Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 38: Young at Heart (1954)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Young at Heart(1954) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “I don’t care much for movies that get all serious about their love affairs, because I think the actors tend to take it too solemnly and end up silly. I like it better when love simply makes the characters very happy, as when Doris Day first falls for Frank Sinatra in Young at Heart.

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Ebert never properly reviewed the film, but when reminiscing about Frank Sinatra’s legendary career onscreen, he wrote, “The image that lingers is from Young at Heart, when he pushed back his hat, lit a cigarette, sat down at a piano and sang to Doris Day and broke her heart. He never had the looks to be a matinee idol, but he had a voice – the Voice – and he had a screen presence, and for a time in the 1950s, Frank Sinatra was one of the most interesting and successful actors in American movies.”

The Hays Code had a peculiar way of obscuring intent in older Hollywood fare. Films that superficially appear to be wholesome & chaste can sometimes be subversively disguising much darker, less moralistic themes than what that infamous production code permitted. It’s also tempting to read too much into that subversion in attempting to parse out artists’ intent vs. what Major Studios of the one era would allow. The musical romance Young at Heart operates within this historical grey area, concluding a schmaltzy musical reverie with an absurdly handed tragic conclusion that’s incongruous with the film’s overall tone, then immediately reversed. The film either doesn’t have the heart to follow through on its own devastating implications or was obstructed by Studio heads’ demands for a happy conclusion to a generally happy story. Its ending can be read either way, both literally blissful or figuratively tragic, making it only increasingly, frustratingly bizarre the longer you sit with it.

A remake of a popular 1930s musical titled Four Daughters, Young at Heart functions on the surface as a well-behaved Technicolor romance. Doris Day stars as an eligible bachelorette at the center of a musical family mostly made up of daughters desperate to be married off. With an alarming focus on anxieties of weight loss & living single, the desperately lonely girls (adult women, really) are all awestruck by the arrival of a handsome, overconfident songwriter played by Gig Young. As he’s employed to write songs for the family, the girls all separately pine for his affection, something that’s awarded to Doris Day’s lead, to her sisters’ jealousy. Much of this early stretch of the film is dependent on the simple joy of watching Doris Day sing, a talent that’s dedicated to culturally toxic, marriage-obsessed diddies like “Til My Love Comes for Me,” “Ready, Willing, and Able,” “Hold Me in Your Arms,” and “Make it Soon.” Thankfully this nauseous love fest is disrupted by the arrival of Frank Sinatra as a troubled, dangerous piano player and friend to the songwriter beau. For her sisters’ sake and because she’s genuinely turned on by his talent, Doris Day’s protagonist leaves her dream man for this sad puppy dog of a romantic rival. This much-needed interjection of danger & sexuality opens the film up to an increasingly tense conflict of hurt feelings, romantic betrayals, and declining mental health. This all culminates in a climactic suicide that feels miles & miles away from the sunny, romantic (even if unhealthily marriage & weight obsessed) disposition of the film’s opening stretch.

Or does it? In an incredibly bizarre denouement, the tragic suicide that tears this family apart is undone with an idyllic Easter morning get-together, the attempted death being retconned as a failure. The 1930s version, Four Daughters, stuck to the implications of the suicide while Young at Heart tacks on a happy ending so artificially saccharine it can almost be read as dream of Heaven. As Four Daughter was also produced under the Hays Code, it’s unclear whether the suicide was not allowed by the studio for moral reasons, its actor‘s vanity, or a general preference for romantic musicals to end on a happy note. What’s even more unclear is what director Gordon Douglas (who helmed the horror classic Them! this same year) intended to convey in its ending. Is the final scene supposed to be taken as a literal happy conclusion to a dark chapter in these sisters’ lives or is it a subversive workaround that concludes the story on a more logical beat, subtly indicating that its image of peace & romantic calm is actually a vision of Heaven? I honestly have no idea what to make of it, thanks to more notorious Hays Code & Studio System shenanigans, which almost makes for a more intriguing conclusion than the straightforward approach of Four Daughters.

If you read Young at Heart as a straight, well-behaved Technicolor romance, it’s a kind of unremarkable, modest pleasure. Doris Day & Frank Sinatra are compelling performers, but most of the material is a cookie cutter approach to movie magic. The in-the-moment intensity & absurdly incongruous fallout of the film’s climactic suicide scene is what really makes it interesting as a Studio System relic. It’s impossible to know what Studio Notes or Hays Code adherence might have steered Young at Heart to such a bizarrely artificial conclusion., but it created an interesting tension in the process. Just as Sinatra’s arrival earlier in the film disrupted its chaste, serene romance, Gordon’s return to that chastity after such a tensely bleak suicide sequence feels like just as much of an intrusion, so much so that the scene can be comfortably read as a supernatural broadcast from Heaven above. The censorship of the Hays Code era encourages that kind of skeptical, overreaching reading of what movies are doing on the surface vs. what they’re getting away with beneath it, whether or not that kind of interpretation is warranted here specifically.

Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating (3/5, 60%)

Next Lesson: Dogfight (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

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