A rollicking, risqué and unfairly underrated Frank Tashlin comedy, 1954’s SUSAN SLEPT HERE gets its long-awaited Blu-Ray wake-up call, courtesy of the folks at the Warner Archive Collection.
Based on a rather obscure play by Alex Gottlieb and Steve Fisher, SUSAN SLEPT HERE gets a movie make-over via coauthor Gottlieb and liberal uncredited assist from director Tashlin. Make no mistake about it: this is a 100% live-action Looney Tune from frame one.
Zeroing in on some of Tashlin’s favorite targets, SUSAN SLEPT HERE primarily takes on Hollywood, but also American pop culture in general, specifically the era’s much feared juvenile delinquent problem and the damaging effect of comic books (a topic covered more thoroughly the following year in Tash’s classic Artists and Models). There’s also a nice swipe at teenagers and their psychiatrists, fast food, television and anatomical sex jokes (for a change, discussed and ribbed by the females rather than the locker room boy’s club) and much more.
Right off the bat you know it’s a Tashlin movie, as the picture is narrated by Oscar (not Levant, but an actual Academy Award); the trophy in question belongs to one Mark Christopher (Dick Powell), a past Academy-winning scenarist, deep in the throes of writer’s block. Worrying on how to keep supporting his BFF/go’fer/former commanding naval officer (Alvy Moore) and his faithful spinsterish assistant (Glenda Farrell), Christopher’s problems become compounded when an L.A. detective sergeant (Herb Vigran) and his partner (Horace McMahon) turn up on Christmas Eve with an unusual Yuletide gift: Susan (Debbie Reynolds), a rebellious teenager without a pause. It seems the flatfoot was a police consultant on a picture Christopher worked on, and remembers the scribe rhapsodizing about doing a j.d. drama. Susan is human research (and a way to keep the rambunctious lass out of the lockup for the holidays). It’s a whacky idea, since bachelor Powell is already imagining the tabloids reveling about the aging Hollywood wolf shacking up with a feisty, sexy 17-year-old teen (even though Susan proudly announces she’s on the cusp of being “legal”).
The real reason for Christopher’s writer’s block dilemma could be his toxic relationship with Isabella (a deliciously evil Anne Francis, in a rare comedic performance), a sexually voracious and ferocious man-eating, mean girl, rich bitch, determined to sink her claws into the famed author, forever conquering his rep as “not marriage material.”
Susan’s innocent telephone answering queries to a whipped-up Isabella provide a plethora of the pic’s double-entendre hilarity. Soon Susan learns to purposely spike her responses – sending the vampish competition into green-eyed frenzy. Meantime, a la Ray Milland in The Major and the Minor, Powell finds himself genuinely falling in love with the gamin (except, unlike the Wilder movie, this chick ain’t no full-grown woman in disguise). As the romance blossoms and seasonal visions of sugar-plum jail-bait flash through the minds of Moore, Farrell and Powell’s attorney (Les Tremayne), Francis plots revenge whilst Powell plots…well, plots (Susan’s refreshing budding sexuality frees his writer’s block, and he’s off to a cabin with Farrell to flesh out a new script).
There’s so much great stuff in this movie that it’s hard to even begin to cite its merits. Visually, it’s the ultimate Technicolor live cartoon, using popping, richly saturated colors (as envisioned by Tashlin and the terrific RKO d.p. Nicholas Musuraca). There’s even a fantasy nightmare sequence of Susan and Mark stalked by the seductive Feuillade-esque Isabella (decked out in a skin-tight spider costume), again pre-figuring imagery from Artists and Models.
The spinster Farrell character also is a run-through for Joan Blondell’s wise-cracking Vi in Tashlin’s 1957 adaptation of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? It must be noted that even though Farrell is playing the matronly veteran, she and Powell were both youngsters at pre-Code Warners in the early 1930s (and were actually the same age, 50 – Farrell’s character plays it that way, while Powell’s is supposed to be 35); in fact, Farrell and Blondell often appeared as snarky teammates in Warners pre-Code comedies (leave us not also forget that Blondell was Powell’s first wife, whom he left for the “barely legal” June Allyson. Who says art don’t imitate life? Not I!).
