Sunday, February 2, 2014

Set Design - Suez ( 1938 )

My sister and I began watching Suez ( 1938 ) last week. For those not familiar with the movie it's a so-called "biopic" on the life of French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who dreamed of building a canal to connect the Mediterranean and Red Seas. We had never seen the film before, but once the credits began rolling we knew we were in for a good picture judging from the talent involved ( Tyrone Power, Loretta Young, Annabella, Joseph Schildkraut, Leon Ames, Henry Stephenson, Nigel Bruce, Darryl F. Zanuck production, Philip Dunne screenplay, Alan Dwan direction, etc ). 

However, ten minutes into the film, we knew we weren't in for just a good picture, but a great picture! Was it the cinematography that grabbed us? Nope. Was it the elaborate costumes? No, although they were lovely. Was it the quality in acting? No... we didn't expect bad acting. IT WAS THE SETS. 

Within these 10 minutes the audience is shown three different humongous sets - that of a tennis arena, the foyer and the ballroom of Napoleon's palace. Simply breathtaking. And this was only the beginning, for throughout the film there are over 17 different sets. 




Suez begins with a young Ferdinand de Lesseps ( Tyrone Power ) giving his friend the vicomte Rene de Latour ( Joseph Schildkraut ) a whallop during a rousing game of tennis in an elaborate recreation of an authentic indoor tennis arena of the period. The game being played out was a mixture of our modern tennis and racquetball (and one that looks more exciting than both ). Loretta Young, as Countess Eugenie de Montijo, is cheering on her sweetheart Fernidad, when she is espied by the President of France, Louis Napoleon ( played with particular malice by Leon Ames ).



At a state ball which our principal players are invited to, a fortune teller predicts that Eugenie will have a troubled but great life and wear a crown, while de Lesseps will spend his life digging ditches. Prophetic words. Napoleon's displeasure with de Lesseps presence in Paris quickly gets him an assignment to Egypt to assist his father, the French consul. While there he is inspired with the dream of building a canal to bridge the two great seas and makes it his life's ambition despite the personal costs involved. 



Darryl F. Zanuck's historical spectacle, Suez, was given a two million dollar budget when production began in the spring of 1938. Obviously, the sets and special effects ( Suez boasts two excellent disaster sequences - a rock slide and a sand storm ) were given the most prominent chunk of the budget pie, with costumes coming in a close third. 



Fox was currently indulging in a series of historical films which depicted characters loosely based on real people ( The House of Rothchild, Clive of India, Lloyds of London ) and several which included big-budget disaster sequences ( San Francisco, In Old Chicago ). When Suez was released it received unfavorable reviews from the critics because of the liberties it took with historical facts, but regardless of the dissing from the critics the public adored the film and it easily earned back its investment in box-office receipts the very same year. Most of the heirs to Ferdinand de Lesseps approved of the fictionalized depiction of their father, save for one of his sons who sued Zanuck for libel. As Allen Dwan, the director of the film, once said "We gave him a romance with Eugenie, and [he] objected to it, so [he] took us to court. And the court told [him] that this picture did so much honor to France that no matter what [he thought], the case must be discarded, and they threw it out of court".



Ronald Colman was screenwriter Philip Dunne's original choice for the part of de Lesseps, who would have been splendid in this role. Nevertheless, Tyrone Power plays de Lesseps with great conviction even though he couldn't resemble the real de Lesseps with ten pounds of makeup on, and was much too young for the part. Midway through the film a touch of grey on the sides of his head was supposed to give us the impression that he aged 40 years. 

Loretta Young was not pleased at being usurped as the reigning star of the picture by the French beauty, Annabella. She knew her role was mainly a piece of set-dressing and so she decided to be the most glamorously dressed woman in any scene in the film. Working with her costume designer, Royer, her skirts grew to enormous size when filming began. In one particular scene her hoop-skirts were so large that the set builders had to widen the doorways to make room for her entrance. 




The responsibility of designing the sets was shared by two great artisans, Bernard Herzbrun and Rudolph Sternard, both of whom had created beautiful sets in two other Tyrone Power epics - Alexanders Ragtime Band ( 1937 ) and In Old Chicago ( 1937 ). 

Rudolph Sternad ( 1906-1963 ) worked in Hollywood as an art director, and later a production designer, starting in 1936. He designed sets for The Rose of Washington Square, The More the Merrier and High Noon, which began an association with Stanley Kramer that lasted for twenty films including The Caine Mutiny, Judgement at Nurenberg, Inherit the Wind and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Although he was nominated for three Academy Awards, he never won. 



