Susan Slept Here (Blu-ray Review)2 May, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis, Glenda Farrell, Alvy Moore.
The fourth Frank Tashlin comedy has always been regarded as being somewhat culturally disreputable, and maybe it even is — but the cradle-robbing here is from a more innocent era, and I’ve always had a sweet spot for what became the movie that made Dick Powell hang it up as a big-screen actor. Any defensive doubts I’ve harbored have been permanently wiped out by this spectacular Blu-ray, which I’d rank with Fox’s rendering of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as demonstration-disc material for anyone who wants to see what three-strip Technicolor meant to everyday screen escapism of the 1950s. This is one of the best-looking releases I’ve ever seen, and who knew (beyond his real-life wife June Allyson and his other friends/associates) that Powell had deep blue eyes after all those black-and-white Warners musicals and prime postwar film noirs?
Though he’d still make many subsequent TV appearances in his third career as big-screen filmmaker and TV production magnate, the onetime tenor turned noir giant came to think it would be a better idea to direct (The Conqueror?) and it’s never quite clear whether Powell’s May-December embarrassment here is his own or the character’s. Suspension of formidable disbelief is essential here: The actor is a looking-it 49 playing 35, while co-star Debbie Reynolds (borrowed by Howard Hughes’s RKO from MGM) is 21 playing 17. Juxtapose these romantic dynamics with the movie’s title, and the tendency is to come out with an “uh, oh” — and, indeed, the picture was considered racy enough in its day for the Chicago censors to have given it a nix (and this was a populace that had tolerated Al Capone). I can even remember a childhood friend of mine who attained a degree of what passed for suburban ’50s street cred because he’d managed to see Susan at age 7 at a drive-in with his parents.
Even without the director’s patented crazy-man color schemes (see also Artists and Models, Hollywood or Bust and The Girl Can’t Help It), this one’s strictly in a Tashlin fantasy land that makes room for a late-movie dream sequence that gave Powell one last musical throwback to his ’30s career — as well as some voiceover narration by an Academy Award (that is, an actual statuette). In context, the latter conceit figures: Powell plays an Oscar-winning screenwriter (not at ’50s RKO, you weren’t) who’s struggling on his latest project and given a so-called Christmas present for writer’s research purposes — one that comes directly from an amazingly nonchalant vice squad. It seems that parentally-abandoned teenager Reynolds has popped some frisky guy with a bottle just before the holidays and is bound for the pokey. The cops then remember the police picture on which they were technical advisors and also its writer — so with the squeeze on, Powell reluctantly agrees to shelter her for the holidays in his apartment so as to keep her out of jail.
As j.d.’s go, Reynolds is a long way from, say, Vic Morrow in the following year’s Blackboard Jungle, though I don’t know what actress of the day beyond her who could have made this role work to the degree she does — complete with a staggering number of sometimes fancy costume changes (and I wouldn’t have it any other way) for an indoor story set mostly over just a couple days in a small apartment. The world of ’50s and ’60s moviegoers was divided into people who liked Reynolds, didn’t like her and not only liked her but considered her an underrated sex bomb (I’m think of the time she undressed Jack Paar behind his desk on the Tonight show and of a hot presenter’s gown she wore on the ’63 Oscarcast held in ’64). The Susan character’s mother has blown town and left her permission to marry her current boy friend or any other guy she picks out — imagine that — and if you’re tickled by comedies of humiliation as much as I am, it’s amusing to watch her go after Powell, who displays a “what the hell am I doing here?” countenance that helps the picture. (Note, too, that in real life, Powell was 13 years older than Allyson). Glenda Farrell, Les Tremayne and future "Green Acres" deity Alvy Moore help Tashlin keep a snicker-peppered script moving, with Moore in kind of a David Wayne role (Wayne, in fact, was the early casting choice here). As the jilted shrew who’d like to strangle Reynolds with the latter’s dungarees, Anne Francis has another of pair eyes that get a huge Technicolor boost here.
One of the many treasured things about The Girl Can’t Help It is that memorable jukebox close-up of the yellow-black Specialty Records label of Little Richard’s title 45 during the opening credits. Although doing this kind of thing just twice probably isn’t enough to qualify as directorial motif-ing, Don Cornell’s decidedly less kinetic recording of “Hold My Hand” gets similar treatment here: a shot of its Coral 78 (the label of Teresa Brewer as well was Nehi-caliber orange) on Powell’s turntable as it plays. I love movies that stir pop music memories in this fashion — even if more often than not in my experience, filmmakers kill the nostalgia for chart enthusiasts by getting the label wrong (like, say, having The Coasters waxing for Sun Records).
In any event, “Hand” started to click somewhere between its metropolitan and in-the-sticks play-dates — peaking briefly at No. 2 (Billboard) in early fall on its way to an Oscar nomination amid RKO’s final death-rattling. Susan was, in fact, one of the few remaining RKOs with enough marketing potential to rate the top half of a double bill in a real downtown movie palace. In my city, someone (possibly a stoned older uncle from the Cheech & Chong family tree) managed to book it with Johnny Sheffield and Beverly Garland in Killer Leopard — by which time central figure Bomba, the Jungle Boy (as his series was just a year away from wrapping) had attained a kind of emeritus status that wasn’t as impressive as Powell’s.