There are other real-life/reel life comparisons. Powell’s character’s early work consisted of writing Fred Astaire vehicles and other musicals (Dance, Girlie, Dance – a goof on RKO’s Dance, Girl, Dance) – projects he hoped would allow him to eventually spread his wings and move into writing tough noirish thrillers. Powell’s diminishing candle-power in the early 1940s as a crooner was saved by his turn as Phillip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, which propelled him into A-list territory.
There’s a wonderful sequence where Reynolds watches home movies of Powell and Francis at play, particularly when Francis mounts a horse and Reynolds responds by using her hands and arms to estimate (and exaggerate) the size of her formidable rear-end. It’s a Tashlin trademark – verbally and physically reacting to inanimate objects (Susan’s initial inspiration for Mark’s regaining his scribbling prowess comes from another gag, using the Academy member’s Oscar to crack nuts).
And speaking of verbally, it’s amazing that some of the dialog got past the censors. In a still eyebrow-raising moment, Susan ponders the authenticity of Isabella being a real blonde. Christopher energetically responds that she’s “a natural blonde!” Susan looks at him, suspiciously, and Powell adds “We’re very good friends.” With increasing shock Susan stares at her temporary guardian who gets in deeper with a lame, “She told me.”
But it was the salacious title and ads (Reynolds joyously spread out in Powell’s bed adorned in his p.j.s) that got SUSAN SLEPT HERE a condemnation rating from the increasingly unimportant Catholic Legion of Decency. Nevertheless the picture garnered a number of Academy Award nominations, including Best Sound Recording and Best Song and WGA’s Best Written American Comedy. Most prominently, the ditty in question “Hold My Hand,” as majestically warbled by Don Cornell, became a Top Ten Hit, and remains an easy-listening standard to this day.
More relevantly to RKO, SUSAN SLEPT HERE, made rather modestly on the Radio backlot, became the studio’s most profitable movie of 1954, bringing incredibly impressive rentals nearing six million dollars (from a time where one million five was considered blockbuster for a fairly medium-budget entry). It enabled the Howard Hughes-plagued company to linger on for another few years, and likely was part of a deal the billionaire made with Powell for him to direct one of their most opulent productions, The Conqueror (SUSAN SLEPT HERE would be Powell’s last big-screen appearance). Budget-wise, the picture was pared down from its lofty attempt to repeat Radio’s Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer box-office with the male lead offered to Cary Grant, who turned it down (with the Alvy Moore role tossed to Mickey Rooney, who, mercifully, did the same). Unquestionably, some of the movie’s big success undoubtedly came from producer Harriet Parsons’ clout with her mom Louella to do a funny audio guest cameo (as well as heavily promoting SUSAN in print and on radio).
Reynolds and Francis, both on-loan from MGM, are sensational in this flick (it still remains one of Reynolds’ personal favorites; she would later appear in Tashlin’s lesser effort, 1959’s Say One for Me). Surprisingly, this Christmas-themed title was (for reasons unknown) released on Bastille Day (July 14th), one of those freakish Hollywood instances where being in the wrong place at the right time works. And woik it does; indeed, many of the situations and antics in SUSAN SLEPT HERE would resurface in Tashlin’s Bachelor Flat, a 1962 CinemaScope offering that I also consider to be an underrated gem.
The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of SUSAN SLEPT HERE is truly spectacular – crystal-clear, practically bubbling with ebullient Technicolor widescreen compositions that accurately resemble the original release prints. Rumors persist that the picture was lensed in 3D, but I can find no evidence to substantiate that; this is a shame, as the stereo-optic process would have been a natural for Tashlin to simultaneously master and parody.
While I have nothing against the many versions of A Christmas Carol, the Capra’s ubiquitous seasonal It’s a Wonderful Life or the Bing Crosby annual roll-outs of Holiday Inn and White Christmas, I am determined to offer up as many alternative December must-see titles as possible. To this goal, SUSAN SLEPT HERE, thus, joins my last year pick of The Wild Affair (https://supervistaramacolorscope.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/mad-men-and-mod-women/). Of course, one can take whatever I say with a grain of salt, as my late, great pal Ric Menello and I also pegged Night Train Murders as a ho-ho-ho essential.
SUSAN SLEPT HERE. Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection. CAT # 1000586557. SRP: $21.99.
Available exclusively through the Warner Archive Collection: www.warnerarchive.com.