Monday, December 31, 2012

THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)

"Christmas present from Santa Claus.  With best wishes for a prosperous new year."

Those words kickstarted Tom Powers on his lethal climb to becoming a big city menace.  He was The Public Enemy as famously played by James Cagney in a tough 1931 film directed by William Wellman.  The Christmas present that the young man and his best friend each get is a gun.  Tom Powers was a juvenile delinquent, a dark Oliver Twist who spent much of his formative years with a Fagin-like hood called Putty Nose.  He's recruited boys into a life of crime.  They become bad men.
James Cagney was born with star quality.  Coupled with his fine acting and dancing skills, movie stardom was in his destiny.  He shot to Hollywood fame as the cold-blooded Chicago gangster.  When I was in grade school, this Warner Bros. movie aired frequently on local Channel 9 in Los Angeles.  Cagney fascinated me.  Film school students today could learn a thing or two from the style of director William Wellman.  The Public Enemy is under 90 minutes long.  I hadn't seen it in quite a while and watched it over the weekend.  Wow.  Cagney's magnetism and style of acting still hold up.  It's really more being than acting.  It's honest, direct, intelligent and witty. He listens.  He reacts.  He brings you into the heart and soul of a character whether that heart and soul are dark or light.
In The Public Enemy, he's bold enough to be unlikable.  He doesn't try to get your sympathy because Tom grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.  You, the viewer, can do that work on your own.  Wellman shows you that childhood can be the blueprint for the rest of your life.  As a youngster, Tom Powers is a tough minor.  He drinks beer.  He has no regard or respect for authority.  He has no respect for females.  He doesn't care about education.  He wants big money.  He's society's perfect candidate for a life of crime.  He grows up to become such a cold-blooded gangster that killing, for him, is just as easy as a short order cook making a hamburger in a diner.  He's emotionally detached from the evil of it.  He can pump a couple of bullets into a former friend point blank and then, a few seconds later, wonder what his new babe is up to and head over to pay her a booty call.
Cagney was so at ease on camera.  He instinctively knew the power of thinking -- and how the camera could pick that up.  There's an unforced sexuality and swagger in his performance that were new to film.  Keep in mind, the crime story came out just a few years after movies learned how to talk with The Jazz Singer in 1927.  Cagney has scenes with another performer who'll also shoot up to fame.  But not for this role.  Jean Harlow was still in her sophisticated vamp stage.  She's a hot looking platinum blonde and she, too, has star quality but movies still didn't quite know what to do with her.
Harlow's seductress is shackled with some clunky dramatic dialogue like "...you're so strong.  You don't give, you take.  Oh, Tommy, I could love you to death."
That was for Warner Bros.  When MGM signs her and let's her play wisecracking tootsies with a heart of gold, Jean Harlow's true talents are free to soar in hits like Red Dust, Bombshell and Dinner at Eight.  Comedy kicks the blonde sex symbol up to screen icon.
One wishes she could've teamed up again later with Cagney -- who'd also prove that he could handle comedy and some fast-paced wisecracks himself. When I wrote that today's film students could learn a thing or two from Wellman's directorial style, one prime example is the shoot-out with Schemer's gang.   It has a Wellman signature -- not showing something and letting the viewer's imagination do the work. One night, in the pouring rain, a rival gangster heads into a building with his men.  Tom Powers, armed, has been waiting for them.  He charges into the building.  The windows are blocked.  We can't see a thing but we hear a shower of gunfire and the piercing screams of a man in agony.  Tom Powers staggers back out into the rain, alone on the street and seriously wounded.  Before he collapses from his wounds, he says "I ain't so tough."
The attention remains on Cagney -- on his ballsy solo deed and and his dance of pain afterwards as he staggers out.  DePalma or Tarantino would've shown the graphic carnage.  What Wellman did is much more effective, economical and creative.  And is serves the new-star, James Cagney.  What an extraordinary talent he was.  His work in The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat are some of the best performances of hoodlums given by any Hollywood actor to this day.  And James Cagney won his Best Actor Academy Award for one of Hollywood's most heart-warming, patriotic musicals that's also a biopic.
He's marvelous as Broadway song-and-dance showman and songwriter George M. Cohan in 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy, a gem in the Warner Bros. musical crown.
Cagney sang and danced, made you laugh and put a tear in your eye with his poignancy.
The Broadway legend made one major movie.  Sixty years before we laughed at Kevin Kline as Dave, George M. Cohan played a performer who looked exactly like the Commander in Chief.  Cohan starred in Paramount's 1932 musical comedy, The Phantom President, with Claudette Colbert and Jimmy Durante.
I've seen it.  What was biggest surprise about this musical?  George M. Cohan's unique way of  dancing.  James Cagney nailed it in Yankee Doodle Dandy.  When I saw The Phantom President, I appreciated Cagney's work in that musical biopic even more.
Cagney.  As I wrote up top, his magnetism and style of acting still hold up.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Frank Capra Moment

