Susan Slept Here (1954) is a delightful, if somewhat creepy (by today’s standards, anyway) bit of holiday fluff. Starring Debbie Reynolds and Dick Powell, the film played with the censors at a time when it seemed everyone in Hollywood was determined to give the Hays Office its share of hell.
Reynolds stars as the titular Susan, a seventeen-year-old “juvenile delinquent” (which, in this movie, is essentially a fancy term for “vagrant”) who is picked up by a pair of cops on Christmas Eve. The policemen take Susan to the apartment of Mark Christopher (Powell), an Oscar-winning screenwriter who had used the cops for research in the past. The two flatfoots convince Mark to take Susan in for the night so that she need not spend Christmas alone, but his charitable gesture soon creates havoc and turns his entire life upside-down when Susan falls in love with him.
This marks the final big-screen performance for Powell, who had made his name initially as a song-and-dance man in a number of 1930s musicals (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933) before reinventing himself as a noir anti-hero in the 1940s, originating the role of Philip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet. After completing work on Susan Slept Here, Powell retired from movie acting and concentrated his efforts on directing and producing for television, serving as one of the founders for Four Star Television.
In Susan Slept Here, the fifty-year-old Powell attempts to pass for thirty-five, with mixed results. Still, the age difference between Mark and Susan–a good eighteen years–is an almost insurmountable one for the film. It’s the one true weakness of an otherwise endearing storyline. Reynolds, who was twenty-two at the time of filming, was more than game, and it shows. But there is still an element of creepiness to the older Mark marrying an underage Susan.
The film alludes to this fact in several instances, most blatantly when the cops warn Mark and his “right-hand man,” Virgil (Alvy Moore), “Remember, you guys, she’s underage. Lay one hand on her and that’s all, brother.” And there are reminders of Susan’s youth sprinkled throughout the film, adding to the uneasiness. Yes, Mark marries Susan to protect her and keep her from being returned to jail, but still–he’s marrying a girl, not a woman. There’s a bit of an “ew” factor there, and it’s a little surprising that the film was approved according to the strictures of the Production Code. A young girl spending the night, unchaperoned, in the apartment of a committed bachelor, to whom she then ends up a teen bride? Ten years before, Joseph Breen and company would have been yelling their fool heads off.
My favorite aspect of the film is the way it slyly plays with the censors in constructing some of the dialogue. For instance, when Susan notices a picture of Mark’s longtime lover, Isabella (Anne Francis), it leads to this hilarious exchange:
Susan: “You know, I’d like to get a dye job and a facial like her.”
Mark: “Isabella is a natural blond.”
Susan: “You sure?”
Mark: “We’re very good friends. [pause] She told me.”
When I first heard this line, I practically gasped with laughter at the little hint of naughtiness in Powell’s delivery of that last line. The meaning he injects into that weighted pause is just one of the things that makes him a severely-underrated actor.
A note of interest: this may be the only film ever narrated by the Oscar statuette–at least, I can’t think of another one! Mark’s Oscar sits on the mantel, introducing us to the players and occasionally commenting upon the action. It’s a gimmick, yes, and the film could likely do very well without it. But it’s still a fun little element of an already enjoyable movie.
One thing I could do without is Susan’s dream sequence, which is a little too overwrought for my taste. As Susan pictures herself locked in a cage, strangling Virgil to get the key and “rescue” Mark from Isabella’s spidery clutches, I found myself waiting impatiently for the film to get back to the action. Sometimes, these little asides work (the extended dance/dream sequences in An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain come to mind), but when not done effectively, such scenes tend to bog down the entire film.
That being said, Susan Slept Here is ultimately a charming little picture, despite the “ew” factor of the age gap in the characters. And though only the first half of the film involves Christmas, it is still a nice little flick to watch by the fire as you wait impatiently for Santa this month. It’s playing again on Christmas Day, so try to catch it if you can!