Sunday, 6 January 2019

Susan Slept Here (the play) by Gottleib & Fisher

When the festive season rolls around I'm one of those people who has a ritual of watching a favourite Christmas movie. 

Which in my case happens to be an oddball and hilarious Technicolor RKO gem entitled Susan Slept Here. 

It's the story of an author with writer's block. On Christmas Eve a policeman acquaintance of his called Hanlon turns up with his partner and reminds our hero that he wanted to write a masterpiece about teenage crime (a big thing in America in the 1950s). 

So, to help the writer with his research, here is a Christmas present: a 17 year old criminal (the fashionable term is juvenile delinquent) called Susan. The cop is soft-hearted enough not to want the kid to spend Christmas in jail.

And he figures he can kill two birds with one stone, by dumping Susan on the writer — just for a day or two. Then they will collect her and put her in the slammer, but at least she will have spent the holidays free and the writer will have his story. 

As the cops leave, Hanlon's partner Maizel reminds our hero that Susan is under age: "Lay a hand on her and that's all, brother."

The writer has no intention of laying a hand on her. But this being a romantic comedy, he and Susan will end up married and living happily ever after...

I've already posted about the film, which has a memorably witty — and rather transgressive — script by Alex Gottleib, adapted from a stage play co-written by Gottleib and Steve Fisher.

This year when I watched the movie for the umpteenth time I was struck by the idea — rather late in arriving, it has to be said — that maybe I should try and track down the stage play version.

I assumed this would be difficult, if not impossible. To my joyful astonishment, it turned out all I had to do was push a button on Amazon. A few days later a copy of the play was in my hot little hands.

Comparing the movie and the play is utterly fascinating. There are many differences between the two, starting with the writer's name — Mark in the movie, Joe in the play. And in the movie he's a screenwriter, in the stage play, a playwright — naturally enough.

A lot of the best parts of the movie — and some of the best characters, like the writer's shrink — are entirely absent from the play.

Conversely, many of the finest moments are present in both. As when the writer's gorgeous but cold hearted girlfriend Isabella (seen here in cat-woman specs) turns up at Mark's and finds the two cops in attendance. 

They explain they're from the vice squad and she quips, "My favourite squad." Which is my favourite line.

There are huge differences, however. The writer's African American maid Georgette is reduced to a smiling cypher in the movie. In the play she's quite a  three dimensional, not to mention stereotype-shattering character.

For instance, she's only working as a domestic servant to pay her tuition at UCLA. "I'm a psychology major and I'm a Phi Betta Kappa," she tells the cops. In response to the latter disclosure, Maizel confidently explains to his partner, "That's a coloured fraternity." (It is in fact the highest academic distinction at an American university.)

Hanlon, the other cop, is also short-changed in the movie. In both versions he knows the writer because he previously helped him with research. But in the play Hanlon is himself an aspiring, and pretentious, would-be writer, which is a lot more fun.

The play and the movie are each quite daring in their own way. Both feature the character of Virgil, who is the hero's friend and also his sort of factotum, valet and writing assistant (amusingly, he used to be the writer's commanding office in the navy).

In the film there is the suggestion (quite unfounded) that Virgil has knocked Susan up — which leads to the writer punching him in the jaw.

In the play, on the other hand, Virgil's sexuality is called into question. "I always figured he was a swish," says Hanlon — which leads to a cherishable moment of outrage from Virgil.

In between the romantic comedy hi-jinks, there's some delectable reflections on the craft of writing. "Do you think a good plot helps a story?" asks Susan. "Well — it sort of rounds it out," says our hero. In both the movie and the play.

And in both the movie and the play, ultimately Susan and the writer end up together. As they disappear into the bedroom, Virgil tactfully makes an exit — he's going back into the navy.

But before he leaves, he makes sure that the lovebirds won't be disturbed. In the film, he switches off the oven, to make sure the forgotten roast doesn't turn into a fire hazard. 

In the play, he takes the phone off the hook.

If you want to see how to take a stage play and open it up for the big screen, taking extravagant liberties with it, yet utterly retaining its essence, then you couldn't find a better case study than Susan Slept Here. The DVD (or Blu-Ray) are currently easily available, and so is the play script. Check them out.

(Image credits: The cool black and white German press book is from the bookshop Antiquariat Heinz Tessin via ABE.Two of the colour screen grabs (Susan in her rain hat with Mark and dressed to the nines with Mark on the balcony) are from an informative article on the excellent Cineaste Magazine site. The tinted lobby card is from Royal Books. The cover of the recent Samuel French edition is from my own library. The earlier Samuel French edition is from Book Douban. The red and white poster and the other colour screen grabs — Catwoman Isabella, Susan dreamily listening to the radio — are from Cinema Clock, where Susan is cruelly, if accurately, described as "jail bait". The full colour poster at a funny angle is from Night Hawk News. The black and white still is from the Movie Poster Shop.)

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