After Susan Slade’s (Connie Stevens) father finishes up a ten-year stint working in Chile, the Slade family decides to move to California. They travel by ship, and on the trip, Susan meets Conn (Grant Williams), a mountain climber and son of a successful businessman. The two of them fall in love, but they can’t get married right away because Conn has plans to go off and climb Mt. McKinley. Susan and her family get settled in their new home and Susan gets to meet Wells Corbett (Bert Convy), the son of some family friends, and Hoyt Brecker (Troy Donahue), the stable boy and aspiring author. Even though both Wells and Hoyt have feelings for Susan, she spends every day waiting to hear from Conn. But as time passes, Susan has a good reason to be even more eager to hear from him — she finds out she’s pregnant. Just when she thinks he’s finally calling her, it turns out that it’s really Conn’s father calling to tell her that Conn is dead. Devastated, Susan tries to end it all but is saved by Hoyt. When she finally tells her parents that she’s going to have a baby, her father decides to take a two-year job in Guatemala so Susan could have the baby where nobody would know them and her mother could pass it off as her own baby when they went home.
They do just that, but shortly after the baby is born, Susan’s father dies of a heart attack and she, her mother and baby go back to California. However, Susan isn’t coping well with her mother’s efforts to make people believe the baby is hers. She feels like everyone is trying to take her baby away from her. Meanwhile, Hoyt and Wells both continue to pursue their relationships with Susan, but she feels too guilty to let herself get too close to either of them. That all changes one night when Susan’s baby accidentally sets itself on fire because Susan’s mother is an idiot who left her lighter out where she knew the baby could get it. Everyone rushes to the emergency room to find out if the baby will live, and when the doctor says that only the mother can see the baby, Susan knows it’s time to come clean to everyone. Wells can’t accept her secret, but Hoyt can. Not only can Hoyt deal with Susan’s past, he’s also sold his first novel! And the two of them lived happily ever after.
Sometimes I enjoy watching movies that I know are going to be really overly dramatic just because I love how they dive so wholeheartedly into total absurdity. So when I was looking at TCM’s Melodrama Heroines lineup a few weeks ago, trying to decide if I wanted to watch any of the movies, I was kind of on the fence about whether or not I wanted to stay up for Susan Slade. But then I started reading an article about it that TCM had on their website, and when I came across this sentence, I knew I had to stay up for it: “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.” That’s right, folks, apparently I can be sold on a movie based on the promise of a flaming baby. Denied love, tragic deaths, and scandal? That’s just Melodrama 101. But a flaming baby? Now that might be worth staying up for! But wait, there’s more! Then there was this jewel of a sentence: “Susan tries desperately to contact Conn but he has undertaken his next mission – scaling Alaska’s Mt. McKinley.” See, a lot of other melodramas from this era would have just pried the young lovers apart by sending one off to college, into the Army, or had their parents move across country. But oh no, they really decided to up the ante here and have him go climb Mount McKinley instead. Yes, this truly was the kind of absurdity that called for more caffeine.
I stayed up expecting completely ridiculous melodrama and Susan Slade definitely delivered. If you dig melodrama, you are going to love this movie. But unless you’re really in the mood for something so completely over the top, you might want to pass on it. It reaches a level of sheer ridiculous-ness that even Lifetime movies only aspire to reach.