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Seventeen-year-old Susan Slade (Connie Stevens) is the sheltered, virginal daughter of a protective, loving engineer father Roger Slade (Lloyd Nolan) and a devoted, ex-fashion model mother Leah Slade (Dorothy McGuire). When the family travels from Roger's mining job in remote Chile after 10 years of isolation to sophisticated, moneyed Monterey, California the innocent Susan gets her first taste of love and a world beyond her father's work. Her first experience with men is onboard the ship taking the family from isolated Chile. On the ship Susan meets the romantic but far more sophisticated son of privilege Conn White (Grant Williams, best known for 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man) whose vocation and avocation is mountain climbing. Susan is instantly smitten and in this exciting, twisting plot line intermingling a traditional romance with a sensational story of teenage premarital sex and social taboo, she loses her virginity and her heart to Conn.
Yet director Delmer Daves' Susan Slade (1961) is firmly grounded in the hyperbolic landscape of the Hollywood melodrama and so fate, bad luck, sudden shifts of fortune and love denied dominate a plot line incorporating suicide attempts, tragic deaths, heart attacks, scandal, plenty of sex and a flaming baby. Susan tries desperately to contact Conn but he has undertaken his next mission - scaling Alaska's Mt. McKinley. She discovers she is pregnant and is ultimately forced to confess her transgressions to her doting parents.
Faced with unwed motherhood, the family hatches a plan. Roger will take a mining job in distant Guatemala where Susan will have her out-of-wedlock baby so that her mother can then pass the child off as her own when they return to California. But matters of the heart are not easily denied in the fervid melodramatic scenario. And so more complications ensue including a battle of the suitors beginning with Susan's flirtation with the handsome, aspiring novelist and Monterey stable owner Hoyt Brecker (Troy Donahue), who has limited finances. Susan is also romanced by wealthy and charming Wells Corbett (Bert Convy) the son of her father's benevolent employer Stanton Corbett (Brian Aherne) and his glamorous wife Marion Corbett (Natalie Schafer).
A film as hyperbolically set designed as it is emotionally intense, Susan Slade derives almost as much stimulation from its stunning modernist Asian-style home (created by talented art director Leo Kuter) decorated for the Slades by Marion Corbett. Equally gorgeous are the Carmel coastline and glimpses of Pebble Beach and San Francisco.
Susan is a classic melodrama heroine, guided by her heart and emotions above all else, even when the results are disastrous. What distinguishes Susan Slade however, is its portrait of the kind of loving, tightly knit family who stick by each other through every adversity. The more common scenario in classic melodramas from Stella Dallas (1937) to Mildred Pierce (1945) to Written on the Wind (1956) is familial alienation and a heroine who finds herself on her own as she fords the churning river of love and heartbreak.
Susan Slade originated as a novel The Sin of Susan Slade written in 1961 by Doris Hume, which was such a hit with readers that Warner Brothers snapped it up for production with Daves slated to direct. Daves was a multifaceted man with a law degree from Stanford who worked his way through Hollywood, first as an actor in the Twenties, then as a screenwriter and finally as a director who made his debut with Destination Tokyo (1943) starring pal Cary Grant. Daves went on to helm a number of memorable pictures including Dark Passage (1947), Broken Arrow (1950) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957).
Daves's 26th effort Susan Slade starred heartthrob Troy Donahue and teen sensation Connie Stevens as the genuinely endearing innocent in over her head in matters of love who develops into a woman unafraid to speak her mind by the film's end. Susan's transformation from a hesitant, vulnerable girl into a mother and--we can only assume--wife at the conclusion of this engaging melodrama is greatly helped by Connie Stevens's charming presence. Born to an Italian father and a part Native-American mother--both jazz musicians--Stevens was christened Concetta Anna Ingolia. Stevens began her show biz career as a singer but got her big break in the Jerry Lewis comedy Rock-a-Bye Baby in 1958. But her real notoriety came with the Warner Brothers TV series "Hawaiian Eye" (1959) in which she played the singer and photographer Cricket Blake who performed an array of pop hits including "Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb" (a duet with co-star Edd Byrnes). She later won a 1967 Theatre World Award for her Broadway performance in "The Star-Spangled Girl" and went on to accompany Bob Hope on many of his USO tours. Stevens had two daughters from her second marriage (her first was to actor James Stacy) to Eddie Fisher, making her a former step-mother of actress Carrie Fisher.
Variety said of Susan Slade "though slickly produced and attractively peopled, weighs in as little more than a plodding and predictable soap opera." The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it "corny and cliche-ridden," and further jabbed "Delmer Daves, who wrote the screenplay and directed (from a novel by Doris Hume), doesn't toss one real, live, honest thing into it. It is all just one big, soft, colored blob." That review doesn't do the film justice, as there are some especially sensitive performances from Lloyd Nolan and Connie Stevens. And for fans of baroque melodrama and those enraptured by gorgeous set design, Susan Slade remains a compelling tribute to California beauty and that emotionally intense genre.
Director: Delmer Daves
Producer: Delmer Daves
Screenplay: Delmer Daves from a novel by Doris Hume
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Production Design: Leo K. Kuter
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Susan Slade (Connie Stevens), Hoyt Brecker (Troy Donahue), Roger Slade (Lloyd Nolan), Leah Slade (Dorothy McGuire), Conn White (Grant Williams), Wells Corbett (Bert Convy), Stanton Corbett (Brian Aherne), Marion Corbett (Natalie Schafer).
by Felicia Feaster