The Archivist #98: Hitched for the Holidays [PERIOD OF ADJUSTMENT and SUSAN SLEPT HERE]

Enjoying the theatrics of Christmas matrimony

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and Blu-ray discs (which, unlike the DVDs, are factory pressed rather than burned). Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

Christmas movies are typically all the rage from Thanksgiving right up til New Year’s; as they well should be. In homes everywhere, movie lovers are cozying up to watch their favorite stars bring some of the most treasured Christmas tales to life through such staples as A Christmas Story and Meet Me in St. Louis. Like any good holiday offering, films set in the spirit of this particular time of year will never shy away from imparting a special theme or motif which aims to ring true throughout the film and come to signify a certain aspect of the holiday season. Some titles aim for the importance of family while others preach the value of every day empathy and kindness all through the veil of yuletide cheer.

One such theme that’s been only somewhat explored in Christmas cinema throughout the years is that of marriage. The most blessed of unions set against the holiday season is an idea that’s been put to film before, but continues to be underused as a theme. Still, the motif continues to be an intriguing concept due to the vastly expansive territory that marriage can cover. The idea of “wedded bliss” set against the time of year when everyone’s emotions are at their highest cannot help but make for rich storytelling, as evidenced by titles such as Holiday Affair and Miracle on 34th St. But while those two beloved titles told about the romantic courtship which led to “I do,” 1962’s Period of Adjustment and 1954’s Susan Slept Here both hilariously show what comes after.

Period of Adjustment (1962)

When a war hero named George (Jim Hutton), fresh from a tour of duty in Korea, arrives back home injured, he lands right into the arms of a beautiful nurse Isabel (Jane Fonda), whom he instantly falls for. When Isabel decides she feels the same about her handsome patient, the two impulsively tie the knot on Christmas Eve and set off on their honeymoon. Almost immediately, however, reality sets in and the pair soon find themselves squabbling upon realizing what they’ve done. Tired of the road, the newlyweds find refuge in the home of Ralph (Anthony Franciosa), George’s old Army buddy, who is having marital problems of his own with his wife of six years, the frustrated Dorothea (Lois Nettleton). As the night progresses, the two couples try and help each other through their respective domestic troubles as Christmas Day quickly approaches.

A movie so incredibly of its time, it’s hard not to wonder what someone as famously progressive as Fonda would think of Period of Adjustment today with its old-fashioned ideas of male and female roles. This holiday comedy manages to be the quintessential example of the battle of the married sexes as this pair of husbands and wives in different stages of marriage realize how such a union is an ongoing process and, despite the attitudes of the day, an endless series of compromises. One the one side is the pair of new lovebirds who realize they have nothing in common but a passion coupled with a magnetic curiosity about one another. On the other side is a husband and wife who find themselves unable to cope with the spouses they are becoming and now find themselves at an impasse as a result. The holiday setting plays a constant, if peripheral role in Period of Adjustment, with its biggest contribution to the overall affair being the four characters’ various emotional states (from melancholic to hysterical, to pensive) which are typically heightented by the power of the season itself. It’s more than a little surprising that Period of Adjustment isn’t more famous than it is since the original stage play was written by none other than Tennessee Williams. Not only is the piece notable for being the only comedy Williams ever wrote, but for his perceptive take on male/female relationships. Each of the characters in Period of Adjustment are well-drawn with genuine fears and desires, all of which are explored. Not only that, the playwright’s knack for delving into sides of human behavior considered taboo are present in both Ralph’s fear that his young son’s habit of playing with dolls will lead to him being a “sissy” and George’s fear that his “shakes” will keep him from being a real husband to Isabel. A delightful holiday farce as a well as a telling and loving take on the bond of matrimony.

Susan Slept Here (1954)

Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark (Dick Powell) is in the midst of a career slump on Christmas Eve and is about to go to a party he has no interest in attending with his high-maintenance girlfriend Isabella (Anne Francis.) Just as he’s about to leave however, Mark’s Police Sergeant friend Monty Maizel (Horace McMahon) shows up at his door with Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds), a 17-year-old runaway on her way to being dragged to juvenile hall for public brawling until Monty decided on another alternative. Knowing that Mark was in need of research for his new screenplay about teenagers, Monty decides to drop Susan off at his place rather than have her spend Christmas behind bars. When it’s discovered that if Susan does indeed go off to juvenile hall, she will remain there until her 18th birthday, Mark reluctantly decides to marry her in order to save her from prison. Although the pair only have to remain married until the judge can be convinced Susan is not really a criminal, it’s a decision Mark wastes no time quickly regretting.

Let’s address the issue head on: Yes, this is a movie where a man is literally given a teenager whom he later decides to marry; albeit a marriage without any ill intent (there is no “getting it on” to be found here.) Mark’s act is actually a charitable one he only makes after getting to know Susan. Once their rowdy first encounter (with the wild teen kicking everyone in the shins and causing an overall ruckus,) has concluded, Susan Slept Here actually becomes quite the thoughtful comedy. The majority of the film’s second act is a winning one in which the slapstick aspects have (temporarily) settled down and the two leads get a chance to really talk. What results is an uncharacteristic meeting of the minds in which two distinct generations come to a meeting of the minds despite one’s jadedness and another’s naiveté. There’s a sadness among both characters between Mark feeling his life is going in a direction he never intended (nor wanted) and Susan feeling as if she has little place in the world. But the blind belief each sees within the other as individuals worthy of more than what they’ve been given can’t help but come off as touching, especially given the Christmas backdrop. Eventually, the pratfalls resume and the character turns take place as Powell (in his last film role), Reynolds (in full movie star bloom) and Francis (in perfect society diva mode) each dive head first into the movie’s comedy. Never short on physical laughs, snappy dialogue, or energetic performances, the highlight of Susan Slept Here remains the title character’s dream montage featuring the movie’s main players in an amusing and slightly surreal sequence of interpretive dance that could have come right out of Dr. Seuss. It’s a truly fitting set piece to this incredibly charming film.

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