverell Marley.
Suez opens in the French court of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte III, Emperor of France (ineffectually played by Leon Ames). Bonaparte is attending a tennis match between Ferdinand de Lesseps (Tyrone Power) and his best friend, Vicomte Rene De Latour (the marvelous Joseph Schildkraut, who is utterly wasted in a nothing part). The wily Bonaparte is late to the game and only marginally interested in De Lesseps’ prowess. Moreover, he becomes star struck at the first sight of Countess Eugenie de Montijo (Loretta Young) whom he will later pursue at a court ball. Alas, Bonaparte is interrupted in his romantic pursuits by reoccurring affairs of state pressed to him by his trusted advisor, General St. Arnaud (Alphonse Martell); returning unannounced to surprise Ferdinand, Eugenie and Rene as they are having their fortunes told. The Swami (Frank Lackteen) foretells of a ‘troubled life’ for Eugenie with ‘a crown upon her head’ and predicts De Lesseps will endeavor to ‘dig a ditch’. Amused by these seemingly meaningless predictions, Ferdinand undertakes to continue the prophesizing, poking fun at their host until Bonaparte makes his presence known. Seemingly unmoved by Ferdinand’s insult, the enterprising and vengeful Bonaparte later instructs Arnaud to find De Lesseps a diplomatic post far removed from the court of France, thus separating him from his betrothed.
Ferdinand is sent (or rather, politely exiled) to the blistering Egyptian desert where his father, Count Mathieu de Lesseps (Henry Stephenson) currently resides as France’s Consul-General. Before departing, he impulsively asks Eugenie to be his wife. Alas, she turns him down, a decision each will live to regret. In Egypt, Ferdinand is introduced to Sir Malcolm Cameron (Nigel Bruce), a close friend of his father and the British consul to the Viceroy, Mohammed Ali (Maurice Moskovitch). He also befriends Ali’s son and heir, Prince Said (J. Edward Bromberg) to whom Ali has entrusted with mentoring the young prince in the ways of becoming a young man of qualities. During one of Ferdinand’s routine treks across the desert he happens upon the tomboy, Toni Pellerin (Annabella), bathing nude in a pond. She implores him to recall her stubborn mule that has wandered off with her changing room cart. Regrettably, in returning the ass to the water’s edge, both Ferdinand and the now fully clothed Toni are thrown into the water when the mule bucks and rattles the cart.
Toni is the granddaughter of French Sergeant Pellerin (Sig Rumann) whose vanity persists in having his graying mane dyed jet black. Toni is immediately smitten with Ferdinand. But she is uncouth and common; even crude in her assessment of Eugenie’s portrait occupying an honored place on Ferdinand’s desk. Furthermore, she is uneducated and cannot even read. Nevertheless, Ferdinand takes pity on her chronic needling to be near him and to help in his work. He makes Toni a promise; that upon his return to France to pitch the idea of the canal to Bonaparte, Toni will commit herself to school; also, to learning the social graces of a young lady. To satisfy Ferdinand, Toni reluctantly agrees. In Paris, Ferdinand discovers Eugenie has become Bonaparte’s mistress. Having lost the only women he ever truly desired, Ferdinand also fails in his impassioned bid to raise the necessary funds to build the canal, encountering a stalemate from Bonaparte, who suggests his advisors have forewarned about such an endeavor flooding the Mediterranean.
The Dunne/Josephson screenplay badly mangles the historical record herein, using France’s looming civil war as mere backdrop. Toni runs away from school yet again. Count Mathias and Rene, both part of the French Assembly that Bonaparte is looking to crush, place their faith in a letter of guarantee Eugenie presents to Ferdinand. The letter presumably assures no reprisals after the assembly agrees to temporarily disband, with the understanding it will be allowed to reconvene once the threat of civil war has been defused. Alas, the guarantee is a political ruse, Bonaparte sending his military escorts to promptly arrest the various members of the assembly, including Ferdinand’s father, who dies of a stroke brought on by a broken heart.
As something of compensation – though not really – Bonaparte now invests in Ferdinand’s canal construction project, thus making him a state-sanctioned puppet and social pariah in Rene’s eyes. In the meantime, Bonaparte assumes the throne of the newly revived French Empire just as Mathias had feared. Embittered, though driven to succeed, Ferdinand embarks upon the canal’s construction with Prince Said committing his forces to the cause. Invariably, this leads to Turkish sabotage. A bomb is detonated high in the rocks, triggering a landslide of epic proportions. Many are crushed in the falling debris; the project put on hold while Said investigates the cause.
\When Bonaparte withdraws his support Ferdinand is forced to go to England to appeal his case before the British Prime Minister (George Zucco) who is vehemently opposed to the project. However, the leader of the opposition, Benjamin Disraeli (Miles Mander), is wildly enthusiastic for the canal to continue. With the election nearing, Disraeli encourages Ferdinand to return to Egypt and sincerely pray England’s parliament will vote him into office instead. Disraeli all but guarantees his backing for the canal should he win the election.