When I was a kid in grade school, middle school or high school, I always loved those special moments when a favorite teacher of mine would beam with wonder and delight at a student's discovery.  A classmate could've made an inspired connection between to opposite points in culture or figured out a solution on his or her own.  What made those times so great was that the student wasn't simply repeating back information taught by the teacher -- like a parrot.  There was some originality of thought and self-discovery.  This always put a glow and amazement in teachers' eyes, causing them to look at a student as if they were looking at a magnificent fireworks display.  I had an experience like that this week with one of my nephews' best friends.  He took a break from playing with them, came over to me and asked, "Have you ever seen It's A Wonderful Life?"
That question -- from a 9 year-old boy -- was like hearing church bells on Christmas morn.  "Yes," I enthusiastically answered, "I have seen It's A Wonderful Life.  I love that movie."

He smiled a big smile and said that he loved it too.  He added, "that movie is...heart-touching."  I had never, in my entire life, heard that word.  But, out of the mouths of babes, came a rich new adjective for that Frank Capra classic:  "heart-touching."  Wow.  Sometimes a moment is so magical that all one can say is "Wow."  I got a "magnificent fireworks display" feeling.  Although I'm not a teacher, I knew exactly how my favorite schoolteachers felt at such moments.  It got even better.  He made a connection between the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Ghost of Christmas Future in Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Clarence the Angel giving George Bailey a look at his past and future.  I know people almost thirty years older than Alex who haven't made that connection.  And some of them are entertainment reporters.  Then he talked about Stephen King movies.  Scary ones.  He wondered how King came up with those ideas.  I told him that I heard Stephen King in an interview say that he constantly visited the library when he was young and read a lot.  I also told Alex that not all his stories are scary.  In fact, Stand By Me -- a coming of age tale -- is a movie that he could probably watch at home with his parents.  Based on a Stephen King story, it's really good and exciting but not scary with any demonic creatures.

Alex is a great kid.  A down-to-earth little boy with a warm, golden spirit.  You can tell it's a shared light that comes from his parents because that bright, shiny apple has not fallen far from the tree.  He'd have been a memorable movie kid in a classics like The Yearling, Shane, Old Yeller, a Steven Spielberg movie like E.T the Extra-Terrestrial or, yes, Stand By Me directed by Rob Reiner.
He's got that kind of look and possesses that kind of charisma and character.

I went on to tell him that one of Stephen King's favorite writers was Mark Twain.

"Remember at the end of It's A Wonderful Life when George Bailey gets a book that was signed by Clarence the Angel?"

Alex remembered.  I told him "That book was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer written by Mark Twain."

"Wow," he said.
A youngster with an appreciation for a 1940s film in black and white.  A film that he finds "heart-touching."  To discover that someone so young has an affection for a classic contribution to the fine arts was a thrilling holiday highlight for me -- like George Bailey finding Zuzu's petals in his pocket.

What a wonderful experience thanks to It's A Wonderful Life.  Director Frank Capra would've loved it.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Holidays in THE APARTMENT

