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Darryl F. Zanuck knew that his studio 20th Fox couldn't maintain its place among the majors without occasional prestige pictures, the kind he could hand to the Public Relations department and say, okay, now get us some Academy Award nominations. Warners had its series of uplifting historical dramas, with Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson impersonating famous authors, doctors and politicians. MGM turned out a score of lavish costume pictures each year, some of which purported to be serious accounts of historical events. Audiences really came to see the stars -- Fox's Tyrone Power and the gorgeous leading lady Loretta Young. Zanuck put a lot of promotion behind Suez, an engaging movie about a grand feat of engineering and diplomacy that in 1938 had already been relegated to grade school geography books.
Serving as consul to Egypt, well-connected career diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps (Power) thinks it possible to dig a canal connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The enormous obstacles include finding investors, and eliciting cooperation from other colonial powers. The English don't believe they'll be allowed to use the finished canal, while the Turks don't want to lose their control of Egypt. Ferdinand must win over the Egyptian ruler Mohammed Ali (Maurice Moscovitch); he already has the backing of the heir to the throne, Prince Said (J. Edward Bromberg). De Lesseps asks the beautiful Eugenie de Montijo (Loretta Young) to marry him, but she asks him to wait. In Egypt he meets Toni (Annabella), the impetuous daughter of his aide, Sergeant Pellerin (Sig Rumann). Toni follows Ferdinand around like a dog, but he only has eyes for Eugenie. Returning to Paris, Ferdinand is crestfallen to find that Eugenie has married President of the Republic Napoleon III (Leon Ames). When rioting breaks out Eugenie entreats Ferdinand to ask the legislature to voluntarily adjourn, just until things calm down. Napoleon instead proclaims himself Emperor and issues oppressive edicts. Among those thrown into political prison is Ferdinand's best friend Vicomte Rene De Latour (Joseph Schildkraut). But Napoleon 'rewards' De Lesseps by bankrolling the Egypt project. His reputation destroyed, Ferdinand proceeds with the digging of the canal, with the backing of Prince Said and eventually, Benjamin Disraeli of England (Miles Mander).
"What's my future?" asks the impetuous Ferdinand, and a soothsayer responds with the news that "You will dig ditches." The screenplay by Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson plays fast and loose with historical fact, but no more so than casting the incomparably handsome Tyrone Power as promoter-diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps. The real man was pushing 50 and practically retired from his diplomatic life when he launched his Suez Canal project; he was a widower as well. He doesn't appear to have played a role in the advancement of Napoleon III, who had seized power as Emperor several years earlier. Eugenie was Ferdinand's cousin; she did help the promoter obtain her husband's help during an international dispute. Not covered here is Eugenie's later role in the French intervention in Mexico. In Warner's Juarez she is written as a two-faced schemer, and played with an evil sneer by Gale Sondergaard.
Suez begins at a primitive tennis match in an indoor court, shifts to a grand ball and from there to a long series of well-written scenes alternating between Ferdinand's love life and his grand pursuit of immortality. Along the way various historical visitors drop in, like Victor Hugo (Victor Varconi) and Franz Liszt (Brandon Hurst). The various diplomats on view are a virtual smorgasbord of character actors -- Sidney Blackmer, George Zucco, Frank Reicher, Nigel Bruce. As the best buddy, Joseph Schildkraut is quite forgiving of De Lesseps, considering that the promoter seems (in the movie) to have caused the end of democracy in France and made possible the arrest of dozens of opposition politicians. Over in Egypt, J. Edward Bromberg's lazy but friendly Prince bankrupts his country to help construct De Lesseps' great canal. Ferdinand's cordial relationship with Benjamin Disraeli is a big help as well. Suez could almost be seen as a wishful-thinking movie for the nervous year of 1938: why can't some political Ferdinand De Lesseps come forward in Europe to stave off the threat of a new World War?
The dreamy Loretta Young makes a sudden exit from Ferdinand's life, leaving the fictional character played by Annabella (of René Clair's Le million) to be Tyrone Power's main love interest. The now little-known Annabella would later marry Power, incurring Zanuck's displeasure; it is said that the mogul put an end to her career to pay her back. The former French top star is the brightest thing in the movie, genuinely charming and lovable as the pixie-like, illiterate Toni Pellerin. In the sexy meet-cute scene Toni's shirt is drenched in a way that the Code Office usually would not allow. She doesn't really become a romantic figure until the last few scenes.
Suez doesn't really show the building of the canal, which in the 1850s must have been an incredible feat of engineering. De Lesseps tried but failed to build a Panama Canal in the 1880s, defeated partially by malaria. The progress of the Suez Canal is shown with a dotted line making its way across a map. Heavily promoted special effects by Fox's Fred Sersen use matte paintings and miniatures to depict wide views of the canal excavation and an enormous landslide. The big finish is a dramatically irrelevant but impressive howling wind storm that blows away the giant earth dredges, thousands of De Lesseps' workers and a couple of main characters. The collapse of a pair of water towers is very effective. But other scenes showing rocks and rubble engulfing helpless victims are accomplished by soft moving mattes that rather lamely 'erase' parts of the screen. Suez was nominated for three Oscars -- Cinematography, Music and Sound -- but not for its effects. Sersen and his team would provide much more impressive illusions for the next year's The Rains Came.
Light thought it may be light on historical truth, Suez is a satisfying costume drama with a couple of epic action scenes tagged on for good measure. The show is directed with the sure hand of veteran Allan Dawn, one of the first directors to work in Hollywood. It is also a testament to the pure star quality and fine acting of Fox's top male star. Tyrone Power was so good that the studio regrettably rarely loaned him out.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD-R of Suez is an acceptable B&W transfer of this good looking costume drama, the equal of MOD transfers being offered by the other studios. The image is sharp and the film itself in very good shape. Louis Silvers was nominated for his musical score, but viewers will more likely remember the music being used mostly to establish the many location jumps between Paris and Egypt, Egypt and England.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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