Back in Egypt, Ferdinand optimistically renews his dreams of completing the canal and discovers, in the interim and his absence, Toni has matured into a young woman of quality. Moreover, she shares his passions and, God willing, desires to partake in a life together. Ferdinand encourages Toni to reconsider her love for him. She ought to settle down into a steady and committed marriage with a man who is not as ambitious or starry-eyed. Even so, Ferdinand has, by now, begun to harbor sincere affections for this waif who has ostensibly morphed into a woman overnight. Tragically, his discovery of Toni’s unerring devotion comes too late for happiness to take hold. A brutal sandstorm overtakes the work camp. In this violent assault from Mother Nature, Ferdinand is knocked unconscious by some flying debris and Toni, who has rushed into the storm to secure her beloved to a pillar to save his life, is swept away by the horrendous wind, her lifeless body discovered a short while later by Ferdinand and a very tearful, Sergeant Pellerin.
We fast track through Disraeli’s victory and his commitment to the canal; Ferdinand completing the project and returning to France where Eugenie, now the Empress, confides in him that she too has made sacrifices. A short while later, Ferdinand returns to the desert sands, overseeing an armada of ships sailing through the canal with echoes of Toni’s promise to remain at his side ricocheting about his memory.
Suez is a fairly unimpressive would-be epic; never entirely satisfying in its storytelling, despite Zanuck’s very best efforts to will a colossus from the treacle of its rank fiction. Following a formula, Suez is only superficially biographical, more interested in spectacle and costumes, in gushing romance and some extremely fine special effects, than in preserving the historical record. It worked for the picture then – audiences flocking to see it; making Tyrone Power the number one box office draw of the year. To be fair, Suez’s action is incontestably elaborate and first rate, and with a good solid cast. Alas, too many of these marvelous talents are given precious little to do except look their parts.
Suez has a waxworks appeal to it; history eclipsed by its’ eerily conceived Madam Tussauds’ moving tableau. The movie’s best moments are steeped in catastrophe. Allen Dwan’s superb staging of the landslide and sandstorm hold up remarkably well under closer scrutiny today. But the rest of the film is a series of unconnected ‘incidents’ entirely robbed of any dramatic urgency. At the time of its release, Zanuck found himself being sued by De Lesseps’ descendants, who rightfully pointed out Ferdinand was 54 when work began on the canal and furthermore, adamantly insisted France's heroine engineer never had an affair with the Empress Eugenie. A French court eventually dismissed these charges; perhaps suggesting Suez’s homage to French ingenuity outweighed any egregious – if practically unintentional – dishonor to the De Lesseps family.
Suez arrives to DVD via Fox’s Cinema Archive. I confess: of the first three titles undertaken to critique on this blog, Suez is the least offending to the eye and ear. Though hardly perfect, the B&W elements have miraculously survived the ravages of time, and Fox’s own cost-cutting measures along the way. The B&W image is relatively solid, with only a few scenes exhibiting a slight wobble. Age-related artifacts are everywhere but rarely do they significantly distract. The grayscale is mostly good; although, on occasion, it appears to suffer from lower than average contrast levels. Scenes photographed at night register a thicker patina of grain and suffer from a loss of fine detail.
All and all – and considering the travesties experienced elsewhere in the archive collection - Suez wasn’t a half bad presentation. The mono audio exhibits minor hiss and the occasional pop, but otherwise is still in very good shape with dialogue sounding crisp. The film’s score, at intervals credited to virtually every composer working at Fox - save Alfred Newman (Robert Russell Bennett, Charles Maxwell, Cyril J. Mockridge, David Raksin and Ernst Toch) also sounds quite good. Like other titles in Fox’s Cinema Archive, we get NO extras on Suez. Forbearingly, I wasn’t expecting any.
My decision to critique Suez, Forever Amber and Wilson as the first three Cinema Archive titles to herald such an honor on this blog was only partly influenced by my desire to see these movies once again. Aside: I remember them fondly from my childhood. But I also wanted to see if Fox Home Video was ready to pay its own respects to some of their A-list titles from yesteryear. Sadly, the overall report card is not good, leaving me to reconsider why other ‘lesser’ titles like Home in Indiana and Apartment for Peggy since released via the archive, continue to debut with marginally below average to atrocious quality (if that word can even be used to describe what I am seeing herein). In no way has Fox even made the attempt to approximate the visual/aural integrity of these movies for future generations to collect and appreciate.
So, I’ll just go on record as saying I am ashamed of the corporate decisions thus far made regarding Fox’s Cinema Archive. With one of the richest histories in all of Hollywood at its disposal, Fox Home Video has managed to turn 24kt movie gold into forgettable excrement. It gives me no pleasure to state as much. I’m a film lover and a classic movie buff.
But if Fox isn’t embarrassed to offer the consumer these unmitigated travesties and pretend they’ve done their duty, simply by making these titles available in disc format, then I certainly will endeavor to hold absolutely nothing back in my contempt for their gross shortsightedness and negligence! Fellas – you’re archive is a joke! A bad one!!!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)