And a Susan Slade Shall Lead Them
There's a petting party in Susan Slade that I think kind of redefined how teen sex would be addressed by movies. Before, and I mean in things like Peyton Place, such an episode was at the least prelude to disaster of Lana Turner flipping on lights to raise holy hell, if not cause for police intervention. That was 1957, of course. Now it's 1961 and we glide leisurely across a stateroom filled with snuggled-up couples, not so murkily lit as on furtive occasions before, enjoying each other (Susan Slade's first act takes place on an ocean liner) to accompaniment of Max Steiner's mating theme from A Summer Place. At the end of this smooch line is Connie Stevens with Grant Williams, she having lately taken receipt of a "first kiss" from him and now getting the process down. Teen screen lovemaking had never looked so assured. I'd draw a line of demarcation around Susan Slade and others of its cycle and call what came before Pre-Delmer Daves ... everything after was what his masterminding made possible. Here's the thing remarkable about Daves: He wrote, produced, directed the whole magillah of melodramas Warners released and everyone (save those around to enjoy them when new) eventually laughed at. But the cycle made oodles of profit and Delmer Daves retired to the desert with his fortune, so I'd say last yoks were his. Why do cineastes go on worshipping Doug Sirk with this truer auteur having been in our midst? Daves was a do-it-all-er who saw a trend coming and so customized it to his will. The man was well into fifties when he built A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade, and Rome Adventure, but no one younger had the movies' most sought after demographic roped and tied like Delmer. As with other filmmakers with ears to a pop culture wall, he was raising a couple of kids at home. Were they tipping him off to what worked with peers the way Jim Nicholson's offspring and friends helped steer AIP? Remarkable how a veteran like Daves, in the business since silents, could read adolescent ticker tape better than picture folk more recently out of that age group. I'd assume Warners knew what a treasure they had in this guy, for he was the first director to make their contract youth look lush.
DD made taboo sex among youth romantic and accessible, more so as his profitable series carried forward. Harsh consequence of under-age lovemaking in A Summer Place gives way to comparative live-and-let-live of Susan Slade. Now instead of punitive Constance Ford for a mother, there is supportive Dorothy McGuire to ease pregnant and unwed Connie Stevens through the thicket. What a difference two years made, and how adroitly Delmer Daves recognized that his audience was past need of admonishment over ill-timed coupling. Parental outrage is the least of Susan Slade's concerns. Even as there is society's disapproval to contend with, she has reassurance of a birthday pony and luxury placement in a so-called "Monterey Dream House." Girls in trouble never had it so good. Dorothy McGuire was harbinger for permissive moms who'd not hit panic buttons when daughter came home knocked up, having "understood" in A Summer Place that youth must have its carnal fling. Susan Slade's roll-with-the-punches father Lloyd Nolan follows Place's Richard Egan for not judging nor raising a hand to errant offspring. These were dream parents unlike ones 1961 viewers contended with at home, another reason they loved basking in Susan Slade's comfort zone. Didn't she have enough problems with boyfriend/father of unplanned child falling off a mountain without mom and dad getting all in a moral twist over it?
Delmer Daves' genius was reflected too in his letting youth stars drive stories. No more were deluxe model melodramas sole preserve to grown-ups. With teens buying a clear majority of tickets, why not tell facts of life from their point of view? The early sixties would see the Jane Wymans and Lana Turners making way (if reluctantly) for Connie Stevens, Sandra Dee, and kindred youth to topline vehicles worthy of that generation now supporting an industry in distress. Cheapies like Unwed Mother and Diary Of a High School Bride had been reminder to kids of how little Hollywood valued them, while mainstream A's treated teens and their issues like spiders in a bottle, stressing trouble they caused for adults billed over the title like James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck in 1956's outdated-when-it-was-new These Wilder Years. Delmer Daves realized ponytail patrons would not only support his merchandise, but study it, for these were long overdue women's pictures for young women, and this till-now ignored customer base would respond more loyally and in greater number than mature femmes staying home to watch Queen For a Day. How many boyfriends were inveigled to carry dates to drive-in runs of Susan Slade and her Daves-generated cousins? ... I'll bet lots more than ever sat through Sirk mellers with over-hills Wyman and Lana. Classifying the Daves group as chick pics is a misnomer in any case. I've long guessed males enjoy these even if they won't admit it, and who among them would be so obtuse as to drag girlfriends to hardtop Gorgo runs when they could enjoy benefit of aphrodisiac spell Daves' films cast?
That potion was mixed as much by composer Max Steiner as writing-directing Daves. What a late-career spike this was for been-around-an-eternity Steiner, who understood maybe best of all what got teen motors running. Warners had by now boosted their sound to world-class clarity, just in time, it seemed, for Steiner's final and epic assaults upon viewer emotions. His scores were essential to the Delmer Daves oeuvre, a common thread linking them all as much as repeating cast members. I still remember teenage neighbor girls playing their Rome Adventure albums till grooves wore smooth. Speaking of that one, my friend Geoff Rayle ran a 35mm IB Technicolor print at his archive screening room a few weeks ago and dazzled that 2010 audience in ways undoubtedly similar to what a 1962 public experienced. Good as Warners' DVD set looks (including Parrish, Susan Slade, and Rome Adventure), there really is no substitute for the wondrous impact 35mm has with its Technicolored luminosity. Geoff reported his audience, all of them born a generation after Rome Adventure came out, being blown away by what looked to be a 3-D tour of Italy minus glasses ( ... and sharpness like I've never seen, said more than one). You can knock these pics for clunky narrative, snail pacing, and callow actors barely worthy of the name, but folks in the late 50's/early 60's with access to first-run prints knew something we don't ... when movies look and sound this good, and cast such romantic (if not outright erotic) glows ... the rest counts for damn little and matters less.