It's one of my favorite Shirley MacLaine movie moments.  Fran Kubelik's spirit is reborn as New Year's Eve comes to a close in Billy Wilder's The Apartment.  A movie with marital infidelity, a suicide attempt, corporate ambition and cut-throat office politics -- yet, it's a wonderful holiday love story.  You know this classic.  Jack Lemmon stars as the ambitious young man working for a major company in Manhattan.  MacLaine stars as the lovable but unlucky-in-love elevator operator in the same building.
Fran likes C.C. Baxter (Lemmon).  He's a gentleman.  He treats her like a lady.  Mr. Baxter is just about the only guy who removes his hat when he enters her elevator.  Billy Wilder's story will take us from shortly before Christmas Eve into the first hour of New Year's Day.  Fran and C.C. "Bud" Baxter have a corporate connection -- Mr. Sheldrake (well-played by Fred MacMurray).  He's the big boss at Consolidated Life of New York insurance company.  He's Mr. Baxter's boss.  He's Miss Kubelik's lover.  Fran blindly fell in love with a married man.  She's more in love with him than he is with her.  She wants to end the affair.  He didn't get to be head of the firm by not being manipulative and ruthless.   Jeff Sheldrake knows how to play her heartstrings during their clandestine meetings.  Funny.  The elevator operator, seen as a minor building employee by the white collar office executives, calls him "Jeff."  But those company men call him "Mr. Sheldrake."
Fran realizes she's being used and this relationship leads to a dead end.  "I was jinxed from the word go.  The first time I was ever kissed was in a cemetery," she reveals to C.C. Baxter.  This revelation comes after tragedy is averted making Mr. Baxter and Miss Kubelik unexpected Christmas roommates in his apartment.
If you've seen this classic, written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, I don't have to fill in the details.  If you haven't seen it, I'll let you experience the details for yourself.  Add this Best Picture of 1960 Academy Award winner to your "must-see" list.  The doctor next door tells Baxter, who climbs the corporate ladder by providing a place for Consolidated execs to have their extra-marital horizontal flings, to "Be a mensch!"  He'll be one while taking care of Fran more than she's taken care of herself.  He falls for the boss' girlfriend.  Near the end, they both seem to be hypnotized again by that corporate vampire, Mr. Sheldrake.  He's given C.C. Baxter a juicy promotion at Consolidated Life.  He's separated from his wife and calls on Fran again for some nightlife.  They're at a club for a New Year's Eve celebration when it becomes evident that Jeff is giving her the same old jive.  "Ring out the old year.  Ring in the new.  Ring a ding ding," Fran forlornly says when hearing his plans to get them a hotel room out of town in Atlantic City.
The middle-aged horn-dog mentions that C.C. Baxter quit his cushy job and walked out on him.  He then mentions something that lets Fran know Baxter loves her.  Fran has been sitting there like a miserable queen of nothing with a party hat on her head.  When she discovers that C.C. Baxter is in love with her, we can see and feel the light come back on again in Fran Kubelik's soul.  She smiles.  An inner radiance shines through at the stroke of midnight, the start of a new year...and a new beginning for her.
She feels majestic.  Special.  She'll leave that paper crown on the chair as if she's abdicated her role in Mr. Sheldrake's life as Queen of Nothing.  Baxter has redeemed himself.  Fran's spirit has been resurrected.  This would definitely be in a list of my Top 5 Favorite New Year's Eve scenes in movies.  Shirley MacLaine's smile gets me every time.  In the first minutes of the new year,  Fran Kubelik will run to end the loneliness in the life of C.C. Baxter.  True love for her was truly in the cards after all.

"Shut up and deal."  Happy New Year.






