January 26, 2016
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.