Bernard Herzbrun ( 1891-1964 ) created sets for over 270 films, which included several Shirley Temple films, Harvey, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Magnificent Obsession, between 1930-1955. Herzbrun was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Alexander's Ragtime Band, and it was this recognition which earned him the assignment to create the sets for Suez

Herzbrun helped create designs for 42 films in 1938 alone. It was an extremely busy year for him and yet you can tell what a fastidious man he was by the details in Suez's sets. Alexander's Ragtime Band would end up being the only nomination Herzbrun ever received, for surprisingly, he was snubbed at the Oscars in 1938! 



While Suez was nominated for three Academy Awards ( Best Cinematography, Best Sound Recording, Original Score ) its set design was not included which must have been one of the greatest oversights in the history of art direction. But....to be fair...Suez was up against stiff competition that year. The eleven nominees included The Adventures of Tom Sawyer ( Lyle Wheeler ), Carefree ( Van Nest Polglase ), If I Were King ( Hans Drier ), Marie Antoinette ( Cedric Gibbons ), Herzbrun's own Alexander's Ragtime Band and the winner that year - The Adventures of Robin Hood, featuring sets created by Carl J. Weyl.

Even though Suez was not historically accurate, it remains an entertaining and thrilling spectacle; a film which features fine acting, beautiful music, stellar special effects, and most of all, magnificent sets which transported its audience back to Napoleon's Europe during the mid-1800s.

This post is apart of the 31 Days of Oscar ( Feb. 1- March 1 ) blogathon hosted by Paula's Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen, and Outspoken and Freckled. Be sure to check out all of the other great entries in this blogathon!

17 comments:

  1. I too have had that experience where you are so overwhelmed with the artistry of a thing that you believe it must have been awarded. No? Not even nominated? What were they thinking?

    "Suez" is indeed one of those movies that mean "movies". An extraordinary experience.

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    1. Yes, we've had those quite a bit. My dad never ceases to be astonished that Agnes Moorehead was never nominated for The Bat....but I think that was love for the actress rather than her acting in that film that prompts him to think that. ;-) Suez was indeed an excellent film and it will receive a 24k rating in our next nugget review.

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  2. When I watch Suez I think I'll pay more attention to Tyrone Power than to anything else, but I have to agree: by the pictures, the sets are stunning!
    Kisses!

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  3. Connie~ thanks SO much for participating in our 31 DAYS OF OSCAR Blogathon! Terrific write-up! Such stunning, grand sets! Hard to believe this was passed over.

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    1. Thanks for accepting our last minute post. ( We got some ideas for next week too! ) 1938 was just tooo good a year for films and I think if Suez was released a year earlier its set design would have been recognized. At least, I like to think so.

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  4. Thanks for highlighting a movie I have not seen...the pictures of the sets are gorgeous!

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    1. Oh by all means, watch the film if you can find it! It's very entertaining...even if it does bear no resemblance to history.

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  5. My stars...how have I missed this? Tyrone Power, costumes, and these amazing sets. I feel like I need to see this immediately. Thanks for this post!

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    1. I hope you like it when you see it. We thought it was just ripping!

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  6. Oh, it was ripping! Power is dashing and Loretta is beautifully gowned, but I agree that you just keep saying to yourself - wow - look at that? How wonderful it would have been to be on those sets! Great post and a definite snub!

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    1. It's a shame the film isn't more popular than it is. Other "disaster" films like In Old Chicago and San Francisco are so well remembered and yet Suez doesn't seem to have many fan followers. We're glad you are one of them! I wonder if it was Herzbrun's responsibility to construct the Suez canal sequences too or if that was handed over to the special effects department for them to work their magic on. They managed to blend footage of the canal with the construction sets and all those extras so well!

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  7. First of all, a hearty welcome to the CMBA. You have a terrific blog, and it is a great addition to the CMBA's membership.

    Tyrone Power is one of my great loves, and "Suez" is one of his films I have not yet seen. He and Annabella married in 1939, so perhaps it was this film which brought them together.

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    1. Thank you Patti! We were so glad to hear we were accepted. And you are quite right, Tyrone Power and Annabella met during the making of this film and he just fell head over heels in love with her during filming. She does look stunning in the movie. Power was seven years her junior and it was his first marriage whereas she was married twice before ( her first husband died young ). Their marriage only lasted 9 years but they remained best friends until Power's untimely death.

      "Suez" is a great film and well worth checking out. The special effects are especially amazing to watch. How limited those spfx artists were then and yet what they were capable of doing!

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  8. Even though I've never seen this film, your post has convinced me that the set designers of "Suez" were ripped off!

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    1. Now you have to watch the movie! "See and be amazed!" as the barker would say.

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  9. When it's that spectacular, who cares about historical accuracies! Whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in another world this is my go to - it's just such a great film and the fact that it never won an Oscar is just a travesty.

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