Warner Archive Blu-ray: Debbie Reynolds and Dick Powell in Susan Slept Here (1954)


Susan Slept Here features narration by an Oscar statue. The golden guy sounds just like I imagined he would: cheerful, uptight and betraying the vulnerability of a nude figure. The idea could be unbearably corny, but there's something pliable about the world of Frank Tashlin; Wile E. Coyote could show up, steam could blow out of somebody's ears, and you'd be seduced into believing it all. He offers a fluid take on reality that somehow seems completely plausible. 

Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this mash-up of eccentricity and mid-century conformity is oddly appealing.

In a plot that sounds unsettling on paper, teenage vagrant Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) is deposited at struggling screenwriter Mark Christopher (Dick Powell) apartment by a pair of cops who want to spare the girl Christmas in jail. One of them used to work with him at the studio, and figures he could use her to research his new script about juvenile delinquents. 

Susan is the only one who seems to see how sketchy the situation appears, and it's odd the way her panicked scramble to escape the apartment is played for laughs. It isn't long before she is throwing herself at the reluctant Mark though, much to the irritation of his fiancée Isabella (Anne Francis). As the holidays draw to a close, he angers her even more when he marries Susan to keep her out of jail until she comes of age.

This was Powell's final major film. Coming out two years after Reynolds' breakout role in Singin' in the Rain (1952), in some respects it feels more like the passing of the torch between sparkling musical stars than a romance, though that may be my way of dealing with the uncomfortable sight of 50-year-old Powell's 36-year-old character falling for a teenage girl.

The pairing ultimately works because Powell and Reynolds keep it light. They have an interesting chemistry that is more cozily affectionate than romantic. It is the camera that is most intimate with Reynolds here. I don't think Tashlin was in love with the actress, but he sure films her like he was. 

Powell's former Warner Bros. castmate Glenda Farrell plays his philosophical, hard-drinking secretary. While he seems to be slowing down in this final role, she is just as sharp as she was in the thirties. While the actress would not appear in many more movies, she still had a long career in television ahead of her.

After seeing Anne Francis in a string of sympathetic roles, it was quite the shock to watch her play a shrill, entitled glamour girl. It was great to watch her stomp around in glamourous outfits. She looked just like an angry 1950s Barbie doll.

The setting itself is like a vivid character actor. Everyone is drenched in gorgeous color and perfectly garbed and groomed. The sets are dressed in comforting luxury and presented like photos in a magazine. It could all have the effect of gagging on a rainbow lollipop, but everyone's got a bit of edge. Reynolds seems particularly determined to add some vinegar to the mix, making it clear that she may be a kid, but she's got needs.

While this is far from the most entrancing Tashlin production of the era, the director was putting out consistently entertaining work throughout the fifties and sixties. Susan Slept Here is one of the quirkier titles in the mix, sort of a runt, but adorable nevertheless.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

3 comments:

Laura said...

Ha, that's a great description of Anne Francis as a Barbie doll! Truth. :)

This is one of those movies that, at least on paper, you feel like you "shouldn't" like but it's so darn fun it wins you over. And it looks amazing! :)

Best wishes,
Laura

KC said...

Doesn't she totally look like one of those dolls Laura? My aunt had one of them, so the image is really vivid in my mind.

There are so many icky elements to this story that I almost feel like I was conned in to loving it as much as I do. I think it helps that Reynolds plays the character with so much savvy. She seems like a kid, but definitely isn't anybody's fool.

Laura said...

I immediately thought of my miniature Hallmark ornament versions of those blonde, high fashion '50s Barbies! LOL.

That's a great insight into Reynolds' character. Plus she is the one doing the pursuing, a device used in several (way) younger woman/older man films I can think of.

Best wishes,
Laura

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