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!