A middle-age Dick Powell, perhaps still on the fence about ridding himself of the career-altering pall from playing Philip Marlowe in Murder My Sweet (1944) and even more cynical screenwriter, James Lee Bartlow in 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, returns to more familiar territory in Frank Tashlin’s fluffy but disposable, Susan Slept Here (1954); a cordial, if slightly creaky and quaint romantic comedy about a tart-mouthed and womanizing screenwriter, Mark Christopher (Powell), who unexpectedly becomes paternal towards – then amorously interested in – an underage delinquent left in his care by the police over the Christmas holidays. Susan Slept Here hails from a period when good writing had more to do with the implication of thought and deed rather than the graphic illustration of either. For some, the comedy may seem rigidly structured around a singular plot point; one that nevertheless effectively building on a hilarious case of misdirection, destined to keep the curmudgeonly Christopher from making a cataclysmic misfire in his adult relationship with thrice divorced, peroxide plaything, Isabella Alexander (Ann Francis) by becoming even more naively entangled with the perky minor, Susan Beaurgard Landis (Debbie Reynolds). The shtick is thick; its pseudo-intellectual/sexual double entendre, rich, clever and, at intervals, charming.
Observing the dapper Dick Powell in all his refinements as an actor, never mind looking fairly youthful at the age of 46 (pretending to be 35), it is difficult, if not entirely heart-breaking, to reconsider he had barely less than a decade of life left to live; dead at the age of 58 in 1963 from lung cancer. Powell’s perennial prowess both in front of and behind the camera, knowing his way around such slickly packaged dramedy, has been somewhat overlooked in the decades since his passing. If he is remembered at all today, it is generally for his contributions alongside Ruby Keeler as the winsome male ingénue and crooner in a series of Busby Berkeley musicals over at Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s. He really ought to be celebrated as a more versatile and consummate professional; driven by an uncanny knack for recognizing when one trend was dying and another on the cusp of re-launching his sagging prospects; seemingly with effortless aplomb, eschewing the trappings of a light musical/comedy star to take on the heavy-hitting arcs of suspense, action and drama, before becoming a prominent director/producer in the then new-fangled medium of television.
The other talent to be extolled herein is undeniably a natural: Debbie Reynolds. There seems to be an exquisite disconnect between the devout Nazarene who, despite numerable setbacks in her private life (including a very messy public scandal involving first husband, Eddie Fisher’s extramarital affair with her best friend, Elizabeth Taylor), not to mention subsequent romantic misfires that have left her destitute but with the elasticity of a rubber band, capable of incalculable ‘comebacks’; Reynolds not only has endured, but thrived for 83 glorious years, apparently without a kernel of bitterness left behind from these aforementioned hardships; one of golden-age Hollywood’s truly iconic personages and an ardent proponent of old-time Hollywood glamor, who single-handedly amassed an enviable collection of its memorabilia (buying up everything she could afford), only to be forced to auction it all off after the failure of her Vegas casino/museum. Reynold is the gregarious, multi-talented extrovert of stage and screen who, by her own admission, has suffered for her art from the chronic condition of ‘stage love’. Above all else, she remains a superb raconteur, a sublime comedian, a vivid storyteller and a great lady to be admired. So it is perhaps not all that surprising to find her an absolute gem as the blue-jeans bon vivant of this piece, more hamburgers than hot cars in Susan Slept Here; completely oblivious as to how, at least at a glance, her overnight layover in a bachelor’s pad might be misconstrued by his more worldly – if not more intellectually sophisticated – paramour, as something tawdry.
Susan Slept Here is really a no-nothing toss away entertainment. But the cache brought to it by Powell and Reynolds is enough to make it click as it should. Ah me, star power. How I do miss it. There is not a talent working in movies today to pull off such a nonsensical May/December romance and make it seem anything more or better than cheaply silly. But Reynolds is the linchpin here; vivacious to a fault and as hilarious as she foists her wide-eyed innocence on the more worldly Christopher, outwardly at home ogling shapely starlets poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Okay, it is a little difficult, if not damn near impossible to think of Reynolds as a motherless juvie in need of fatherly firm-handed guidance, and even more of a stretch to imagine Dick Powell as any teenage girl’s dreamboat in a decade populated by the likes of Fabian, Ricky Nelson, Tab Hunter and Bobby Rydell. But Reynolds is a superb actress – something she is rarely given credit for – and one of golden-age Hollywood’s greatest alumni to weather the storm of changing times and tastes. Her joyousness and determination invested in the hunt to win herself a man is what keeps Susan Slept Here from devolving into abject treacle, despite director, Frank Tashlin’s best efforts to submarine this glossy confection with an extended pantomime; a decidedly bad ‘dream sequence’ in the penultimate moments of the picture’s third act. Powell, looking uncomfortably effete in a pink and blue sailor’s suit is pursued by Anne Francis’ spider woman – literally, spinning her web to ensnare him, with Reynold’s naïve young Miss, unschooled and left swinging from a perch in an over-sized birdcage.
