I started reading the BFI’s excellent, thorough book on Frank Tashlin, and realized I’ve hardly seen any of his movies. Here’s a quick remedy.
Susan Slept Here (1954)
A screenwriter with an oscar-winning career of “light, frothy comedies” wants to make a more serious picture, needs a dose of hard, cold reality (with the help of a girl who’s too young for him) to gain inspiration for his writing.
But enough about Sullivan’s Travels!
Dreamy teen Debbie Reynolds was actually 21:
TCM notes that it “has the distinction of being the only film in history narrated by an Academy Award,” as the fictional screenwriter’s oscar presents the story in a framing device which doesn’t quite work besides providing some Tashlinesque self-reflexivity. Lead actor Dick Powell (selected by studio head Howard Hughes “after his first choice Robert Mitchum declined”) in his final film, retaining none of the energy he displayed in Christmas In July, is our author and Debbie Reynolds of Singin’ in the Rain, providing plenty enough energy for the both of them, is the girl. How they end up together is too stupid to relay in detail – friendly cops leave her with Dick over Christmas, they reluctantly bond, he marries her to keep her from being sent to a foster home (she’s 17) then leaves town to write his screenplay, comes home to annul their marriage but she decides to keep him and he’s not hard to convince.
The whole situation aims to be risque, but comes off a bit icky. It’s still a fun movie, a bit awkward but light enough to write off any ickyness or awkwardness at the end, tell myself “gee, that was nice”, then forget most of it a week later.
Dick Powell doesn’t quite work in close-up:
Anne Francis (Blackboard Jungle, Bad Day at Black Rock), seen below as the threatening spider-lady of Debbie’s dreams, is Dick’s girlfriend, who leaves him over some misunderstandings over Dick and Debbie (or are they understandings since those two end up together?).
Alvy Moore (later one of the underground crazies in A Boy And His Dog) is perfect as Dick’s boy-wonder, a kiss-up assistant who tries to stay out of the sexual escapades.
Glenda Farrell (of Little Caesar and star of the 1930’s Torchy Blane series), a Thelma Ritter type (Thelma was busy on Rear Window this year), is Dick’s drunken typist. Glenda and Alvy make the movie worth watching.
Everyone notes the Red Skelton guest appearance. I’ll dutifully note it too, though I don’t know who Red Skelton is.
The key note is elegance. Frank Tashlin uses smooth camera moves, rigorous composition and classical editing to make a scabrous play and an already completed script even more subversive, lodging his directorial presence in a physical and moral space not of his own making. … As in the rest of Tashlin’s oeuvre, Susan Slept Here shows an immature character intruding into, and at first wanting to destroy, a closed adult world. … Tashlin then shows the way in which the character appropriates the space, and concludes with their desire to be integrated into it.
Hollywood Or Bust (1956)
Jean-Luc Godard wrote a glowing review of this when it came out, identifying Tashlin as an auteur whose style would be world-recognized in the future. This only came true among hardcore cinephiles, unfortunately.
This final Martin & Lewis picture doesn’t hold a candle to Artists and Models, but I still thought it was surprisingly good, especially considering the two leads were reportedly not speaking to each other anymore. Tashlin, right before his two terrific Jayne Mansfield movies, keeps things bouncing along quickly enough that there’s no time for a bitter showdown.
a plug for the widescreen process… Tashlin was into drawing attention to his color or aspect ratios, and congratulating his audience for leaving their couches and televisions to attend his pictures:
Dean scams a winning ticket for a car raffle (by getting duplicates of every ticket) in order to either sell the car and pay his bookie, or skip town and avoid his bookie – it’s supposed to be the former, but sometimes it seems like the latter. But Jerry has the legitimate winning ticket, so they share the car, and Dean reluctantly shares Jerry’s dream of driving to Hollywood and meeting dream girl Anita Ekberg (of The Alphabet Murders, French Sex Murders, Killer Nun).
Jerry pushes the old oil-rig-in-a-hat bit:
Complications ensue. Pat Crowley (the young latina girl in Red Garters) gives them a ride when their car is stolen (later recovered) then they give her a ride when hers is destroyed. Jerry’s dog threatens Dean when he tries to make off with the car. Jerry finds Anita but pushes her into a pool. After a nice cartoony soundstage chase, Jerry’s dog is cast to costar with Anita, everyone attends the premiere, and I can’t remember if the bookie thing works itself out but I suppose it does.
Dean’s seduction method of choice (see also: Artists and Models) is blatant sexual harassment:
I thought Dean’s line “I’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for that hound of yours” was a Scooby Doo reference until I realized Scooby was still a decade away from being created. Maybe Scooby was referencing Hollywood Or Bust, then!
Anita (left) and Pat:
Having just examined America’s obsession with comic books in Artists and Models, and poised to assault the world of rock ‘n’ roll in his next film The Girl Can’t Help It, Hollywood or Bust finds Tashlin in a relaxed, easy going mood. Hollywood may figure in the title – or more precisely the credit sequence, where Anita poses like a living statue before various Hollywood tourist sites – but the film isn’t about the world of movie making in any straightforward Rear Window way. Rather, through the figures of Dean and Jerry, Tashlin explores an American psyche populated by Hollywood imagery, particularly images of women. Images being static entities, it is therefore appropriate that the trip to Hollywood supposedly depicted in this early entry in the “road movie” sub-genre isn’t a real trip at all. Dean and Jerry’s adventures begin and end on a Hollywood sound stage as every artificial set, painted backdrop and second unit photographed exterior of the film makes clear. … The sets of Hollywood or Bust represent nothing other than movie sets.