Friday, December 28, 2012

Cliff Osmond: A Wilder Actor

Cliff Osmond passed away this week.  He was a Wilder actor -- a Billy Wilder actor.  This piece will be about him and about New York comedian/actor Anthony DeVito. Osmond added extra spark to Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, Kiss Me, Stupid with Dean Martin and Kim Novak, The Fortune Cookie and Wilder's remake of The Front Page.  You may not have known his name, but he was one of those supporting actors who presence got a "Oh, there's that guy!" kind of reaction from viewers.  My favorite Osmond movie performance was his work as Chester the insurance investigator in Wilder's under-appreciated look at 1960s race relations above the Mason-Dixon Line, The Fortune Cookie.
A full-figured, moon-faced man often seen with a mustache, Cliff Osmond seemed to be in action even when he was standing still.  He was always thinking -- and that played so well on film.  The Fortune Cookie is famous today as the first film to team Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.  Matthau won a Best Supporting Actor of 1966 Academy Award as the dishonest lawyer who sees a sports TV cameraman's injury as a potential financial bonanza.  The Double Indemnity director returns to the insurance game, this time for a comic look at greed.  The TV cameraman was accidentally tackled during the live network telecast of a pro football game.  He'll recover but the shady brother-in-law, known to some as "Whiplash Willie," smells big money if the cameraman pretends to be paralyzed.  Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) gets suckered into the scheme because of a possible reunion with his gorgeous  blonde ex-wife.  He's still in love with her but is totally clueless to the fact that she's been tackled by a few hot guys herself.  Her bedroom is a wide receiver.
Harry is basically an honest man -- a man who believes in equality and fair play in the game of life.  The NFL star who accidentally injured him during the game is black.  As Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson, Ron Rich wasn't as strong an actor as Lemmon, Matthau and Osmond, but he sure did have leading man movie star looks and carriage.  Jackson and Harry become friends.  Jackson was an upscale black character in a major Civil Rights era motion picture from an acclaimed filmmaker.  Jackson could've left the football field and fit in well as a contributor on the Today show -- if minorities had been contributors on network news programs back then.  This was an important element.
Cliff Osmond's character is shrewd.  He knows that corporate dishonesty, financial greed and racial discrimination can sit side-by-side on the same shelf.  Racism doesn't sit well with Harry Hinkle.  In Hollywood movies, the Deep South is the go-to setting when liberal Hollywood wants to show the evils of racism.  In the Heat of the Night, Mississippi Burning, The Long Walk Home, Driving Miss Daisy, The Color Purple, The Help and the new film Django Unchained (which I haven't seen), all give us Southern-fried bigotry.  Besides the young white woman writing the book about domestics in The Help, who was unquestionably the other full-out white liberal?  The publishing executive in New York City played by Mary Steenburgen.  As Northern moviegoers, we're beguiled into a sense of "Racism -- that can't happen here.  We don't have a Klan here.  We're not like they are down South.  We're better than that.  We get it."  Wilder showed that racism doesn't discriminate when it comes to location.  It just takes on a different attitude and wording.  Jackson, as a  favor, goes to pick up Harry's ex-wife at the airport.  He's dressed as if he's on a page in Esquire magazine.  She assumes he's a chauffeur because he's black.  Then there are comments about black people not being trustworthy, that they're second class citizens.  Wilder nails that subtle Northern form of racism.  He nails it harder with the help of Cliff Osmond's sharp, honest character.  The movie had to shut down for a few weeks while star Walter Matthau recuperated from a heart attack.  Osmond did another Wilder comedy also affected by a heart attack.  In the 1964 sexual farce, Kiss Me, Stupid, Ray Walston replaced Peter Sellers after the British actor was felled with a heart problem.  Osmond played half of an amateur songwriting team in Nevada hoping to get Vegas headliner Dean Martin to listen to and -- if they're lucky -- record one of their songs.
Barney (Osmond) cooks up a scheme to win Dino's attention.  He and his partner will attract the Rat Pack swinger's interest with the help of a local barmaid, Polly the Pistol.  She's a part-time unhappy hooker who dreams of being a plain happy housewife.
When this comedy came out, the Vatican announced that Catholics were forbidden to see it.  As far as the Vatican was concerned, seeing this Billy Wilder movie was in the same category as taking a blowtorch to your grandmother.  Why?  Because it was about sexual and show biz fantasies.  Everybody's fantasy was realized.  No one got hurt.  There was a happy ending.  That was the big threat to the Vatican's archaic views on morality and sex.  Incidentally, the Church denied Catholics seeing Dean Martin in peak form doing a satire on himself.  Kim Novak, whom I'd long been pretty much cold to except in Vertigo, Picnic and Pal Joey, was a big surprise giving a warm, relaxed, touching, funny performance -- one of the best of her film career.  She's a delight as dim-witted Polly.  As good a film as Some Like It Hot?  No.  Hardly.  But Novak's character comedy work is a highlight.
Wilder gave us one of Kim Novak's kookiest and most lovable screen characters.
Cliff Osmond's final assignment for Billy Wilder was in the director's 1974 version of The Front Page which again teamed Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Osmond had extensive television work to his credits.  He could hold his own opposite big stars and make their scenes even better with his talents.  I have a cherished buddy named Anthony DeVito.  He's got solid skills as a comedian and actor.  If he'd been around in the 1960s, DeVito definitely would have been the kind of actor tapped to do supporting character work for Billy Wilder -- like the late Cliff Osmond did.
I've seen Anthony act.  He's got the kind of versatility, compassion and comedy skills that would've made him a perfect pick to be a Wilder man.  Honestly, I do not know if he has an agent or manager.  But, if he does, I hope he's being submitted for good featured roles back in New York City -- and not just being sent to play "Italian hood #3" because he's a big Italian guy from Brooklyn.  You may have seen Anthony's stand-up comedy.  You may have seen him act on TV's Rescue Me or Boardwalk Empire.  If Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie was being made today, he'd shine in the role of Chester the insurance investigator.  Today's movies need more of those charismatic supporting players that Hollywood had back in its golden era.  People like Eve Arden, Thelma Ritter, Mary Wickes, Phil Silvers, Keenan Wynn, Oscar Levant -- and Cliff Osmond.  Anthony DeVito, someone who gave me great advice and support years ago when I was at an emotional low point, is one who could carry on that tradition.

