The only reason I decided to watch Suez (1938) was because of the gorgeous images of the costumes worn by Loretta Young as Empress Eugenie. I had a feeling going in that it wasn’t going to be The World’s Best Cinematic Experience, and I was right. That being said, there was more of Eugenie than I expected, and her costumes were indeed gorgeous.
The movie starts in Paris, with Tyrone Power as real-life French diplomat and designer of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps … except right now, he’s in love with Countess Eugenie “of Madrid.” Neither they, nor half the actors in this film, have appropriate accents, btw. Lesseps gets stationed in Egypt where he gets the idea to build the Suez Canal. He goes back and forth between Egypt and France, running into Eugenie multiple times, and meeting a cute tomboy French girl who lives in Egypt but cleans up nicely. There’s a LOT of colonialist, “Great Nations Must Build Great Projects for the Greatness of the World, Oh We’re So Self-Sacrificing,” lots of stereotypical Egyptian characters, and some ludicrous plot points. In the end, Eugenie ends up married to Napoleon III, the Suez Canal gets built, and Lesseps gets A Major Award.
According to co-screenwriter Philip Dunne,
“Tyrone Power played Ferdinand de Lesseps, the Lee Iaccoca of his day. So he dug the Suez Canal, so what? My partner Julien Josephson and I invented a love story with the Empress of France (Loretta Young) to keep audiences going. We had to. The man was the world’s biggest bore” (Philip Dunne looks back at movies’ golden age: [SA2 Edition]Jim Bawden Toronto Star 27 Jan 1990: G8).
… and yeah, you can tell they dialed it in.
The costumes were designed by Royer (Lewis Royer Hastings), who also designed In Old Chicago (1938), The Three Musketeers (1939), The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Little Old New York (1940), and Bugambilia (1945). Unfortunately I can’t find any real information about Royer or his work on this film, so we’re just going to have to go with my experience watching it on film.
I am, of course, primarily focused on the women’s costumes, and even more so on Eugenie, who starts off watching Lesseps play in a public, indoor tennis match while wearing an outfit meant for frolicking in the garden at most:
They are clearly referencing the multiple portraits of Eugenie painted by Winterhalter. On the one hand, I get it, this is probably the most well-known image of Eugenie. On the other, let us dress for the occasion, shall we?
Next up, Lesseps and Eugenie go to a ball where they meet the future Emperor Napoleon III, currently president. Eugenie is BALLS OUT in a faaaaabulous satin and tulle ballgown with tons of embroidery:
Here’s some more shots of this outfit:
Lesseps gets posted to Egypt and tries to get Eugenie to marry him, but she won’t take the risk. She’s trying on a super-cute hat made by a milliner and wearing what I call her curtain dress:
Lesseps heads off to Egypt, where he meets Toni, played by French actress Annabella (no last name), who Tyrone Power would marry after this movie. She is the granddaughter of a French soldier, all tomboy, and preposterously dressed:
As Toni gets to know Lesseps, and develops a crush on him, she starts to dress more femininely but in a totally 1930s way:
Lesseps heads back to Paris, where he discovers Eugenie is engaged to Napoleon III. I think she must be wearing this outfit as he passes her in a carriage, because I don’t remember seeing it on screen.
He runs into Eugenie in the palace, just back from riding:
Here’s the real Eugenie dressed for riding:
Later there are Political Shenanigans that I zoned out on. The short version is President Napoleon leads a coup making him emperor, and somehow Lesseps takes the blame. Eugenie/Young rocks the velvet and fur:
The “wheat” embroidery reminded me of some Charles Frederick Worth gowns from the end of the 19th century:
Somehow Eugenie gets roped into talking Lesseps into things, but then finds out Napoleon is throwing Lesseps under the bus and Has a Sad. It all hinges on Lesseps’ Suez Canal project. I space out.
Lesseps has a Pissed Off, but luckily Toni is in Paris too, learning how to read (??) and being turned into A Woman(tm).
Eugenie apologizes to Lesseps, but he’s bitter now. Toni tries to defend him.
Toni keeps Learning How to Woman:
Lesseps gets the canal project really going with the help of the English led by Disraeli, who is also “Great Countries Must Be Colonialist Assholes If They Want to Do Great Things.”
Eugenie has a Disappoint as she learns that Napoleon’s judgement is clouded by his ambition.
Toni has reached the pinnacle of Proper Gender Expression, AND can read now!
Lesseps and Toni head back to Egypt to work on the canal. I zone out. There’s a giant sandstorm crisis.
Not giving away ALL of the plot, at the end, the canal is finished and Lesseps wins A Major Award from Eugenie.
I think that court dress is referencing this painting. In the film, Eugenie has a CRAZY long train which is fabulous.
Some close-ups of the court dress:
And by the way, I talked about Eugenie’s hair in my post about how 1930s movies do period hair, if you’re interested.
Have you seen Suez? What’s your take on Eugenie’s gowns?