During a remarkable four-year stint in the mid-’50s, Frank Tashlin, a famed Warner Brothers animator turned live-action writer-director, launched a sustained, multi-faceted satirical attack on a broad spectrum of entertainment. In 1955, he took on comic books and the hysteria they provoked in Artists And Models. In 1956, he turned his attention to a crazy, seemingly ephemeral fad called rock ’n’ roll with The Girl Can’t Help It.The same year, he reunited with Artist And Models stars Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on the cinematic satire Hollywood Or Bust before ending his glory years with the giddy ad-world spoof Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Considering Tashlin’s love-hate relationship with movies and the lunatics who make them, it’s altogether fitting that 1954’s Susan Slept Here,which has just received a long-overdue release as part of Warner’s terrific “Archive” DVD-on-demand series, isn’t just set largely in a screenwriter’s apartment, it’s also narrated by the protagonist’s Oscar statuette. Tashlin’s live-action career is a testament to the idea that you can take the man out of cartoons, but you can’t take cartoons out the man.
With just the right note of wry world-weariness, Dick Powell, who’d played another Oscar-winning screenwriter a few years earlier in The Bad And The Beautiful,stars as a hotshot Hollywood scribe who tires of pumping out brainless comedy fluff for big paydays and quits his cushy studio job to strike out on his own. Powell has bigger things to worry about, however, when a cop shows up at his door on Christmas Eve with an unusual “gift”: a hot-tempered 17-year-old runaway (Debbie Reynolds) handcuffed to the steering wheel of the squad car. The cops want to spare Reynolds the indignity of a Christmas in prison and give Powell an invaluable resource for researching a screenplay about juvenile delinquency. Neither party is initially pleased with the arrangement, but skepticism quickly turns to affection, and then something more after the two enter a quickie marriage of convenience.
Susan Slept Here at times suggests Lolita re-imagined as a frothy romantic comedy, as an older, more worldly writer falls for a fresh-faced, uninhibited teenybopper. As a juvenile delinquent with a heart of gold, Reynolds is girlish enough to convincingly play a teenager, but womanly enough for her underage romance with a man more than twice her age to seem only mildly creepy. Like the rest of Tashlin’s mid-’50s showbiz satires, Susan Slept Here is both naughty and nice, affectionate and cutting. Powell’s suspiciously close relationship with best friend/right-hand-man/old Navy buddy Alvy Moore lends the film an intriguing element of sexual ambiguity; when Moore tries to sabotage the central romance, it’s unclear whether he’s jealous of Powell for having Reynolds, or Reynolds for having Powell. Glenda Farrell also lends expert support as Powell’s tart-tongued, boozy secretary, but really, the entire supporting cast is phenomenal, making the most of their screen time. An overlooked Christmas classic, Susan Slept Here is sweet and heartwarming at its core, yet refreshingly caustic around the edges.
Key features: None.