Check out Cliff Osmond's work in Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie.  Check out Anthony's website.
www.anthonydevito.com





Wednesday, December 26, 2012

DJANGO UNCHAINED: Did You See It?

Controversy can often lead to added box office.  The new film from director/writer Quentin Tarantino  is Django Unchained starring Oscar winner Jamie Foxx as Django.  Reportedly, the N-word is used over 100 times in this movie.  Lord, have mercy.
Mr. Tarantino wrote the screenplay.  Have I liked the filmmaker's work?  Yes.  Especially Pulp Fiction and his remake/revisioning of Inglourious Basterds.  However, I have found myself thinking two things as I sit through his films:  1) He could make the same point and have a tighter film at two hours.  It doesn't need to be this long.  2)  I'm really tired of him throwing around the N-word as much as he does.  The second point comes from a guy who grew up as a child of the Civil Rights Era and has felt that sting of that vile word hurled at me by white people.  I cannot comment on Django Unchained because I haven't seen it yet.  If you have, I'd like to read your comments on the film.  Spike Lee, another director/writer who -- like Mr. Tarantino -- has acted in his own films -- had some angry comments about it.  Apparently, Tarantino (who references past movie genres in his productions) borrowed from the 1970s "spaghetti westerns," westerns made in Italy that became popular here in the States.  When Spike on Twitter wrote "American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western" and declared Django Unchained "disrespectful to my ancestors," he'd not seen the film.  I sat through Spike Lee's new movie, Red Hook Summer, over the summer.  Oy.  The minutes flew by like hours.  The N-word is tossed about in that one.  A slight follow-up to 1989's Do The Right Thing, we see an older Mookie (Lee) from that movie still delivering pizzas in Brooklyn.  Mookie didn't even move up to a management position.  He's still delivering pizzas and now has hair like Morgan Freeman.  Not one of Lee's best.  On Twitter, I noticed that the folks angered by Tarantino's thrill ride use of the N-word in Django Unchained are black.  I've read six reviews of the film by nationally recognized critics and the overall rating for this slavery western was "very good" to "masterpiece."  These were critics with Entertainment Weekly magazine, The New York Daily News, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and, formerly of TV's Entertainment Tonight, there was Leonard Maltin. Very interesting.  All these critics are white.  Not a one, I'm assuming, ever has been called the N-word or otherwise personally felt the sting of it.  Having a more racially diverse group of nationally recognized weekly film critics would make for juicier film talk.  The dialogue could provide the Hollywood entertainment industry and filmmakers with stuff they need to hear.  There could be viewpoints Quentin Tarantino needs to hear.
As I've blogged before, there are very few -- if any -- black film critics that American TV viewers can name.  We're over a decade into the 21st century and, still, black film critics are rarely seen on network morning news shows like CBS Sunday Morning where David Edelstein does reviews.  The weekday network morning shows seemed to drop weekly film journalism when networks became wedded to film studios -- like Disney with ABC and Universal with NBC.  But, when they did have film critics, we saw:  Gene Shalit on NBC, the late Gene Siskel on CBS, the late Joel Siegel on ABC.  Siskel & Ebert were in syndication.  After Gene's death, we saw Roger Ebert with Richard Roeper.  Then we saw Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons as a national movie critic duo.  That's pretty much a white boys' club.  I'm positive I wasn't the only black broadcaster who tried for a long time to integrate that field.  I was the weekly movie critic on the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee in 1981, the year Ben Lyons was born.  I was in my second year on the job.  A few summers ago, NBC let Kathie Lee Gifford's son, Cody, do film reviews in the last hour of Today.  He's younger than Ben Lyons.  Full disclosure:  I lobbied to do regular film reviews when I worked for WNBC in the early 1990s.  No luck despite my years of TV and print experience.  From The Color Purple to Do The Right Thing to Hustle & Flow to The Help and now Django Unchained, whenever a film with heavy duty content about black folks opens, it's Caucasian critics telling us minority moviegoers why we need to see it.  On the network morning shows, the contributors talking about film and film-related topics such as forecasting Oscar nominations are usually Caucasian.  Throw some color into the mix.  The arts demand diversity.  Do you know who this man being applauded is?
He's not as recognizable to TV viewers as Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert or even Ben Lyons from E! Entertainment Television.  But Wesley Morris won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for film criticism. The journalist for The Boston Globe follows Ebert as a recipient of that prestigious award.  Trust me on this, there are many many black film critics in the country who would love the opportunity to be on TV other than Black History Month.  We need to hear some black film critics give us their opinions of Django Unchained.  How did they feel hearing "n****r" onscreen over 100 times?  Is Tarantino helping or hurting?  Did he screen the film for black critics or black audiences for feedback before it was released?
Leonardo DiCaprio is opposite Jamie Foxx in the above photo.  The slave revenge western also stars the actor who was so brilliant as the Nazi officer in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
Christoph Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for that Nazi role.
Samuel L. Jackson co-stars in this controversial pre-Civil War story.
On her internationally-famous daytime talk show, Oprah predicted DiCaprio would win the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Howard Hughes in The Aviator.  Her prediction came with the grandly dramatic proclamation, "Go get your Oscar, Leo!" when he was a guest on her show.  He lost to Jamie Foxx who amazingly channeled Ray Charles in Ray.  I have a feeling Leo will get his some Hollywood gold of his own one day.  Not to worry. 
If you saw them in Django Unchained, what did you think?  What point does the director strive to make with it?  Is it socially relevant or just a wild western, Tarantino style?  Please, leave me some comments.  By the way, I respect Spike Lee, but I would not publicly condemn a film that I had not yet seen.  That wouldn't feel like fair play to me.



