Cinema, at its creative best, offers more than a superficial display of a narrative, and though it can be seen as a bright and bubbly comedy, director Frank Tashlin’s “Susan Slept Here” (97 minutes) is a subtly beguiling (and if you love Debbie Reynolds, bewitching) experience.
The storyline starts with a voiceover from the Academy Award of Mark Christopher (“Murder, My Sweet” star Dick Powell), a currently struggling screenwriter who’s attempting to pen a script on juvenile delinquency. Two cops bring Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds), a runaway 17-year-old who’s headed to jail for attacking a sailor. Unruly beyond belief when she appears on Mark’s doorstep, Susan resembles an alley cat who simply won’t stay indoors. Mark initially balks at taking her in for several days so she can avoid prison time on Christmas, but he ends up being a Good Samaritan and takes her under his charge.
Based on a play penned by Alex Gottlieb and Steve Fisher (Gottlieb penned the screenplay), “Susan Slept Here” could have gone an entirely different direction, as eternal bachelor Mark could have served as a father figure to Susan. Such a dynamic would have made it a diverting family film that, armed with Reynolds’ mega-watt charisma and Powell’s consistently befuddled, straight-laced demeanor, would have worked like gangbusters.
But director Frank Tashlin, who spent a good portion of his career working in animation as well as collaborating with Jerry Lewis (“Cinderfella”) and Bob Hope (“Son of Paleface”), takes viewers on an entirely different journey. Though Mark, whose consistent crankiness is tempered by his loyalty to his good friend/assistant Virgil (Alvy Moore) and script assistant (Glenda Farrell), has a total soft spot for Susan. Part of Mark’s growing attraction (even if he’ll never admit it) to Susan is his own disdain for his girlfriend Isabella (the luminous Anne Francis), a Pasadena socialite with a heart of ice.
Mark is a 35-year-old scribe but Powell was around 49 or 50 when he played the role. Meanwhile, Reynolds was 21 or 22 when she shot “Susan Slept Here,” and although their close knit interaction consisted of a relatively innocuous kiss under the mistletoe, what’s implied in the narrative goes much further (an actress kissing a co-star who’s nearly 30 years her senior isn’t a cinematic surprise, but considering the movie was made in 1954 and Susan’s a 17-year-old – it’s surprising “Susan Slept Here” didn’t court a bit more controversy!).
The Technicolor flick is beautiful to look at, and even though a great deal of her scenes have her lounging about Mark’s swanky bachelor pad and developing feelings for her adult supervisor, Reynolds brings life to the claustrophobic apartment thanks to her undeniable charisma. There’s also a memorable dream sequence with Reynolds, Powell, and Francis that employs Tashlin’s passion for animation and comedy, and that scene, along with an extended section when Mark leaves the apartment to work on his screenplay, gives “Susan Slept Here” a bit more visual breathing room.
Credits goes to Tashlin for masking what could be considered a tawdry romance with a light and breezy touch. It’s a beautiful sleight of hand that Tashlin achieves in selling “Susan Slept Here” as simple, popcorn entertainment, but if you dig deeper, you may find a bit more meat on the bone.
Even to this day, the filmmaker’s work is highly overlooked though he’s been revered by some of cinema’s masters. Tashlin was beloved by celebrated French New Wave filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard (in the book Godard on Godard, he writes that “Tashlin has not renovated the Hollywood comedy. He has done better.”
Director Peter Bogdanovich’s seminal “Who The Devil Made It” features an interview with Tashlin, who for a time was a close friend and supporter of Bogdanovich’s filmmaking journey. “Frank was, like many satirists, among the saddest of men; he seemed personally injured by the ugliness in the world, perpetually disappointed and dismayed by life in civilized modern society.”
As a fluffy and lightweight comedy, “Susan Slept Here” succeeds with flying colors. But if you discover a few images (Susan Landis’ use of the aforementioned Oscar to crack a walnut come to mind!) percolating in the dark recesses of your mind, don’t be alarmed. Susan slept there, too!!
“Susan Slept Here” is a Manufactured on Demand title that’s now available on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive Collection. You can grab it via this Warner Archive link or the Amazon link below!!