4.06.2011

She's not a girl, not yet a woman...


17-year-old Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) comes face-to-face with her future self as married woman in this typically garish shot from Susan Slept Here (1954), one of the lesser known but by no means unremarkable films directed by Hollywood auteur Frank Tashlin. Tashlin began his career making particularly weird Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner Bros. in the ’30s and ’40s before making live-action comedies for Universal in the 1950s and ’60s, many starring Jerry Lewis; Tashlin’s live-action films are not so different from his cartoons, packed as they are with cheap-funny gags and colors so bright they hurt your eyes. And, as J. Hoberman has pointed out, Tashlin’s films are so dizzyingly self-referential in their sending-up of Hollywood, advertising, and 1950s pop culture that they can be considered examples of what Hoberman calls “vulgar modernism”—a kind of avant-garde experimentalism going on in even the most mass-produced 20th-century cultural forms. The film in question centers around a cranky screenwriter (Dick Powell); it’s narrated by “Oscar,” the Academy Awards statuette on his mantel; and sports a wonderful parody of the “dream ballet” sequences from such musicals as On the Town (1949), Oklahoma! (1953), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952)—the latter of which, of course starred Reynolds herself. Susan Slept Here takes the governing principle of the dream ballet (simply stated, that this expressionistic dance number reproduces the themes and conflicts of the film itself in miniature) and renders it even more absurdly transparent a gimmick, as seen in the above screen-shot, as Susan grapples with her mixed feelings about becoming the child bride of her de facto guardian.

Which brings us to the film’s weirdest element, weirder even than the narration by an inanimate object or the high camp of the ballet sequence or the bubblegum-pop palette of the art direction and the costumes—that is, the context for this pink-nightmare dream image. 17-year-old Susan, a teenage delinquent and an orphan, has been dumped in the, erm, lap of old-enough-to-be-her-father Mark Christopher (Powell), who, in spite of her driving him crazy, has decided to marry her in order to keep her from going back to juvenile hall. The two refrain from consummating the marriage during their whirlwind Las Vegas honeymoon, but (inevitably) Susan comes to desire Mark in a more-than-juvenile way. The film comes to hinge on Susan’s “becoming a woman” in more ways than one: that is, legally (in the sense that she is six months shy of her 18th birthday) and sexually (much of the second half of the film concerns her plot to lose her virginity to Mark--who is, after all, now her legal husband), and so there’s a whole queasy Lolita-ish cast to the thing that doesn’t quite sit well with what we might term the Modern Viewer. But in my book that’s simply one more reason to check out this utterly inimitable, compulsively watchable piece of 1950s fluff. (The film is newly available on DVD through the Warner Archive Collection.)

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