Knocked Up: Susan Slade (1961)

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In 1958 Delmer Daves suffered a heart attack, forcing him out of the Wild West and into the boudoir. Instructed by his doctors to avoid physically taxing Western location shoots, he embarked on a series of lurid melodramas starring poseable Ken doll Troy Donahue. Donahue’s unthreatening blonde-haired blue-eyed good looks made him the heartthrob of choice from 1959 – 1962, when he made A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade and Rome Adventure with Daves, all of which were box office hits and critical failures (the latter three are available on DVD in WB’s Romance Classics box set, while A Summer Place is out on its own). They are films about sex that treat it as an inevitable result of adolescence, not as a threat to be avoided, and teenagers of the time must have appreciated this honesty, along with the vibrant Technicolor photography capturing the dewy Donahue/Sandra Dee/Connie Stevens. And if you were going to have an illegitimate baby, the gentle Donahue would be the father of choice. I added a poster of Susan Slade to my Facebook page, and immediately one of my friend’s mothers commented, “I was in love with Troy Donahue.” These are movies that are weighted with sense memories for people of a certain age, and they are ripe for reevaluation.

Critics have prioritized Daves’ war films (Pride of the Marines) and Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), but these disreputable melodramas are equally representative of his talents, trading Western vistas for suburban split-levels. Dave Kehr wrote in the New York Times that, “the virtues of Daves’s late romances are essentially the same as those of his adventure films: characters composed with the utmost integrity and respect; a gift for creating a detailed and convincing social background; and a strong, clear narrative style that allowed him to manage a large cast of characters and several simultaneous levels of dramatic events.” I have previously written about A Summer Place, but today I am going to discuss Susan Slade, a remarkably strange romance in which Connie Stevens, with the aid of her permissive parents, hides her unwanted pregnancy from the world, and then falls in love with the intellectual-novelist-stable boy Donahue, from whom she hides the truth. The film throws up any number of improbable barriers to their union, from a Guatemalan coal mine to an ill-fated cigarette lighter. Their union is impossible, until it isn’t.

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Susan Slade was based on the novel The Sin of Susan Slade (1961), by Doris Hume, and was quickly optioned by producer Edward Small (Kansas City Confidential), who turned around and sold it to Warner Brothers. Eager to further capitalize on the success of one of their last studio-manufactured stars, they turned the book into the latest Daves-Donahue potboiler. Donahue’s real name was Merle Johnson, but WB’s publicity team re-christened him as Troy Donahue. Mere/Troy recalled the process to People magazine: “At first they had Paris, the lover of Helen of Troy, in mind,” Donahue says. “But I guess they thought they couldn’t name me Paris Donahue because there was already a Paris, France and Paris, Illinois.”  So Troy it was. Two years earlier A Summer Place had made Donahue a star, but his screen presence remained ethereal and remote. He was never really fit to take on the role of approachable West coast dreamboat, as he was an incorrigible alcoholic who drank his way out of the movie business in a few years. Resentful of the limited roles he was offered, he told People that,  “I would like to forever get rid of that image of the California beachboy.” He takes a drag on his cigarette and says matter-of-factly, “I’m an actor. Not an ornament.”

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But these are beautifully ornamented features, with Donahue perhaps the most beautiful. Susan Slade’s director of photography was Lucien Ballard, whose first gig was doing additional photography for Von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930). Donahue is outfitted in an apple red jacket to reference Rebel Without a Cause, and his character Hoyt Brecker is something of a destabilizing force. Brecker’s father was arrested for embezzlement and then hung himself in his jail, and all of the old family friends disassociate themselves. So Hoyt withdraws from society, only occasionally drawn out by Connie Stevens as Susan Slade, who still keeps in touch with this awkward, strikingly handsome lad.

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Slade’s life is a parade of tragedies. The opening sequences detail her shipboard flirtation and passionate romance with a young playboy mountain climber named Conn (Grant Williams), who sleeps with her and cuts off contact. Hard to believe you can’t trust a man named Conn. There is a languorous, highly suggestive crane shot of slumped and supine partygoers lazily cuddling on a stateroom floor. Many are smoking, an intimation of post-coital bliss as the love theme from A Summer Place twinkles over the radio. It is here that Conn dips Susan down for a deep, loving kiss. It is here, one assumes, the doomed coupling takes place. Conn dies trying to summit Mount McKinley, leaving a distraught Susan pregnant and alone.

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Her parents are played with glowing warmth by Lloyd Nolan and Dorothy McGuire, the models of connubial bliss. Nolan is all empathy, his jowly face in a continual mask of concern for his poor daughter. One of the more moving sequences occurs in close-up, after the Slades move into their new cliffside home in Carmel, CA, where he thanks God for all his blessings. It is an unusual sequence in how it slows down the narrative, but it is the kind of character grace note that gives these films their emotional punch. McGuire’s performance is more guarded, as she becomes more inward when the family decides to pretend that Susan’s baby is actually her mother’s. McGuire then has to convey a protectiveness of her pseudo-baby, hinting that she might be willing to take Susan’s son for good. This mother-daughter jealousy is further ramped up after the father’s passing, leaving the two women to fend for their son/grandon’s affections.

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Connie Stevens has the most difficult role here, with Susan stuck between different phases of life: She is a doting daughter and a thwarted mother, an immature girl and an experienced lover. Connie threads the needle with the aid of costuming, hair and makeup. On the ship she has a sophisticated evening gown and up-do, whereas home in Carmel she ties back her hair in girly bows and dresses in giant sweaters. 23 at the time of shooting, she has a button-nose Mickey Mouse Club cuteness that makes the “adult” scenes even more shocking. But Stevens is an agile enough actress to balance these two extremes of her character. In the climactic scene of revelation, in which she lays the whole story bare, she speaks with steel in her voice, and bends Donahue to her will.

