Born out of wedlock to a mother who died in childbirth, Helga (Greta Garbo) is left to be raised by her strict uncle Karl (Jean Hersholt). When Karl tries to force Helga into marrying Jeb Mondstrom (Alan Hale), she runs away in the middle of a thunderstorm. She makes her way to a house where architect Rodney Spencer (Clark Gable) is staying. Rodney invites her in, gives her something dry to wear, and lets her stay with him for the night.
The next day, Helga repays Rodney’s kindness by making breakfast for him before continuing to run away. But Rodney really likes her and persuades her to stay with him. They fall madly in love with each other, Rodney even proposes to her, but then Karl and Jeb track her down and she has to leave town immediately. She hops the next train out, which happens to be a train full of circus performers. Madame Panoramia (Cecil Cunningham), the tattooed lady, sympathizes with Helga’s plight and helps her get a job with the circus as a dancer.
Helga changes her name to Susan Lenox and keeps in touch with Rodney, hoping to meet with him again. But when Karl and Jeb track her down, she has to start having an affair with the circus’ owner in exchange for helping her hide from them. Eventually, Susan and Rodney are reunited, but their happiness is short lived. Rodney finds out about Susan and the circus owner, but he doesn’t understand why she’s done it and leaves her.
A heartbroken Rodney falls into a deep depression while Susan goes from man to man, eventually winding up as the girlfriend of Mike Kelly (Hale Hamilton),a prominent but crooked politician. When Mike and Susan throw a fancy dinner party, Susan makes a point of inviting Rodney for the sole purpose of degrading him in front of all her high society friends. But in the end, it only makes her realize that she still loves him. She travels from city to city looking for him, taking any job she can get along the way. Eventually, she makes her way to South America where she meets up with Rodney again while singing in a bar. At first, Rodney is too drunk to be open to reconciling the way she wants to. But when he sobers up the next day, he and Susan are finally able to put the past behind them once and for all.
If you like melodrama, you’re in luck because Susan Lenox has got melodrama to spare! Considering this was an adaptation of a nearly six hundred page book by David Graham Phillips, it’s safe to say that the movie is an extremely condensed version of the story. The movie could have benefited from a slower pace, but Garbo is fantastic in it. Even though she and Gable didn’t get along off screen, they worked pretty well together on screen.
Susan Lenox also features some very beautiful, atmospheric cinematography. Some of the scenes in the beginning of the movie look straight out of a German expressionist film. I’d say this is one of Garbo’s more underrated films. It’s not in the same league as Queen Christina or Ninotchka, but it is still a pretty enjoyable movie.