Susan Slept Here is very much a byproduct of the fifties sexual stereotyping of women. According these precepts, the ‘good girl’ is chaste; the bad girl…well…less so. Intriguing to see Anne Francis as the viper, considering how effective she would be just a few short years later donning the decidedly skimpy apparel of doe-eyed and pure-as-the-driven-snow, Altaira Morbeus in 1954’s Forbidden Planet. But herein, Francis is delectable as the sinfully impatient and smoldering Isabella. She really is more Christopher’s speed than Susan and he knows it. Perhaps that is part of the problem. Mark needs reforming – desperately – having thrown his heart into the ring on one too many times and had it trampled upon until Susan unexpectedly waltzed – or rather, stampeded - into his ersatz pad of 50’s chichi high-life, typified by the plush shag in his living room, a breathtaking view of the glittery Los Angeles skyline, an art deco Christmas tree (pilfered from the set of 1942’s Holiday Inn – or so it would appear) and a Best Screenplay Oscar staring back at him from his stonewall mantle fireplace. Difficult to say what AMPAS was thinking, affording their coveted gold guy the honorary post of serving as narrator to this rather sordid and sorry little comedy. In more recent years the Academy has become extremely territorial about loaning Oscar out for any guest appearances other than his annual night of a thousand stars. But here he is, regal and immaculate, and, as voiced by Ken Carpenter, pointedly glib and condescending about the way Mark lives his life. Poor Mark – pity the rich, but thoroughly miserable – Hollywood screenwriter, having lost his muse and superficially, his talents to ever win a mate – or at least, bookend – for Oscar, who solitarily adorns as the centerpiece of Mark’s moneyed accoutrements.
Our story opens with Oscar’s contemplations; woeful and comedic, telling of how fame, fortune and the pursuit of glory have gone to the head of his owner, Mark Christopher. Mark’s not a bad egg, nor even much of an egotist. But he has made more than his share of blunders in life; wild and wooly times with any number of gold-digging starlets. His personal secretary, Maude Snodgrass (Glenda Farrell) is getting rather tired of typing out the drivel Mark’s been churning out since winning Oscar for writing ‘reel’ art. Maude is a tough ole bird; a sort of clear-eyed madcap lurking beneath the façade of a gin-soaked and slightly embittered cougar who despises “all gorgeous women with gorgeous figures…especially when they’re gorgeous!” Maude doesn’t think much of Mark’s buddy, Virgil (Alvy Moore) either, referring to the crewcut and scrawny one-time war hero and Mark’s superior/now his gofer as ‘Junior’. Virgil and Mark were in the navy together – best pals. Virgil actually saved Mark’s life so Mark naturally feels he owes him something. Alas, the road paved with good intensions…well….along the way, Virgil has lost his self-respect. After all, there is not much Mark wants that he cannot procure all by himself, leaving Virg’ to skulk around the posh apartment, soaking up, but turning green from the afterglow of limelight. What should we call him…kept man? More like ‘house boy’ with a wicked slant on life of the rich and superficial in Hollywood; those dumb enough to think they have caught the proverbial tiger by its tail.
In this case, Mark had better watch out for the claws of his latest paramour; the slinky, Isabella Alexander – a senator’s daughter. She’s a knockout and perhaps not above knocking Mark on his celebrated assets in the process. It wouldn’t be hard. Mark quit his high-priced and steady studio gig to become a ‘serious writer’. One problem; he hasn’t suffered; ergo, he isn’t cut out for write the great American masterpiece. Neither is Isabella: just a girl who wants to settle down, or rather, calculatedly wrap herself in a money-lined mink or two as the very rich wife of a one-time highly successful screenwriter. Too bad for Mark, only his maid, Georgette (Maidie Norman) is in his corner. Worse, Mark’s big plans to spend a romantic Christmas getaway with Isabella are repeatedly foiled, after Sergeants Monty Maizel (Horace McMahon) and Sam Hanlon (Herb Vigran) saddlebag him with custodianship of an annoying teenager. It really is Mark’s own fault, having once told Sam he was planning a hard-edged exposé on juvenile delinquency. One problem – Mark knows nothing about delinquents…well, nothing he can commit to paper without incriminating himself – and nothing to hint of a whiff of truth since he has pretty much forgotten what it is like to be young. Mark just wants to be left alone. Too bad, Sam preys on his pity. Susan Beauregard Landis is about to be carted off to a detention home for wayward youth. Alas, it’s Christmas and the bedding arrangements are all full up. Sue could spend a few days in county lockup or she could live large in Mark’s penthouse.
