Susan Slept Here (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O'Donoghue
Produced by Harriet Parsons; directed by Frank Tashlin; screenplay by Alex Gottlieb, based on the play by Steve Fisher and Alex Gottlieb; cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca; editing by Harry Marker; music by Leigh Harline; art direction by Carroll Clark and Albert S. D'Agostino; starring Dick Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Anne Francis, Glenda Farrell, and Alvy Moore. Blu-ray, color, 98 min., 1954. A Warner Archive release.
In a previous life, Frank Tashlin was one of the most distinctive directors working for Warner Bros. Cartoons, with a gift for giving a semblance of human life to animals and inanimate objects. So it is appropriate that Susan Slept Here, one of Tashlin’s early live-action masterpieces, is narrated by an inanimate object—an Oscar, awarded a long time ago to screen writer Mark Christopher (a wonderfully cranky Dick Powell, whose deadpan grounds Tashlin’s pop art). But Tashlin’s anthropormophism, though as playful as it was in his Warner cartoons, is more astringent here. The humanity of objects in Susan Slept Here serves to point up how objectlike the humans are.
Charles Dickens did much the same thing a century earlier to criticize the brutalizing effects of the Industrial Revolution on Victorian Britain. In 1954, Tashlin was living in an era of comparable peace and plenty; former military commander Dwight D. Eisenhower was President; America ruled or influenced many of the waves; and a culture of marriage, family values, and patriotism—trumpeted in a variety of sponsored media outlets—forced human desire to displace itself from other people onto bright shiny objects. Susan Slept Here boasts one of the most ironically exquisite décors of 1950s Hollywood cinema, the great decade of ironically exquisite décor, its bright beauty pops on this outstanding Warner Archive Blu-ray disc (international Tashlinophiles will be delighted to learn the disc plays on all Blu-ray players).
In Susan Slept Here, objects dominate and distort human behavior. The narrating Oscar is an ever-present reminder of Mark’s past glory and present failure as a writer. The luxury items stuffing his apartment and the mountain of Christmas presents he dutifully buys for staff and girlfriend are beyond his means and physically impede his movements. Clothes in particular smother and define personal identity—Virgil (Alvy Moore), Mark’s personal assistant and former commanding officer during the war, is assumed by others to be gay and therefore not to be taken seriously until he dons his naval uniform again.
The new American consumerism presided over by a military hero has ironically emasculated the very men whom it was meant to serve after their sacrifices during the war. Tashlin creates an extraordinary atmosphere of impotent inertia in the scenes before Susan’s raucous burst into the story. Susan (Debbie Reynolds) is an alleged juvenile delinquent brought to Mark by kind-hearted policemen (less a pair of individuals than Tweedledum and Tweedledee) on the pretext that she can serve as source material for a script, when really they want her to avoid having to go to jail over Christmas. Even Susan, a supposed free spirit is introduced in terms of objects—her protesting scream smashes a Christmas tree bauble. But her physical presence marks a definite change in the film—the thrusting tracking shot that accompanies her entry into the apartment dynamically replaces the twitchy camera movements that had expertly placed—and trapped—the other characters in their environment. A similar movement will literally and metaphorically climax the film as under-age Susan leads a man old enough to be her father (and in reality Powell was twenty-seven years older than Reynolds) into the marital bed so that she can finally say that she truly slept “here.”
Like a vintage episode of Seinfeld on still-conservative prime-time TV in the 1990s, Susan Slept Here contrives to be all about sex without once mentioning the word. By having characters make statements that clearly refer to statutory rape, promiscuity, masturbation, cruising, and homosexuality, Tashlin forces his audience at once to laugh at and implicate itself in a subject that had been made taboo in a society aspiring to the American ideals of the nuclear family and the home with a white picket fence. Made the year after Otto Preminger’s Production Code-baiting The Moon is Blue, and a year before the fraught publication of Lolita, Susan Slept Here is closer to Vladimir Nabokov’s scalding presentation of the (male) adult abuse of (female) children using the sugared pill of lovingly detailed Americana.
Humbert would confess that he never recognized Lolita as a separate person with a separate subjectivity. By contrast, Susan is allowed to emerge as the presiding consciousness of her eponymous film. It is in the context of the contemporary treatment of women that the film’s human-object motif provides sustained satirical treatment. Before Susan enters the film, an array of female “types” are paraded for the audience, from Jane Russell to an alcoholic spinster, all based on the construction of appearances and the social expectations they embody.
The most lethal object of all is the mirror that brings those social expectations into the privacy of the home, and reminds the unhappy subject of their failure to live up to them. A remarkable early shot shows Mark’s fiancée Isabella (Anne Francis) before a mirror trying to mold her body by pose and gesture into a shape as desirable as any consumer product. Susan’s sincere attempts to imitate Isabella’s posture only serve to ridicule both it and the society that demands it. Susan will spend the entire film trying on roles and personae—using her voice, body, clothes, gestures, actions. In order to ‘mature’ and gain the access into society she craves, Susan must suppress the difference that makes her so refreshing to the jaded Mark in the first place. In this, Susan Slept Here anticipates the most subversive—for once that overused, meaningless phrase is appropriate—of all 1950s Hollywood films, Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (1958), another sugared tale of a bored middle-aged playboy grooming and corrupting an innocent. And as with Gigi, the ending of Tashlin’s film is as depressing as it is apparently triumphant.
Darragh O’Donoghue works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No.