Monday, December 24, 2012

On SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954)

It was love at first sight when my mother introduced me to Debbie Reynolds.  Debbie was an older woman.  Mainly because I was in grade school at the time.  I still recall the weekend afternoon when, to keep me occupied while she did household chores, Mom sat me down in front of the big boxy TV we had in the living room and had me watch Susan Slept Here on local Channel 9, an independent station in Southern California.  I was new to the skill of reading and was going to watch a Joan Fontaine movie with a title that I could and did read out loud:  "Born To Be Bad."  Mom looked at the TV listings and turned the channel.  "Here," Mom said.  "Watch Debbie Reynolds.  She's a good girl."  When two cops on Christmas Eve drag a female juvenile delinquent into the Hollywood apartment of an unemployed middle-aged Oscar-winning screenwriter, her scream is so loud and piercing that it shatters a bulb on his Christmas tree.  That was the girl for me.
She was the cutest tomboy horror ever to wear blue jeans and kick a cop.  Debbie was just adorable. And funny.  Is Susan Slept Here a comedy up there with the best of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks?  No.
Is it a Christmastime classic in the same category with It's A Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife or  Miracle on 34th Street?  Again, no.  But it is one of my favorite movies and watching it during the holiday season has long been an annual tradition for me.  I guess it's what you'd call "a guilty pleasure."  This is the kind of comedy that could be made in the days of Old Hollywood -- like Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor.  Here, a pretty and pretty tough local girl (who's really a good kid from a home where she was more the responsible mother type and the mother was more like another teen-ager) winds up in the custody of a Hollywood screenwriter the night before Christmas.  He's got writer's block and the cops think the troubled teen could give him ideas.  Not those kind of ideas.  Frankly, he'd rather have a dental appointment for a root canal than have Susan spend another minute in his home.  Tampering with her virtue is the farthest thing from his mind.  Besides, he's engaged to a senator's daughter.  Anne Francis played the overbearing, bad-tempered blonde with the hubba-hubba-hubba figure.
Isabella is one heavy piece o' furniture, so to speak.  You just know that marriage to her will be more work than fun.  Screen veteran Dick Powell stars as the likably jaded novelist and screenwriter, Mark Christopher.  By this time, Debbie Reynolds was a new 1950s musical comedy queen on the MGM lot, having triumphed in 1952's Singin' in the Rain with Gene Kelly.  Powell had been one of the 1930s kings of musical comedies, starring in Busby Berkeley movies for Warner Bros. and introducing many new songs that went on to become standards.  This was Dick Powell's last feature film before going on to great success as a TV producer and host.  It was his second film, besides Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful, in which he played a successful screenwriter.
Christopher is tired of writing light comedies and musicals.  He wants to write something heavy.  Like "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels.  When he discovers that this inconvenient teen on the verge of womanhood is really wise, mature and unselfish beyond her years, we know he'll fall in love with her even though he tries to resist.  The Susan Slept Here script is written in a way that keeps it from feeling creepy.  Plus we know the lead actors are really adults.  What I love about this comedy is the pace, the snappy dialogue, the chemistry of the stars and the energetic performance from Debbie Reynolds.  She's delightful. It's been written that Reynolds is one of the few women in Hollywood films who partnered onscreen with legendary dance stars Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse.  Well, in Susan Slept Here, Debbie Reynolds became the first and only Hollywood actor ever to use an Academy Award as a nutcracker onscreen.  And it's the only film in which an Oscar does the opening narration.