Why any self-respecting bachelor – even a proverbial nice guy like Mark – would entertain such an idiotic and preposterous arrangement is, frankly, beyond me. And Susan’s initial mistrust of all men in general, and our Mark in particular, does little to ingratiate her to him. In fact, from the get-go Mark realizes what a colossal mistake he has made in wanting to be the Good Samaritan. Susan is determined not to like Mark. But she is as determined to make it big as an actress. Mark has no time to debate these finer points. Unable to reach Maude, Mark instead elects to dump Susan off at a motel and find Maude later. Maybe she can look after Susan for the holidays. Alas, the hotel manager misconstrues Mark’s intentions in wanting to rent a seventeen year old kid a room ‘for the night’. And so, it’s back to Mark’s place; Susan inadvertently incurring Isabella’s ire when she answers Mark’s phone and gives every innocent indication of being ‘the other women’ in Mark’s life. Meanwhile, Mark has begun to warm to Susan in unexpected ways. He’s paternal, at first, calling upon his personal attorney, Harvey Butterworth (Les Tremayne) to find a loophole in the law that will set Susan free. But where and why?
For all intent and purposes, Susan is an orphan. Oh, she has a mother still alive – that much is true; but living her own life in Peru, having married rich and given her written consent for Susan to marry whoever and whenever she so desires. It doesn’t take Sue long to set her cap for Mark; a very bad case of puppy love at first sight. Anyone can see that? Or can they? Although professing no affection for the girl, Mark nevertheless allows himself to be swayed, arguably by compassion. After all, the cops cannot arrest a ‘married woman’ for vagrancy. So, Mark agrees to marry Susan in Vegas against the strenuous objections of his high-powered mouthpiece. She takes the vows seriously. He doesn’t, electing to dance Susan’s feet off until the wee hours of dawn, then drive her all the way back to Los Angeles, deposit her on his bed, before telling Virgil and Georgette to take good care of Susan while he is away. Where is Mark going? To his private cabin in Tahoe – a real writer’s retreat, where he hopes to finish his ‘serious’ story. But before too long Mark begins to realize he is also in love with Susan. Too bad for Mark, Isabella is not yet willing to let him go. And so, the tug-o-war begins for Mark’s affections.
Susan is not easily dissuaded, not after Maude gives her a good piece of her mind; laying down the rules of engagement for a knockdown drag-out battle of the sexes. Fast learner, our Sue. After a fitful dream, in which Susan envisions Mark, dressed rather effetely, being seduced by a spider woman while she remains trapped inside a gilded bird cage, separated from the man she seemingly cannot live without, Susan awakens with a newfound resolve. She confronts Virgil and hits hard below the belt: “You? Who needs you? Mark? You know what you are, with your crewcut and fancy sailor talk? You’re nothing! Well, maybe you’re okay with the phony position he’s created for you but I won’t be a phony wife!” Virgil does his best to have Sue see to reason, calling her into Harvey’s office to quietly begin the annulment proceedings. But Susan is a lot slicker than the men give her credit; ever the sophisticate about matters of the heart vs. a tabloid headline.
No, if Mark wants to marry Isabella he will have to divorce her and that is final. Seeing Susan in the commissary, eating cream, pickles and strawberries, Harvey forgets she is a teenager and begins to suspect that maybe Mark’s version of their platonic honeymoon was not the whole truth. The miscommunication continues as Harvey relays this news to Mark and he begins to suspect Virgil has been taking advantage of Susan behind his back. The two men come to blows and Virgil takes it upon himself to walk out on Mark and his cushy setup. It’s the navy for Virgil. Meanwhile, Isabella has had quite enough of the enterprising young Mrs. Christopher. Interestingly, Mark too has had his fill – not of Susan – but Isabella. The senator’s daughter is out and Susan is decidedly in. As his last bit of duty to his former employer, Virgil explains the obvious to both Mark and his new bride; they are the perfect pair, leaving Mark and Susan to discover the depth of their affections in private. They do and in his penultimate moment of farewell, Virgil, now looking rather dashing in his naval officer’s gear, gets a wolfish whistle from Marilyn (Mara Lane); one of Mark’s sexy neighbors who previously would not even give him the time of day much less a come hither glance. It’s all for not, since Virg’ has to return to his ship or be court-martialed. Predictably, all ends happily for Mark and Susan, swinging together in the gilded cage of her fantasy, now a reality for the burgeoning love birds.
