Sunday, 27 December 2015

Susan Slept Here by Alex Gottleib and Steve Fisher

Perhaps, like me, you have a favourite Christmas movie which you enjoy watching every year as part of the festive ritual. In my case it's a brilliant, but little known 1954 comedy called Susan Slept Here. I first caught it on TV, was captivated, and kept a treasured VHS copy for years until a very welcome Warner Archive Collection DVD supplanted it in my collection.

This delightful comic gem tells the tale of a grizzled screenwriter called Mark Christopher (Dick Powell) who ends up entangled with a female juvenile delinquent called Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) — some cops who are friends of Mark's have picked her up for coshing a sailor with a beer bottle. Recalling that Mark wanted to research a movie about teenage delinquency, they hook up the two of them.

Hook up indeed. The unlikeliest of romance blossoms, with some nimble plotting, hilarious situations and classic dialogue. ("These gentlemen are from the Vice Squad." "How nice! My favourite squad.")

The film is written by Alex Gottleib, based on a stage play he co-wrote with Steve Fisher. 

Gottleib is a vintage Hollywood pro with a long string of movie and TV credits stretching from 1938 to 1969, including contributions to the screwball classic Hellzapoppin. He seemed to specialise in Westerns, as did Steve Fisher — another Hollywood pro with an even longer string of credits, which interestingly embraces Peter Gunn, The Wild Wild West and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

These seasoned screenwriter achieve a virtuoso tap-dance in their plotting, managing to pair off the thirty-something screenwriter and underage (17 year old) hoodlum and eventually get them happily married without breaking the law or offending even the most delicate of audiences.

Debbie Reynolds is fresh and fetching and proves to be a comedienne of genius. And Anne Francis is smoking hot as the female Baxter. 

(A "Baxter" is a screenwriting term for the character in a romantic comedy who is a —temporary — barrier to the hero and heroine finally getting together.)

The film is directed by Frank Tashlin, a comic maestro who started out making Warner Bros. cartoons before he graduated to live action comedy features starring the likes of Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and Doris Day. 

Tashlin is a recognised titan of the genre and his background in animation shows clearly in the beautifully orchestrated physical slapstick of Susan Slept Here and its terrific, surreal Technicolor dream sequence which wouldn't be out of place in a Powell-Pressburger movie.

The animation connection is also evident in the movie's gorgeous, garish 1950s colour palette. The cinematography is by Nicholas Musuraca, better known for his black and white work on film noir, of all things. 

I just love this film. Check it out — at Christmas, or any time — I hope you'll love it, too.

(Image credits: The 'girl about 18' poster is from Wikipedia. 'Who's been sleeping in my bed' (blue and horizontal) is from We Are Movie Geeks — an interesting article about the top 15 non-traditional Christmas movies. The red DVD cover — which looks like a bootleg to me — is from Amazon. The official Warner Archive DVD cover is also from Amazon. It's an excellent transfer, and I recommend it highly. The blue sheet music is from Flick River. The head shot of platinum blonde Anne Francis — confusingly, dressed like Susan here in an attempt to lure Mark back — is from DVD Savant, who have an excellent review of the DVD. The head shot of red haired Debbie Reynolds is from Warner Archive on Tumblr. )

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