Rep Diary: I Am Suzanne!
In 1932 Lilian Harvey was a superstar in Europe. Fox lured her to Hollywood with the hope of landing another Pola Negri or Greta Garbo. Harvey had made her name in a series of German operettas alongside heartthrob Willy Fritsch—the duo were dubbed the “dream couple”. The UFA studio advertised Harvey as “the sweetest girl in the world,” and Fox attempted to port over her ebullient charm into romantic musicals of their own. Without any Lubitsch touch to aid her transition to the States (he was at Paramount), her contract was dissolved after three features. Upset with the roles she was offered, Harvey quit the set of George White’s 1935 Scandals (launching her replacement Alice Faye to brief stardom), and signed on for one film with Columbia before her anticipated return to Germany.
The most notorious of her four Hollywood forays is Fox’s I Am Suzanne!, a deliriously strange 1933 romance that has Harvey battling marionettes for the affections of barrel-chested puppeteer Gene Raymond. Screening in a restored print at MoMA’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation, it showcases Harvey’s song-and-dance talent and Fox’s confusion at how best to utilize it.
Lilian Harvey was born as Helene Lilian Muriel Pape in London in 1906 to a British mother and a German father. After World War I, the family moved to Berlin, where she joined the Berlin State Opera’s ballet school and adopted her grandmother’s maiden name of Harvey. A bright and fastidious presence with her blonde hair and ballet-trained bounce, she usually plays an energetic upper class innocent to Willy Fritsch’s industrious blue collar striver. And because of her cosmopolitan background, she was able to act in the French and English export versions of her features, while Fritsch had to be swapped out for a conversant actor. This expanded her celebrity throughout Europe, to the point where Daryl Zanuck signed her to Fox in 1932. Following her return to Germany in ’35, she was tracked by the Gestapo for the aid she gave to Jewish and homosexual colleagues. She fled to France and then the United States, where she worked for the Red Cross. She maintained a career in the theater, but stopped appearing in films after 1940. She died in Antibes in 1968, where she was operating a souvenir shop and “raising edible snails”, according to the New York Times obituary.
Director Rowland V. Lee had already made a bizarre inter-species love story in 1933 with Zoo in Budapest. It also stars Gene Raymond, but instead of wooden dolls, his passions are set aside for simians. Raised at a Hungarian zoo, he’s a radical animal rights activist who steals and burns the expensive furs of the patrons, and prefers the company of monkeys to men. Loretta Young is the orphan girl attracted to his unique charms. I Am Suzanne! re-locates the scenario to Paris and replaces the monkeys with marionettes, and retains Lee and DP Lee Garmes (Scarface).
Lillian Harvey plays Suzanne, the star performer at a popular revue. Down the street, the Théâtre des Marionettes plays to empty houses. Suzanne’s routines have the elaborate synchronicity of Busby Berkeley, a metronome of galloping gams. Except these players are not drilled to robotic perfection, lending their “St. Moritz” skiing routine a ramshackle air, especially when the ungainly snowman toddles into view. Harvey has an open vulnerability ideal for the German operettas, including the sublime Three From the Filling Station (30). When they ask her to hoof it in I Am Suzanne!, her discomfort is palpable, especially in the band-aid small two-piece they outfit her in. She broke two toes in pre-production during a tightrope stunt, forcing a shift in the shooting schedule, and adding to her unease.
A career-threatening injury sends Suzanne to the Théâtre des Marionettes, where she nurses her injuries and learns the art of puppetry. If she can’t dance, she’ll learn how to make her wooden avatar do it instead. Gene Raymond plays the inscrutable object of her affections, Zani, who grew up in the traveling theatre. So while his flesh and blood friends kept changing, the marionettes always stayed the same. He keeps puppet models of all of his previous crushes, immortalizing his fantasies of female beauty. What he has trouble with is a living breathing woman, and Suzanne is increasingly disturbed by how he retreats into the theater of his own head, in love with his art more than her. Their relationship anticipates Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, in which puppeteer John Cusack takes on the Zani role of obsessive fantasist.
When Zani announces their engagement, Suzanne detonates, unwilling to share him with his puppets in perpetuity. Lilian Harvey, her face contorted with rage, snags a pistol and shoots a marionette mistress right in the heart. But they can all be brought back to life with the tug of a wire, so she cuts all ties and returns to the revue. Her subconscious seething, she dreams that the puppets will seek their revenge. The manic height of the film is this nightmare sequence, in which a kangaroo court of marionettes sentence Suzanne to hang. The puppets, operated by Italy’s famed Podrecca's Piccoli Marionettes, taunt her in a series of close-ups (“You will have a puppet baby”), and then all her human friends swing by on a line, turned into marionettes themselves. The sequence ends with a prone Suzanne covered in a felt spider-web, getting attacked by eight-legged freaks. She has entered Zani’s head and been violently ejected, their art and life incommensurable.
This being Hollywood, screenwriters Edwin Justus Mayer and Rowland V. Lee unconvincingly bring the two together anyway, embracing in a cold clinch that foretells doom for the couple. The Suzanne doll will never age and never complain, and it’s only a matter of time before Zani prefers the reliability of wood to the mysteries of the flesh. The real Suzanne will surely have more nightmares to come, and begin to wish she had a bigger gun.