SUEZ—–“Oh, Ferdinand! Are you insane?” sputters an incredulous Countess Eugenie de Montijo (Loretta Young) to ardent suitor/upstart dreamer Ferdinand de Lessups (Tyrone Power), proposing in the face of a five-year separation. He plans to dig a 100-mile canal through the Egyptian desert. Spurning sand for security, she marries Emperor Louis Napoleon III, and Ferdinand, dumped, digs his ditch. Desire, disaster and Destiny await. As accurate history, the screenplay amounts to “Su-ez who?”, but as big-time Hollywood tale-telling, circa 1938, it’s an eye-pleasing and entertaining 104 minutes.
Directing, prodigious old-timer Allan Dwan marshaled a lavish $2,000,000 budget to blend chatty fiction with assorted historical personages (Disraeli, Victor Hugo, Franz Liszt–why not?), set-piece spectacle, fate-stricken romance, a few laughs (the ‘carefree’ kind). Naturally, as a vehicle for Fox’s adventure-epic leading man, the script doesn’t do all that much with actual decade-long canal construction and attends more with Ferd/Ty’s personal frets. *
Production maestro Darryl Zanuck liked to showcase Power surmounting odds—he’d recently dashed through a legendary inferno for In Old Chicago and after this would handle earthquake & flood when The Rains Came. Here, it’s Turkish saboteurs blowing up mountainsides, and then a titanic gust from Mother Nature in the form of a monster sandstorm that give special effects technicians another haymaker to deliver. Less destructive, there are a number of elegant sets, a courtly ballroom dance, lots of crowds, swell costumes and a good supporting cast.
Young is okay, Power does a solid job, and both he and the picture scored a major plus with French co-star Annabella. A big star in France, the beautiful and talented actress, 31, and her smitten 24-year-old co-star began an affair, then married after the film was released. A spiteful Zanuck, angry at the stars shenanigans, blackballed her stateside career (Europe was soon out, too, thanks to Hitler) and moviegoers lost out. Her pluck and animation shine here, and the scenes with her leading man click home. Somehow, director Dwan sidestepped/convinced (breasted?) censors to allow a racy oasis-dunk scene that was as risqué as anything since the boob-averse Hays Code had locked its muzzle on sex-fun for US audiences. Of course, there is screenplay payment exacted for such exotic scamps (volcano, firing squad, whatever), so uptight prudes won’t let foreign nipples ruin their cross-burnings.
Speaking of special visual effects, that sandstorm is a whopper. The movie earned Oscar nominations for Cinematography, Music Score and Sound, and came in 19th for the year (Power hitting big, with Alexander’s Ragtime Band at #1 and Marie Antoinette #7).
With Joseph Schildkraut, J. Edward Bromberg, Henry Stephenson, Miles Mander, Leon Ames, Sig Rumann, Nigel Bruce, Maurice Moscovich, Sidney Blackmer and George Zucco.
* Allan Dwan started by directing a short in 1911; his last film was released in 1961. In between were another 405 credits, big and small: most noteworthy are 1922s Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks, the Shirley Temple versions of Heidi and Rebeccca Of Sunnybrook Farm and Sands Of Iwo Jima. As for Ferdinand de Lesseps, his real life was a full one, including 17 children from his two wives, a failed attempt on doing the Panama Canal and was the dignitary who formally presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States. When this facthazard 1938 biopic was shown in France, descendants of de Lesseps sued 20th-Century Fox, citing that the famous engineer was 54 when he first went to Egypt, and never conducted an affair with the Empress Eugenie. The case was tossed, after determining that, libelous or not, the lively Suez brought more glory to France than dishonor on the family. Vive la Hollywood!