The MGM musicals on Criterion Channel are starting to blur together – musically, at least. This one has a memorable plot: a Broadway star walks out, and auditions narrow down her replacement to three girls, each the favorite of one of the casting men.

Producer Larry Keating talks show director Gower Champion into auditioning his former partner Marge Champion (the Champions had remade Ginger & Fred’s Roberta the year before) – she’s a established star and right for the role, but they’re both uneasy about it. Composer Kurt Kasznar (Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate) is hot for the extremely flexible Helen Wood (a future porn actress). Kurt is mostly terrible but surprisingly competent as a dance partner.

For some reason, these three give the time of day to the coffee boy (Bob Fosse!), who falls for Debbie Reynolds. I mean you can’t expect a girl to be excellent at everything, so the better the dancer, the worse the actress. Debbie Reynolds does tap, and is somehow in competition with super-flex girl and established star – but she’s Debbie freakin’ Reynolds so we’re rooting for her.

The dance sequences are fun – conveyor belts, dream sequences, a dance mostly in reverse featuring balloons unpopping. The poor composer does not get his girl, since she turns out to be married and pregnant, and the Champions decide to reunite romantically instead of working together, so Debbie’s dream comes true (plus she gets to date a coffee boy, but Fosse is cute and enthusiastic). From the screenwriting couple behind The Pirate, and IMDB says both movies bombed. Our seventh Stanley Donen movie!

Debbie and Donald, reuniting from last year’s Singin’ in the Rain. This one’s not at the same level, but is still awfully fun with good music – other musicals we’ve watched this month have better dancing, but this one had the best songs.

The plot is convoluted hooey: he bumps into her in the park, makes excuses to spend time together by photographing her for a nonexistent article in the magazine where he works as a flunky. She’s currently playing a football on Broadway (not “playing football”, she’s the football, it’s hilarious) and is supposed to marry a rich chunk (Richard Anderson of Seconds and Forbidden Planet), so Donald goes further in his scheme and brings over a mock-up magazine with Debbie on the cover, which causes everyone to overreact. Donald ends up homeless and the magazine devotes an entire issue to locating him – as you do when you’re a major publication and your coffee boy goes missing – and everyone’s happy, except maybe Debbie’s dad (Allyn Joslyn: a pilot in Only Angels Have Wings, sheriff of Moonrise) who quit his job spectacularly and now has an unemployed son-in-law. Katy knows the mom from The Parent Trap – Una Merkel aged fast, from playing the marriable daughter of The Bank Dick to playing someone’s Aunt Elsie in only one year.

Vibrant colors, and not in widescreen, this being six months before the premiere of Cinemascope. Don Weis went into television early, directing everything from Wagon Train in the 50’s to Batman in the 60’s to MASH in the 70’s to Fantasy Island in the 80’s. The screenwriter won an oscar a couple years later for Designing Woman. Debbie’s little sister gets a whole song, and it’s not terrible. She would later be a teen TV star on the series Bachelor Father.

Matt Damon is Scott, who gets introduced to Liberace (Lee to his friends) by laid-back mustache dude Scott Bakula in the late 1970’s, beginning an affair/family/employee situation that lasts until Lee (Michael Douglas) finally kicks out Scott in favor of a new, younger, less-drug-addicted, less-contentious boy. It comes full circle from when Scott replaced gloomy pretty-boy Cheyenne Jackson (Danny, the new cast member on 30 Rock) at Lee’s house. Liberace dies of AIDS, but Scott is cut out of the will, Lee’s verbal promises not carrying any legal weight, so Scott writes a tell-all memoir.

Performances are great, storytelling is effective, costumes and period details are spot-on, but it can’t break out of the “bio-pic based on tell-all memoir” genre. A squinty Rob Lowe is the highlight as a plastic surgeon who makes Douglas look younger and Damon look weirder with shiny cheeks. Dan Aykroyd plays Lee’s manager and Debbie Reynolds (Tammy and the Bachelor, Susan Slept Here) his mother. Adapted from Scott’s book by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King).

A. Cook: “I don’t know if any other American filmmaker is more inventive right now with choosing where to place the camera, how to frame the image, how to use focus, etc.” I get what he’s saying – in this and Haywire and Contagion I notice unusual editing and shot choices – but the movies’ standard Hollywood storytelling and starpower get in the way. If I was dedicated enough, I might rewatch Haywire paying attention only to its framing and technical qualities, but maybe instead Soderbergh needs more interesting scripts to go with his artistic filmmaking intentions – The Informant being a good example.

Katy had a powerful hankering to watch this after we heard the main song in The Long Day Closes. Tammy (Debbie Reynolds, a few years after Susan Slept Here) is a young girl living on a houseboat with granpappy Walter Brennan (two years before Rio Bravo, already quite Stumpy-like). They help a wounded traveler (hunky Leslie Nielsen, only looking like Lt. Drebin occasionally from certain angles) and when Brennan goes to jail for moonshinin’, Tammy goes to stay with the rich city-dwelling Nielsen. Lovesick hijinks ensue.

The great Fay Wray plays Nielsen’s mom, I think, and he has an aunt (Rosemary Clooney-looking Mildred Natwick) who’s a painter, or ex-painter or something. Tammy inspires them all with her country simplicity. Pevney later directed a chunk of the original Star Trek episodes, and Sandra Dee took over as Tammy in the sequels.

The most anti-feminist crap imaginable – could’ve been hilarious camp if it wasn’t so boring and traditional. Each character seems close to expressing some kind of definition or interest before the movie yanks them back into its safe, bland, kiddy-pool world.

Debbie Reynolds (Susan Slept Here) is a successful New York actress, takes time off at her vacation house in Connecticut with her associate Eileen Heckart (Burnt Offerings, The Bad Seed). But they find six children with step-parents even more cartoonishly terrible than the ones in Million Dollar Baby. Debbie, naturally, throws her career away to live in the country and care for them – but first, whom to marry? Her slick New York agent who’s had a crush on her for years, David Janssen of Marooned? Or hunky local-hero minister Cliff Robertson, star of Underworld USA? It’s a no-brainer!

From the director of the great Mystery Science Theater short Once Upon a Honeymoon, the one where the woman sings about wanting a telephone in every room.

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.

Noel Simsolo:

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:

David Ehrenstein:

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.