Susan Slept Here is a rather obtuse comedy with a few anomalies that bear mentioning. The froth is thick, though only occasionally dreamy. Director, Frank Tashlin makes several miscalculations in translating Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb's stage hit to the big screen. The worst of the lot is the dream sequence; pointless and visually absurd, with Dick Powell looking as though he has only just escaped a gay fashionista’s pride parade float, wearing costume designer, Michael Woulfe’s glittery pink and royal blue sailor’s suit and sequined cap. Remember, this is supposed to be a young girl’s fantasy about her perfectly idealized, attractive and strapping middle-age guy toward whom she has developed a healthy sexual attraction. But it is difficult if not impossible to see beyond Woulfe’s homoerotic camouflage; the sultry Anne Francis intermittently bedecked in smoldering hot outfits contrasted with the checkered-print calico top and satiny stretch pants worn by Debbie Reynolds – who very much looks the part of a tomboyish little girl by contrast. Dick Powell doesn’t really do himself any favors in this plot-less pantomime either; half sashaying about as though he were back on the set of one of those glorious Busby Berkeley musicals, unable to decide whether to work against the clothes he has been given to wear or merely dive headstrong into his pretty boy’s lampoon of masculinity.
Early in the film, Tashlin offers us an even more uncanny homoerotic exchange between Mark and Virgil; a conversation between the boys while one is taking a shower! Here, we get an overall disquieting sense of too much familiarity. Oh sure, the boys were in the navy together so I suppose it stands to reason they showered together without any concern as to what might occur if either one of them dropped the soap. But I don’t know too many heterosexual guy pals who would be nearly as comfortable in peace time discussing their plans for the evening while one – Virgil – has been thoroughly emasculated, and the other – Mark - casually struts back and forth wearing nothing but a towel; exiting his steamy glass shower (presumably, in the raw), donning an oversized bathrobe, and chatting away while Virgil follows him like a puppy around his bedroom suite, living vicariously through Mark’s extracurricular pursuits. We have transgressed beyond the usual bromantic chemistry; Mark socking Virgil in the eye later on, not so much to defend Susan’s honor, but rather jealously, for presumably betraying him with Susan in his absence. Draw your own conclusions, but Virgil has been missing out on this one-sided ‘friendship’; Mark content to keep his ole navy pal on a very short leash while flaunting his sexual prowess with the ladies right under Virg’s nose. Mark could have any woman he wants. That he settles on Susan Landis seems more like a beard worn for the convenience of the neighbors than a budding love affair.
I had hoped the Warner Archive (WAC) to be busy on some of Debbie Reynolds’ more memorable movies in hi-def: The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Two Weeks With Love, I Love Melvin or The Tender Trap. But no; WAC has shown an affinity for the oddities as well as the irrefutable gems in their deep catalog. Susan Slept Here is neither, though it arguably strains toward the former than the latter. While I could sincerely complain (but won’t) about the executive logic that has placed this movie ahead of some far more worthy contenders, I certainly have no gripes with the way WAC has been handling any of their hi-def releases on home video. This is another peerless example of what deep catalog mastering is all about – or rather, should be; WAC raising the bar ever higher with a flawless 1080p rendering in superb Eastman Color that looks almost as delicious as a vintage 3-strip Technicolor release.
Color reproduction is, in a word, superb. The palette favors a lot of candy-floss hues, faithfully reproduced. Flesh tones are startlingly genuine. Few ‘color’ releases from this particular vintage have looked this good so far on Blu-ray. Contrast is bang on and consistent. Prepare to be pleasantly startled by the amount of fine detail on display. This is a reference quality visual presentation of a just so-so movie. The mono DTS is almost as delicious; sonically rich in unexpected ways, particularly the bookended main and end titles; the chorus warbling the song, ‘Susan Slept Here’; all bounce and no substance, just like the movie – a flavorful panache that like candy floss, sticks to your heart, if not your ribs. No extras, alas – or perhaps, fittingly. I cannot imagine wanting to know anything more about Susan Slept Here after having seen it once. It’s fun but that’s about it. If you like fluff, you will positively adore this disc.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)