As a yuletide good deed, the screenwriter will marry the juvenile delinquent and make her legal.  This, of course, will make hot Hollywood gossip news but will not set well with the senator's daughter.  (I also fell in love with Anne Francis and her beauty mole.)
Susie, however, is happy.  She loves Mr. Christopher.  This makes room for a musical dream sequence that give Debbie most of the dance duty.  Smart move.
Dick Powell doesn't sing in it.  But it does have a nice nod to those 1930s Warner Bros. musicals with Ruby Keeler that put him in military uniform.
Even though the Catholic Legion of Decency condemned this movie solely because of its title, it's pretty tame stuff by today's standards -- as is most stuff deemed "objectionable" in 1950s films.  Sophisticatedly suggestive, but tame.
For me, another highlight of this comedy is one of Powell's former co-stars and fellow Warner Bros. contract players from those musicals of his.  Glenda Farrell is a hoot as Maude, his trusty and wise-cracking secretary/typist.  Maude never met a cocktail she didn't like.  She can't stand Isabella.  I wait for each one of her wisecracks.  Maude is a gal pal in a league with the best of the Eve Arden and Thelma Ritter sidekicks.  Glenda Farrell and Dick Powell starred in Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers of 1937.
Reynolds, then a newcomer, kept right up with those two seasoned pros  This may not be a classic comedy but it sure shines brighter than modern romantic comedies we've endured from Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Aniston.  When Susan views home movies of Mark and Isabella during their courtship, her facial reactions to vain Isabella break me up laughing every time.  Debbie's comic skills and charm are in full bloom here.
What luck when Mom switched me over from the Joan Fontaine film noir story to something fluffy with Debbie Reynolds.  And Mom actually sat, watched and laughed at it with me.  I'm glad she did.  She had to explain to me that Susan eating "strawberries and pickles" was something women might crave if they were pregnant.  The question is virginity is breezier and funnier here than in Otto Preminger's sluggish but popular 1953 comedy, The Moon Is Blue -- also condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.
In movies, often the worst thing that can happen in a writer's personal life at a certain time is the best thing that can happen to him artistically.  We know that Susan will romantically remove the writer's block from Mark Christopher's head and heart.
A sunny weekend afternoon in South Central Los Angeles.  Mother and son bonding over a Christmas comedy starring Debbie Reynolds.  When movie reviewers are asked to name their favorite films, they always give out with a high tone list and mention titles like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and deep dish works by Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa and Fellini.  Rarely do they mention mass market, feel-good entertainment.  Susan Slept Here is one of my favorite films.  That may not make me seem high-brow, but this picture always puts a smile on my face.  It brings back warm memories of spending time with my mother when  I was a youngster.  Debbie Reynolds was a great guest on my VH1 talk show in the late 80s.  When I told her that I'd been in love with her ever since I was a kid, I meant it.  In person, she didn't disappoint.  What a joy she was.  Susan Slept Here -- it's light.  It's funny.  It's colorful.  It's Christmas-y.  I'm thrilled my holiday "guilty pleasure" has finally made it to DVD.  Thank you, Warner Archive.  And Merry Christmas.






Billy Wilder DVD Double Feature

Fred MacMurray.  Man, there was an actor who deserves more attention than he gets from classic film enthusiasts.  We baby boomers loved him ...