Susan Slept Here (1954)
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The two leads are exceptional. This was Powell's last movie. After it, he retired to television, although I only call it retirement as a movie snob; he was enormously, enormously successful in the new medium. He's more or less the straight man here. He has a particularly great scene where he watches a 20 year-old movie for which he wrote the dialogue on television. As the actors speak their horrendous dialogue, we watch Powell as he mouths their words, both a man's and a woman's (it's a break-up scene), with an embarrassed look in his eyes. If Powell is good, Reynolds is masterful. She's such an odd actress, not conventional in any way. She had her own niche in Hollywood. Her acting is doll-like with its jerky movements and huge facial expressions. That isn't a criticism whatsoever. I have never seen her in a straight drama (the closest is How the West Was Won); I'd imagine she acts differently, or she never made one. In comedies like this and Singin' in the Rain, she's absolutely perfect. There is not a moment when she's on screen during which I was not laughing myself to tears. The film also has one of the greatest supporting casts ever. Anne Francis I've already mentioned. I very much appreciate the fact that the writers didn't make her character abominable; Susan Slept Here, although it's not a musical, is very much a direct descendent of An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain. One criticism I have of Singin' is that Jean Hagan's villain is too cartoonish (or at least I would have that criticism if Hagan weren't so damn funny in that movie). Francis in SSH is played sympathetically for the most part. Glenda Farrell plays Mark's secretary, Maude, an alcoholic who answers the telephone on Christmas morning: "You talk, I can't." Alvy Moore is Mark's friend and assistant, Virgil, who can crack wise with the best of them. Horace McMahon and Herb Vigran play the two cops, and Les Tremayne plays Mark's lawyer, who is obsessive about his therapy sessions. Red Skeleton has a wordless but amusing cameo as Maude's teenage sweetheart. 10/10.
Anyway, Powell is appropriately dour as the sober-sided screenwriter, while Glenda Farrell gets the kind of caustic role that would later suit Thelma Ritter to the proverbial T. And, of course, there's Alvy Moore looking like a college freshman and getting all the clever wisecracks, even if in real life he was a veteran of the bloody WWII battle for Iwo Jima! Too bad Anne Francis doesn't get more screen time as "the other woman". But then she does show why she deserved that drop-dead sexy outfit she wore in Forbidden Planet (1956). Cult director Tashlin manages a few of trademark effects from his cartoonist past--- note Reynolds cooling off her libido with a swinging freezer door, and, of course, the fantasy sequences that fit in perfectly.
All in all, I think RKO got away with one-- had the movie been handled less deftly, someone might have landed in 1954's county clink.
In the 1950s several films (two by Billy Wilder) had successful marriages between young women and middle aged men. Wilder's two films were SABRINA (where Audrey Hepburn falls for Humphrey Bogart) and LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (where Hepburn fell for Gary Cooper). Hepburn also was paired in FUNNY FACE with Fred Astaire. Astaire was also in the movie DADDY LONG LEGS with Leslie Caron as his ward turned lover. Caron would also be in GIGI where her little girl is paired off with a slightly older Louis Jourdan.
And there was SUSAN SLEPT HERE, Frank Tashlin's second feature film comedy, starring Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds. The difference in ages is mentioned - Debbie Reynolds is supposed to be 17 (she was 21 at the time), but Powell is supposed to be roughly 20 years older. He is supposed to have been an early Oscar winner (for screenplay) and to have served in the navy with his friend Virgil (Alvy Moore), who was his superior officer. It is possible if Powell was 55 to concede this, but he is supposed to be about 43 or so. He just looks too old. But despite this the film does work. It has good lines in it (particularly some zingers used by Glenda Farrell at her favorite target Anne Francis, and by Les Tremayne as Powell's overwrought and overworked attorney).
Powell is a successful if jaded screenwriter who is dating Anne Francis, a snobbish Senator's daughter. On Christmas Eve he is visited by two members of the L.A. Vice Squad (Herb Vigran and Horace MacNally) who have a "gift" to drop off. Vigran had been an adviser on a film script that Powell worked on, and the latter made the mistake of mumbling an idea about having a day or so talk with a genuine juvenile delinquent about his lifestyle). Of course the problem is he meant a male juvenile delinquent.
Vigran (in what is really the only weakness of the story) has arrested Debbie Reynolds in a brawl with some military police, but has not reported it yet. He thinks she'd be perfect to give to Powell for his research over Christmas Day (Vigran eventually pays for this stupidity and it's outcome by getting demoted - he's lucky, in real life he might get arrested and charged with pimping). The plan is for Debbie to be "rearrested" on December 26th, and thus to act as though nothing wrong was done.
