Norma Shearer may have turned down the role of Susan because she thought the role aging (She couldn’t admit to being old enough to have a teenaged daughter), but she would have shown better instincts for avoiding such an unlikeable character in order to protect her screen persona.
Joan Crawford shows no such compunction. She throws herself into the role, and at times she appears to be playing Norma Shearer playing Susan. If you’ve seen Norma Shearer playing the fast-talking, scatterbrained heroine of Noël Coward‘s Private Lives, you’ll know what I mean. Compare those heroines’ mannerisms.
Susan is a nasty piece of work. A socialite, she follows every new fad, always eager for a new experience and never once thinking of the shattered family she left behind. She joins a movement and claims to have found God, and in the name of her new calling, she plays with her friends’ lives. She zeroes in on their weaknesses and indiscretions and then confronts them to confess their sins to their peers.
Susan herself is guilty of spiritual bypass. The only sin she’ll confess is touching up her hair, but she’s neglected her daughter and let her husband (Fredric March) slide into alcoholism with nary an effort to save him. She’s too busy focusing on herself and “saving” others.
It’s only when March’s Barrie strikes a deal with Susan that she deigns to spend any time with her family. If Barrie cannot stay sober while Susan lives with them for the summer, then he finally will grant her the divorce she’s been haranguing him for. Over the season, he hopes to win back his wife and give his daughter a mother, while Susan awaits his relapse.
Frankly it’s hard to see why Barrie still carries a torch for Susan, even if she’s Crawford during her most glamorous period, but it’s easy to see how badly their socially inept daughter Blossom needs her mother. Rita Quigley‘s Blossom is heartbreaking in how easily she lights up and then gives up whenever Mother’s momentary attention is withdrawn. It’s for her sake you’ll wish for Barrie to win his wager.