Shortly after this 1961 film begins, 17 year-old Susan Slade (Connie Stevens) announces, “We’ve been sinful!”
She’s talking to her first lover, Conn White (Grant Williams). You would think that anyone — even someone as unbelievably naive and innocent as Susan Slade — would know better than to ever trust someone named Conn White but no. From the minute that Conn and Susan met on an ocean liner heading from South America to California, it was love at first sight. In fact, Susan was so sure of her love that she spent the night in Conn’s cabin, fully knowing that it would mean surrendering her status as an Eisenhower era good girl.
Conn laughs off her concerns about sin. He also tells her that it makes perfect sense for her not to tell her parents (played by Dorothy McGuire and Lloyd Nolan). “When we’re married,” he asks, “are you going to tell your mother every time that we make love?”
Wow, Conn still wants to get married even though he’s already had sex with her!? And he’s also extremely wealthy and stands to inherit control of a multinational corporation! He sounds like the perfect guy! Way to go, Susan!
Unfortunately, it turns out that Conn does have one flaw. He really, really likes to go mountain climbing. In fact, he’s planning on scaling fearsome old Mt. McKinley. While Susan and her family settle into life in Monterey, California, Conn heads up to Alaska. He promises Susan that he’ll keep in touch but, when she doesn’t hear from him, she fears the worse. Has he abandoned her? Was he lying when he said he wanted to get married? Then one day, she gets a call from Conn’s father, informing her that Conn fell off the mountain and died. Susan’s almost father-in-law tells her that Conn’s body cannot be retrieved from the mountain. Though it’s neither confirmed nor denied by the film, I decided that this was because Conn faked his own death to get out of having to spend any more time listening to Susan talk about sin.
Anyway, Susan’s single again but, fortunately, she does not lack for suitors. For instance, there’s the spoiled Wells Corbett (Bert Convy), who is kind of shallow and arrogant but who has a lot of money. And then there’s Hoyt Brecker (played, in reliably vacuous style, by Troy Donahue), who is poor but honest and who is also an aspiring writer. “Someday,” Susan declares,”they’ll say that Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Hoyt Brecker wrote here!” Who will Susan chose? The sensitive artist who loves her unconditionally or the arrogant rich boy who smirks his way through the whole film?
Complicating matters is the fact that Susan is …. pregnant! That’s right, this is another one of those movies from the early 60s where having sex outside of marriage always leads to an unplanned pregnancy. And, because this movie is from 1961, the only solution is for the Slades to move down to Guatemala for two years, just so they can fool the people on Monterey into believing that the baby is actually McGuire’s and that Susan Slade is not an unwed mother but is instead an overprotective older sister. Will either of Susan’s two suitors be waiting for her when she and her family return to California?
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I do understand that there’s a big difference between 1961 and 2019 and that there used to be a lot more scandal attached to sex outside of marriage and unwed pregnancy. In fact, I guess that difference is really the only thing that makes Susan Slade interesting to a modern viewer. As soon as we see that this film was directed by Delmer Daves (the poor man’s Douglas Sirk) and that it stars Troy Donahue, we know who poor Susan is going to end up with so it’s not like there’s any real surprises lurking in the film’s plot. And none of the actors, though Connie Stevens sometimes to be trying, seems to be that invested in the film’s story. Instead, Susan Slade is mostly useful of a time capsule of the time in which it was made, a time when sex outside of marriage was unironically “sinful” and the only possible punishment was either pregnancy, death, or both. Indeed, Susan Slade is less concerned about the hypocrisy of a society that would force Susan to lie about her new “brother” and more about whether bland lunkhead Troy Donaue will still be willing to marry Susan even if she’s no longer eligible to wear white at their wedding. The film seems to be asking, “After being sinful, can Susan Slade become a good girl again?” As a movie, it’s fairly turgid but as a cultural artifact of a time in which everyone was obsessed with sex but no one was willing to talk about it, Susan Slade is occasionally fascinating.
Poor Susan Slade! If only she had gotten pregnant in a 1971 film instead of one made in 1961, her story could have been so different. But no, she was sinful in the early 60s and that means she’ll be have to settle for Troy Donahue.