 

12 Responses Knocked Up: Susan Slade (1961)
Posted By Jonathan Barnett : January 26, 2016 3:49 pm

“Critics have prioritized Daves’ war films (Pride of the Marines) and Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal), but these disreputable melodramas are equally representative of his talents, trading Western vistas for suburban split-levels.”

Thanks for this. I’m more of a genre type (noir, westerns, thrillers, etc). I should just pounce on these suburban dramas with the same ease. Delmer is the co-writer of AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, actually the original movie that is was based LOVE AFFAIR. I think Nichols Ray and Douglas Sirk also elevated this an art form.

Posted By kingrat : January 26, 2016 5:22 pm

Thank you for writing about one of my guiltiest pleasures. A SUMMER PLACE is a serious melodrama, in my opinion much better than Sirk’s IMITATION OF LIFE. The rest of Daves’ melodramas are, well, less serious. SUSAN SLADE almost defines the word “camp,” especially the scene you don’t write about, but which the new viewer will definitely remember. That house in Carmel is gorgeous, too.

One of the goofiest aspects of these films is having Troy play an aspiring novelist (love your description above!), and in ROME ADVENTURE a painter who’s won an award to study in Rome.

A couple of Daves films that ought not to be forgotten: THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU and KINGS GO FORTH. Both might be described as wartime romance/melodramas.

Posted By LD : January 26, 2016 11:46 pm

As a young girl in the ’60′s I was not allowed to see SUSAN SLADE until it became available on television. It certainly depicts a “fate almost worse than death” as an unwed mother. A cautionary tale for certain. For my friends and myself it was about A SUMMER PLACE, which we also had to wait to see on t.v. My mom had the book which I read on the sly, which afforded me a certain amount of clout among my girlfriends. As I have revisited that film over the years we had better taste than I thought, especially Egan’s monologue about his wife’s prejudices. These films were relevant at the time but once the ’60′s truly hit everything went to hell in the proverbial hand basket. When it comes to unwed motherhood, that was a good thing. IMO.

Posted By swac44 : January 27, 2016 11:09 pm

I watched Rome Adventure in large part due to its high Vespa scooter content (it even features prominently on the poster, I think the Italian scooter company got a lot of mileage out of having its two-wheelers in films like this and Roman Holiday), but ended up enjoying Donahue in his struggle to choose between Angie Dickinson and Suzanne Pleshette. Oh, the difficult decisions one must make…

Posted By Peter Winkler : January 28, 2016 8:28 pm

Merle Johnson Jr. was dubbed Troy Donahue not by Warner Bros. but by his agent, Henry Willson, the notorious gay star-maker whose must successful act of reinvention was renaming Roy Scherer Jr. Rock Hudson and grooming him for stardom.

Posted By Peter Winkler : January 28, 2016 8:31 pm

One of Daves’ unjustly overlooked films is Youngblood Hawke (1964), a compact, entertaining adaptation of one of Herman Wouk’s typically sprawling novels.

Posted By George : January 28, 2016 9:55 pm

I wish Warner would release Connie Stevens’ TV series, “Hawaiian Eye” (1959-63) on DVD. She was a doll in that one. Episodes of varying quality occasionally turn up on YouTube.

Posted By Autist : January 28, 2016 10:46 pm

“I watched Rome Adventure in large part due to its high Vespa scooter content…”

I’ve heard of some weird reasons for watching a movie, but that may just be the weirdest.

Posted By swac44 : January 29, 2016 1:07 pm

Oh, it gets worse. I’ve edited together a bunch of clips of scooters in classic films, from Roman Holiday to The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. And one of Herman’s Hermits rides a lovely Lambretta at the start of Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter. The dark Italian comedy Mafioso (which I also recorded off TCM) actually opens and closes with scenes inside the Lambretta factory, with scooters coming off the assembly line.

The other day, I found out the father of a friend of mine owns an Albatross, the bulky red scooter ridden by Karl Boehm in Peeping Tom. When the weather improves, I should hop on my Vespa P200e and ride on out to see it….

Yeah, a bit of an obsession. I blame seeing Quadrophenia as a teenager.

Posted By LD : January 29, 2016 1:34 pm

The first movie that comes into my mind when a Vespa is mentioned is AMERICAN GRAFFITI. Love Toad and his “almost a motorcycle”.

When I was very young my Dad had some sort of scooter. I don’t know what it was only that it was red. He would let me stand and ride on the running board in front of him. Sans helmet, of course.

Posted By swac44 : January 29, 2016 1:53 pm

“Almost a motorcycle”? What are you a rocker? Them’s fightin’ words! We can settle this on the beach at Brighton… ;-)

But yeah, I used to laugh at Toad and his clutch troubles, until my first time on a gear-shifting scooter, and I did a wheelie by accident trying to start from a stop on a hill. And of course, someone I knew just happened to be driving by when it happened.

Posted By LD : January 29, 2016 2:07 pm

Sorry swac, no offense intended. The “almost a motorcycle” comment was made by Candy Clark in the film when Toad confessed that the car wasn’t his but he did have a Vespa. That was the reason I used quotation marks. Not my personal opinion.

Would love to be on the beach at Brighton for any reason but my southern blood is way too thin.

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