Monday, December 24, 2012

On SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954)

It was love at first sight when my mother introduced me to Debbie Reynolds.  Debbie was an older woman.  Mainly because I was in grade school at the time.  I still recall the weekend afternoon when, to keep me occupied while she did household chores, Mom sat me down in front of the big boxy TV we had in the living room and had me watch Susan Slept Here on local Channel 9, an independent station in Southern California.  I was new to the skill of reading and was going to watch a Joan Fontaine movie with a title that I could and did read out loud:  "Born To Be Bad."  Mom looked at the TV listings and turned the channel.  "Here," Mom said.  "Watch Debbie Reynolds.  She's a good girl."  When two cops on Christmas Eve drag a female juvenile delinquent into the Hollywood apartment of an unemployed middle-aged Oscar-winning screenwriter, her scream is so loud and piercing that it shatters a bulb on his Christmas tree.  That was the girl for me.
She was the cutest tomboy horror ever to wear blue jeans and kick a cop.  Debbie was just adorable. And funny.  Is Susan Slept Here a comedy up there with the best of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks?  No.
Is it a Christmastime classic in the same category with It's A Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife or  Miracle on 34th Street?  Again, no.  But it is one of my favorite movies and watching it during the holiday season has long been an annual tradition for me.  I guess it's what you'd call "a guilty pleasure."  This is the kind of comedy that could be made in the days of Old Hollywood -- like Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor.  Here, a pretty and pretty tough local girl (who's really a good kid from a home where she was more the responsible mother type and the mother was more like another teen-ager) winds up in the custody of a Hollywood screenwriter the night before Christmas.  He's got writer's block and the cops think the troubled teen could give him ideas.  Not those kind of ideas.  Frankly, he'd rather have a dental appointment for a root canal than have Susan spend another minute in his home.  Tampering with her virtue is the farthest thing from his mind.  Besides, he's engaged to a senator's daughter.  Anne Francis played the overbearing, bad-tempered blonde with the hubba-hubba-hubba figure.
Isabella is one heavy piece o' furniture, so to speak.  You just know that marriage to her will be more work than fun.  Screen veteran Dick Powell stars as the likably jaded novelist and screenwriter, Mark Christopher.  By this time, Debbie Reynolds was a new 1950s musical comedy queen on the MGM lot, having triumphed in 1952's Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly.  Powell had been one of the 1930s kings of musical comedies, starring in Busby Berkeley movies for Warner Bros. and introducing many new songs that went on to become standards.  This was Dick Powell's last feature film before going on to great success as a TV producer and host.  It was his second film, besides Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful, in which he played a successful screenwriter.
Christopher is tired of writing light comedies and musicals.  He wants to write something heavy.  Like "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels.  When he discovers that this inconvenient teen on the verge of womanhood is really wise, mature and unselfish beyond her years, we know he'll fall in love with her even though he tries to resist.  The Susan Slept Here script is written in a way that keeps it from feeling creepy.  Plus we know the lead actors are really adults.  What I love about this comedy is the pace, the snappy dialogue, the chemistry of the stars and the energetic performance from Debbie Reynolds.  She's delightful. It's been written that Reynolds is one of the few women in Hollywood films who partnered onscreen with legendary dance stars Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse.  Well, in Susan Slept Here, Debbie Reynolds became the first and only Hollywood actor ever to use an Academy Award as a nutcracker onscreen.  And it's the only film in which an Oscar does the opening narration.
As a yuletide good deed, the screenwriter will marry the juvenile delinquent and make her legal.  This, of course, will make hot Hollywood gossip news but will not set well with the senator's daughter.  (I also fell in love with Anne Francis and her beauty mole.)
Susie, however, is happy.  She loves Mr. Christopher.  This makes room for a musical dream sequence that give Debbie most of the dance duty.  Smart move.
Dick Powell doesn't sing in it.  But it does have a nice nod to those 1930s Warner Bros. musicals with Ruby Keeler that put him in military uniform.
Even though the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned this movie solely because of its title, it's pretty tame stuff by today's standards -- as is most stuff deemed "objectionable" in 1950s films.  Sophisticatedly suggestive, but tame.
For me, another highlight of this comedy is one of Powell's former co-stars and fellow Warner Bros. contract players from those musicals of his.  Glenda Farrell is a hoot as Maude, his trusty and wise-cracking secretary/typist.  Maude never met a cocktail she didn't like.  She can't stand Isabella.  I wait for each one of her wisecracks.  Maude is a gal pal in a league with the best of the Eve Arden and Thelma Ritter sidekicks.  Glenda Farrell and Dick Powell starred in Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers of 1937.
Reynolds, then a newcomer, kept right up with those two seasoned pros  This may not be a classic comedy but it sure shines brighter than modern romantic comedies we've endured from Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Aniston.  When Susan views home movies of Mark and Isabella during their courtship, her facial reactions to vain Isabella break me up laughing every time.  Debbie's comic skills and charm are in full bloom here.
What luck when Mom switched me over from the Joan Fontaine film noir story to something fluffy with Debbie Reynolds.  And Mom actually sat, watched and laughed at it with me.  I'm glad she did.  She had to explain to me that Susan eating "strawberries and pickles" was something women might crave if they were pregnant.  The question is virginity is breezier and funnier here than in Otto Preminger's sluggish but popular 1953 comedy, The Moon Is Blue -- also condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.
In movies, often the worst thing that can happen in a writer's personal life at a certain time is the best thing that can happen to him artistically.  We know that Susan will romantically remove the writer's block from Mark Christopher's head and heart.
A sunny weekend afternoon in South Central Los Angeles.  Mother and son bonding over a Christmas comedy starring Debbie Reynolds.  When movie reviewers are asked to name their favorite films, they always give out with a high tone list and mention titles like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and deep dish works by Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa and Fellini.  Rarely do they mention mass market, feel-good entertainment.  Susan Slept Here is one of my favorite films.  That may not make me seem high-brow, but this picture always puts a smile on my face.  It brings back warm memories of spending time with my mother when  I was a youngster.  Debbie Reynolds was a great guest on my VH1 talk show in the late 80s.  When I told her that I'd been in love with her ever since I was a kid, I meant it.  In person, she didn't disappoint.  What a joy she was.  Susan Slept Here -- it's light.  It's funny.  It's colorful.  It's Christmas-y.  I'm thrilled my holiday "guilty pleasure" has finally made it to DVD.  Thank you, Warner Archive.  And Merry Christmas.






2 comments:

  1. You're not alone in your love of feel-good entertainment. Hollywood once could do it better than anyone else - thanks for posting!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I own the DVD. The movie is lame and I have to fast forward through most of it but I love its mid-century apartment and Christmas tree, so I always watch it over the Holidays..

    ReplyDelete

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