Doris Day's outfit looks worse in Technicolor.
There was a Sunday night a few months ago, when the weather was cold, winter seemed longer than ever, and I didn’t want to see anything that wasn’t a big Hollywood movie made somewhere between 1930 and 1960. So I put on Turner Classic and prepared to take whatever they would give me. That turned out to be the 1955 movie Young at Heart. When this movie came on TCM again last week, I found myself drawn to it again, mainly because of some of the performances in the otherwise somewhat slow-paced movie.
At first this movie about the marrying off of three daughters of a music professor seems worse than cloying. It’s the type of 1950s movie that looks like it was inspired by an Easter basket. It’s all rosy pink and baby blues, set in a Connecticut of generic cuteness, with white houses, white picket fences, and a seemingly endless parade of fresh-faced, all-American blondes.
The main blondes are the Tuttle sisters—Fran (Dorothy Malone), Amy (Elizabeth Fraser), and Laurie (Doris Day). The movie opens with Fran accepting the proposal of a remarkably dull rich boy played by Alan Hale, Jr. This prompts Laurie and Amy to ponder their own futures; Amy isn’t keen on Ernie, the local fellow with an interest in her, and Laurie isn’t caught up with anyone. She proposes that she and Amy either have a double wedding someday or remain spinsters together.
Needless to say, this cues a romantic interest for Laurie, in the person of an also unusually dull Gig Young. He’s Alex Burke, a composer who’s come to Connecticut to work on a Broadway musical. He boards in the Tuttle house, which includes the girls’ father and Aunt Jessie (Ethel Barrymore, an acclaimed ingénue at the turn of the century now turned wry character actress). He falls for Laurie, and she seemingly falls for him, which is bad news for Amy, as she’s also developed a crush on him.
Things change when Frank Sinatra shows up, playing Barney Sloane, the musical arranger slated to work with Young’s character. He’s a cynic who’s led a hard luck life, and wears his born loser, permanently disgruntled persona proudly. Laurie is fascinated by Barney, who’s unlike anyone she’s ever met in their little Sunshine-ville town. Yet though the two are obviously falling for each other, she accepts Alex’s proposal.
On the day of their wedding, after she finds out about Amy’s feelings for Alex, and acknowledges that she doesn’t love Barney, Laurie and Barney elope. They move to a tiny Manhattan apartment, and Barney ekes out a living playing in piano bars. When they return to Connecticut for a holiday visit, Barney misinterprets a conversation between Laurie and Alex, and becomes convinced that she still loves him and would be happier with the more successful composer. Barney passively-aggressively decides to commit suicide by driving recklessly into a blinding snowstorm. He crashes his car, and though badly injured, survives. Laurie convinces him she loves him, she tells him she’s pregnant, he recovers and finishes a song he’s been working on…”Young at Heart.”
Young at Heart is a remake of Four Daughters, a 1938 hit that starred Claude Rains, the Lane sisters (Gale Page was sister number four), and John Garfield, in his screen debut (the original, btw, is about a half hour shorter than the ‘50s version). The daughters are all in their late teens/early twenties and look it; in Young at Heart, all the daughters look, to be honest, too old for this storyline. Today, the idea of a group of sisters in their late twenties/early thirties still single, and living with a parent wouldn’t seem like much more than another shout out to the difficulties of the economy, the housing market, and finding a marriage-minded man. In the mid-fifties, though, women of that age would have been heading for old maid-dom
Day was thirty when this movie was made, and the hairstyles and clothes of the time make her look older. In layers of jumpers, crinolines, and incredibly high-necked, buttoned-up blouses, she looks like the epitome of dull primness. She also looks, as she often did in her better films (Love Me or Leave Me, The Man Who Knew Too Much), dissatisfied and at times troubled, her cheeriness on the verge of forced. She looks like she sounds in some of her better songs—she has a lovely voice and sounds appropriately perky in upbeat numbers, but in many of her songs there is an undercurrent of melancholy. Considering what a great singer she was, I guess there’s no greater compliment you can give Day’s acting then to compare it to her singing. She’s often underrated as a dramatic actress; the series of comedies she did in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s with Rock Hudson are what people remember most and therefore she gets slotted as a lightweight (not to imply that comic acting isn’t greater or more difficult, but those films aren’t in any way up to the standard of ‘30s comedies).
This movie catches Frank Sinatra at an interesting time in his career. When people think of Sinatra now, they tend to equate him with eternal cool and swagger, but that’s really the persona he developed in the mid-1950s and ‘60s. But when he started out he was, of course, the darling of the bobbysoxers, more of a boy than a man, who somehow had stumbled upon singing genius. When he began to make movies, he was typically cast as the shy guy who couldn’t talk to, let alone get a girl. In movies like Anchors Aweigh and On the Town, he’s the naïf who needs to be shown the ways of the world by his confident, cocky friend Gene Kelly. But he outgrew that, fashions changed, and he was on a downward slope until he revived his fortunes with an Oscar winning performance in From Here to Eternity and a new record contract that gave life to his singing career. In Young at Heart, instead of playing his traditional role of the good boy who girls want to mother, he’s now the boy your mother told you to stay away from. When he arrives at the Tuttle household, he’s quite literally a dark cloud on the blue sky of the film’s world, and a welcome note of discord, one that makes you sit up and notice. And by giving him a job as a singer in a piano bar—a perpetually thankless job where it seems like no one’s listening—he gets a chance to indulge in some reasonably downbeat (though swinging, of course) versions of songbook classics such as “Just One of Those Things” and “One for My Baby” (which many now permanently associate with Sinatra, but of course was introduced by the always-underrated-as-a-singer Fred Astaire). I’ve never been a big Sinatra fan, but I like him in this movie.
This is not a great film by any means. But luck of casting with Day and Sinatra at just the right times in their careers gives some complexities to what could be otherwise really flat characters in a candy box world. Interestingly, a TCM article about the film states that in the original, Four Daughters, the Garfield/Sinatra character dies in the self-inflicted car accident, but when approached about Young at Heart, Sinatra refused to take the role unless they rewrote it so his character lived. The producers acquiesced, because of the power Sinatra wielded with his newly re-ignited stardom, and also because it gave them a chance to add the scene at the end where Sinatra sing his hit song, “Young at Heart.” Day thought this was a mistake, as she felt there was an “inevitability” about his character that made his death the only reasonable outcome. But in a melodrama like this, the potential for redemption is an expectation, and his survival works well enough. I don’t love it, but I understand it. And if you’re in the mood for big, Technicolor ‘50s melodrama, this movie works well enough too, if you can just hold out long enough for Sinatra to show up.