Powell is not pleased with this - he can't depend on his secretary Farrell, nor on Moore (who quickly takes a powder). He tries to work around the "Susan" problem, but no matter what he tries it blows up in his face. Worse, Reynolds answers the phone by habit, and Francis discovers that her boy friend has an underage girl in his house.
Slowly, however, Powell and Reynolds settle down and learn about each other's life. It turns out Reynolds mother is out of the U.S. with her second husband (a man Reynolds thinks was a better choice than the first husband, who was her own father). The mother is one of these modern types, and has left a note of consent for whomever Reynolds meets whom she may wish to marry. Powell finds that she is a feisty and independent young woman, and he finds himself falling for her. But when Moore learns that they shared Powell's apartment for the night, he drags Powell's lawyer Tremayne into it. Tremayne starts planning damage control to prevent a scandal or worse* But the detectives return to pick up Reynolds (Vigran's Sergeant is not very understanding about what they did - really hard to understand that reaction!!).
(*Having sexual relations with any underage child or girl is always treated quite harshly in the U.S., but California had a really heavy reputation in this area back in the 1920s - 1960s because of the Hollywood crowd. In the Marx Brothers' 1940 comedy GO WEST, Groucho's name of "S. Quentin Quayle" was based on the term "San Quentin quail" which was about under-aged, but attractive girls who got men into serious trouble when arrested. The trial of Errol Flynn for rape in 1944 was worse because the two victims were teenage girls. I may remind you also of the still odd situation involving director Roman Polanski today concerning a statutory rape charge from California.)
Powell flees with Reynolds to Las Vegas where they can get legally married despite her age. He reasons that they can remain married for a few months (while he is working in Sun Valley on a screenplay) and she can then get the marriage annulled, while he finds her a job. But Reynolds is determined to prove herself a good wife. And Powell is not all that sure if he wants her to cease being his wife - especially after Tremayne sees evidence that she may be pregnant.
The wit in the script is hard to describe - it ranges from comments like Farrell momentarily thinking Reynolds has arrived in Sun Valley, and welcoming her with a "Come to momma", but finding it is Francis (whom she loathes) and saying, "Oh, Dracula's daughter!", to Tremayne having a session with his psychiatrist interrupted by an angry Powell, and letting Powell take over his session as Tremayne can bill him for it later). The acting is good. Anyone who thinks of Moore only as "Hank Kimble" on GREEN ACRES should see his rather thoughtful Virgil, who gets an emotional slap-in-the-face from Reynolds that makes him rethink himself carefully. All in all it is far better than one would have thought - given the one blunder in the screenplay that I mentioned.
Under the direction of Frank Tashlin, this movie, although reflecting a naivete not in synch with the present times, is good fun to watch. The film is done with an impeccable good taste and there is never anything tawdry, or out of place with what one is watching.
Dick Powell was at his best when he took the part of Mark Christopher a thirty-something man in the plot, but looking older than that. Debbie Reynolds, as Susan Landis, brought her winning personality and charm to this rebel girl that begins a total transformation as she discovers she is attracted to Mark.
The supporting cast is also up to task under Mr. Tashlin's guidance. Anne Francis is seen as Isabella, Mark's present love interest. Glenda Farrell, Horace McMahon, Herb Vigran and Alvy Moore, among others make this delightful film into a winner.
Mr. Tashlin includes a dance sequence that plays as a dream in which Mr. Powell, Ms. Francis and Ms. Reynolds are seen as the players. The film is festive and it will delight any viewer looking for an easy time at the movies.
However, what we have is Reynolds as a teenage delinquent foisted on the well-meaning Powell, a writer, at Christmas. He wants inspiration for his writing, she wants a sugar daddy. Guess how this one ends up?
One thing I did especially like were the dream sequences, involving cages and spiders and all kinds of things, in lurid pinks. Where was Tashlin's mind going here? Fun stuff throughout, however, with a sparkling performance from Reynolds.
The ick factor I talked about before is the marriage in name only of middle-aged Mark to 17 year old Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) who is left on Mark's doorstep by the police of all people, because one of the detectives thinks Susan would be good research for a serious script by Mark, and plus the detective doesn't want to put her in jail on Christmas Eve. The detective promises to return for her in two days. The marriage occurs because Susan will be booked on vagrancy without a visible means of support, so off they go to Vegas with Mark looking at this whole thing as a good deed to keep a basically good kid out of jail. However, Susan, the romantic, wants it to be something more. After the wedding Mark deposits Susan back in his Hollywood apartment while he goes off to an isolated spot - without Susan - to try and redeem the script he's been writing.
