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Susan Slept Here (DVD Review)

3 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis.

The great Dick Powell’s final movie as an actor is one of the first movies I can ever recall that was regarded as “racy,” though it came out in 1954, about a year after Otto Preminger’s now embarrassingly tame but once scandalous The Moon Is Blue, for which I can still remember seeing local TV reportage of patron lines cascading expansively around the corner outside the theater. And truth to tell, I still like the idea of seeing Powell at give-or-take 47 playing a 35-year-old screenwriter who marries Debbie Reynolds (then 21 but cast as a 17-year-old). It keeps the blood flowing.

Susan’s director, Frank Tashlin, was about a year away from his brief heyday, when he would prove to be an ideal director (most would say THE ideal director) for Martin & Lewis and Jayne Mansfield — with whom he made two memorable pictures each between 1955 and 1957. But his preceding work is also some of his best. If I haven’t seen 1952’s The First Time, for which kind words have been spoken, I am definitely with those who think the same year’s Son of Paleface is the funniest Bob Hope vehicle, outside (and even that’s arguably) of the best “Road” pictures. And I’m very fond of this movie, which has some funny dialogue and the patented crazy Tashlin color schemes, which certainly didn’t get here by themselves. Even leaving aside the cute dream sequence near the end of the picture, Reynolds’ character has one spectacular costuming allowance, even though she is supposed to be playing a runaway juvenile delinquent with a shortage of available parents.

Instead of pairing her up with, say, James Dean’s Rebel without a Cause character (now that would be an interesting movie), testy Reynolds gets brought to Powell’s swell ‘50s apartment by the local police, who have worked with him as technical advisors on some of his scripts. She’s been picked up for some tame offense while her mother is off somewhere getting married — and the calendar being what it is, the cops think that staying with Powell might be a better place to spend the Christmas holidays than some detention center. Powell’s ill-tempered squeeze (Anne Francis) doesn’t see it that way, and his go-fer (crew-cut comic Ally Moore, several years before “Green Acres”) doesn’t think it’s the best idea he’s ever heard, either.

Powell’s screen discomfort here helps him in the role, which came after he had already made the switch from actor to director — and that after he had already made what to me is perhaps the most amazing switcheroo in show biz history (Warner Bros. tenor to the pinnacle of film noir royalty). Reynolds’ Susan goes from being grating to all-out effervescent depending on the scene’s needs, though I couldn’t help noticing how broad in the beam she looks during one or two blue-jeaned bits. The movie is narrated by an Oscar statuette (semi-shades of William Holden’s voice-over corpse in Sunset Boulevard), and because Powell’s character has been laboring some at Susan studio RKO, we get rare Technicolor shots of the lot from around the time that then-owner Howard Hughes was almost finished running it into the ground.

Featured “Hold My Hand” landed an Academy Award nomination for best original song back when that meant something. Emotive ‘50s crooner Don Cornell sings it not on screen but via recording — though it was Tony Martin who performed it on the following year’s Oscarcast (one vocal delivery about as unctuous as the other). When the song is played, Tashlin serves up a close-up of Cornell’s bright orange Coral Records label (oddly, a then out-of-date 78 and not a 45) — just he later would with the yellow-black-white Specialty Records label when Little Richard breaks into the title track to open The Girl Can’t Help It. I’m not sure if this makes Tashlin an auteur — but given how many filmmakers not named Scorsese have mangled the rudiments of pop history over the years, it’s a start.

By the way, Susan may have been racy enough for its day for Chicago’s censor board to deem it for “adults only,” but that didn’t deter the local booker in my own hometown from coming up with another of his crackhead pairings. The movie played the 2800-seat RKO Palace with Killer Leopard, the next-to-last kiddie adventure with Johnny Sheffield as Bomba, the Jungle Boy. Bent or not, that’s a double bill I’d still pay to see.

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