Susan Slept Here
Susan Slept Here is a glorious bath of Technicolor about a 35-year-old Oscar-winning screenwriter (played by Dick Powell) whose Christmas Eve includes a couple of cops delivering him a 17-year-old delinquent (Debbie Reynolds). She’s the Susan of the title, she does indeed sleep there, and they even end up driving over to Las Vegas on Christmas day for an elopement. It’s almost curious that Hollywood in the 1950s is considered to have been a conservative period for the movies, yet here was director Frank Tashlin slyly making a film that repeatedly alludes to the idea of Powell, who was actually about 49 during filming what turned out to be his last movie, having sex with the underage Reynolds, who would have been 21 in real life.
It’s easy to marvel at Tashlin’s audacity but perhaps the more salient point is that Susan Slept Here resists the temptation to take on any sort of overtly naughty or salacious tone. There are winks, as there must be, but many of these actually defuse the situation. The film is really not a traditional sex comedy despite the idea, or the potential, of sex propelling a good deal of what’s going on in the plot and among the characters. In this regard, it’s similar to Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, where the notion of Tony Randall and Jayne Mansfield ever physically coupling seems not only absurd but perverse, and yet somehow still possible in the fantasy world created by the movie. The contrast of appearances between Randall and Mansfield makes their supposed romance that much more intriguing to the public and, in turn, viewers of the film. In Susan Slept Here, it’s less the age difference that creates the suspension of disbelief giggles than the fact that Reynolds’ Susan is a minor.
It would seem, too, that Powell’s Mark Christopher would have little reason to become so attached to Susan. He’s marriage-phobic but does have a girlfriend in Anne Francis who looks like a Barbie doll and is the daughter of a senator. One of those many potentially risque (or maybe it’s just me) lines in the film has Powell confirming that Francis’ character Isabella is a natural blonde. “We’re very good friends. (pause) She told me.” He seems to initially feel sorry for Susan since she’s potentially looking at spending six months on a prison farm. Hence their eloping and the planned annulment which he conveniently keeps from her. So while he’s off writing a screenplay based on her situation as a delinquent in a snowy cabin at an undisclosed location, she’s living in his apartment and bettering herself for two months. It’s horse riding in the morning and golf in the afternoon for Susan, who has sincerely fallen for Mark and now wants to show she can do everything that Isabella can.
In the process, Reynolds seems to transform from a cute kid to a rather alluring and even sexy young woman. Susan’s choice of dress changes, as do parts of her personality. When she learns of the annulment and its basic conditions, her resolve is maybe more than a little shocking. Tashlin mixes this in as smoothly as possible and seems to trust his audience at all times. What could the censors have thought about this? A sequence later where it’s made clear, though cleverly so, that Mark’s lawyer believes Susan to be pregnant is handled about as well, and with as much humor, as one could possibly imagine given the situation. The film’s final, meaningful scene again returns the topic to sex, but in a rather smart, adult way. It’s not difficult to find the deeply unrealistic male fantasy element here, also serving as potential garlic to staunch feminists. That’s representative of Tashlin, though, and many a director and many an animator. Regardless of any potential chauvinistic quality, the various sight gags and verbal jokes employed across Tashlin’s career are immeasurably smarter and more enjoyable now than the current policy of simply showing all of those things that were forbidden during his time by the censors.
Cleaner comedy, too, was offered up by Tashlin. In a stroke of wicked genius by someone, whether it was the director or the film’s credited screenwriter Alex Gottlieb or his co-author of the source play Steve Fisher, an Academy Award statuette narrates the film. Oscar, as he’s called, doesn’t burden the movie with excess chitchat but he does very humorously set up the warmly mocking tone aimed at Hollywood from the beginning. He also serves as a hilarious prop for the clueless Susan to try to crack open a nut. What part of the award does she use? Its head, of course. Mark’s secretary Maude, played by Glenda Farrell (the former Torchy Blane hardly looking like her most famous character) is also good for a few alcohol-soaked laughs and doses of common sense. She’s joined late in the film by Red Skelton, in a silent cameo, that prefigures a similar bit in Rock Hunter involving Groucho Marx.
Though Tashlin wasn’t yet working in Scope on this film, his mastery of color and the general visual impact within the frame is evident here much as it would be on Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? three years later. The former animator included less purely visual gags on Susan Slept Here but what he did come up with, like the placement of the Navy anchor on Mark’s friend Virgil (Alvy Moore), is typically brilliant, if subtle. The hues are dazzling also, throughout the movie but especially in a strange musical dream sequence that, despite the presence of two great stars of the genre in Powell and Reynolds, comes out of nowhere in terms of the plot. Vincente Minnelli deservedly gets a lot of credit for his use of color but Tashlin is right there too. His star is simply not as high, and his career was much shorter. Frank Tashlin was one of the best of the fifties Hollywood directors both at working with color and at directing comedy. His smart but zany style of the latter plays today like a natural continuation of the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties.
Susan Slept Here is not strictly a Christmas movie, playing well at any time of the year, but parts of it do take place then so it made sense for the Warner Archive to trot out its DVD-R this past holiday season. Of note, the picture was made for RKO so Warner Bros. does not control the rights to the film in every country, leaving open the possibility for a pressed disc in R2.
The Archive’s single-layered disc sports a progressive transfer in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. It’s enhanced for widescreen televisions. The colors are generally tight enough to avoid quibbling and really quite nice to look at on the whole. Good marks for that. The “Remastered” label attached to this release makes me wonder what criteria Warner Home Video was using because plenty of speckles, an instance of a visible scratch going the length of the frame, and a few other damage marks are all clearly still here. Maybe these are simply indicative of a lack of significant restoration. Regardless, I do want to emphasize that Susan Slept Here looks more than fine for my standards. It’s slightly soft, with definite grain, but I was happy with the presentation.
Audio is, as expected, an English mono track spread across two channels. I heard a few pops and some crackle and hiss. This isn’t perfect but it too allows the film to be enjoyed at one’s leisure. The somewhat painful reality of most made-on-demand discs is that we’re paying for convenience more than ever. Rather than the studios fixing up product and adding enticing bonus material the newest model is to offer varying degrees of quality with far less care overall, from a technical standpoint. Alas, no subtitles.
There is a trailer at least. It’s in 1.33:1 and looks far worse than the film, with smeared colors.