Susan and writer's block aren't Mark's only problems. He also has a rich girlfriend (Anne Francis) whom he seems to want to quit almost as much as the job at the studio he had writing fluff pieces but that paid well. It's hard to leave something behind that's comfortable and familiar for the unknown, even if it's slowly strangling you.
The funniest part of the movie is watching Susan, after she's legally married and living apart from Mark, trying to figured out how to win her man back. She tries everything from watching home movies of Mark's girlfriend and trying to imitate her moves and expressions to basting a turkey in an evening dress waiting for Mark to arrive for dinner, to memorizing how to make various mixed drinks. Then you have to wonder how much of this is love and how much of this is a teenage girl's natural curiosity about sex. Since Debbie Reynolds is just five years older than the part she's playing, she gives the role of Susan the realism of someone who is young enough to have recent memories of their teen years but is old enough to see the humor in them.
This thing works because it is the 50's, because it is Susan with all of the romantic and aggressive sexual impulses rather than Mark, and because of the excellent supporting players. The one thing that doesn't quite work here is Dick Powell as a 35 year old. He seems like he's playing a man quite a bit older and more beat down than one of 35 - Dick Powell was actually 50 at the time- and perhaps Mark is lying - to himself and to Susan - when he says that's how old he is.
This isn't a masterpiece, but it is a cute romantic comedy that works.
The cast was excellent. It was great to see Glenda Farrell in a more mature part. I love her brassy style. Dick Powell was pretty good too in, as someone else noted, his last film. Red Skelton was a surprise. He pops up for the blink of an eye and then disappears. Anne Francis was a knockout, as always. She dominated every scene and some of her lines had real zing. Thanks to TCM for running her out of circulation movies. The difference with Debbie Reynolds couldn't be more pronounced at all levels but I guess that was the point.
Then there's the dream sequence, one of the coolest fantasy segments I've seen in a long time. Francis appears as a spider woman, spinning her web around Powell while the child-woman, Reynolds, attempts to keep that from happening. Again, the difference between them couldn't be more pronounced. The tall, curvaceous Francis was like a cool drink on a hot summer day. Reynolds was no match. She couldn't hope to compete but gave it a good try anyway. Too spunky for my taste.
Bottom line, it's worth watching for the actors more than anything else. You shouldn't take the story too seriously and the lines sometimes get in the way when they're just plain silly. But hey, Anne Francis is in it, that alone is worth a look.
Frank Tashlin has done so many better films, I'm still not sure whatever possessed him to do this one. The premise is absolutely laughable.
Dick Powell is a screenwriter who's looking to do more serious stuff than the fluff he's been writing. He had an idea for a film on juvenile delinquency so two friendly cops in Herb Vigran and Horace McMahon deposit 17 year old Debbie Reynolds on his doorstep. She's not a really bad kid and they don't want to put her in the system. So they give her to Dick Powell at Christmas time.
I mean is there anyone out there who doesn't see a problem? The term jailbait comes immediately to mind. Additionally Powell has a girlfriend, the young and sexy Anne Francis. Why Debbie Reynolds is any competition here is beyond me.
Susan Slept Here got one Oscar nomination. The song Hold My Hand, sung by Don Cornell in the background, was nominated for best song, but lost to Secret Love.
Powell and Reynolds do have some funny moments together and Alvy Moore as Powell's factotum and Les Tremayne as his lawyer also get a few laughs.
But it's not enough.
She was almost still a kid yet could hold her own with the best of them such as in Singin' in the Rain.
And, she kept it up throughout her career to this day even in Behind the Candelabra.
I met her once at my job, not in show business, and she lit up the room as much as she does on the big screen.
An extraordinary woman who didn't always have it easy in her very public personal life. Yet, she always entertained us with her talent and not her personal issues as many actors have resorted to doing.
Who can not smile at the mention of her name? Susan Slept Here isn't really one of my favorite movies but Miss Reynolds is one of my favorite actresses and people.
She is just naturally one of the best.
**** Susan Slept Here (7/14/54) Frank Tashlin ~ Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis, Alvy Moore
"Remember you guys. She's underage." That line alone makes this one of the most awkward comedy setups ever and it made me chuckle. Honestly, there are a few jokes that made me laugh. The premise is completely unrealistic. I wonder if it's as awkward for a contemporary audience. This is very light and romantic which keeps clashing with the underage part. I kept repeating to myself that it's another era until the romance takes one step too far. Old timey morals can't excuse that. It's undeniable that Debbie Reynolds is adorable and I want to accept this for her. I would give this a pass if they didn't go that extra step.