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Youngblood Hawke

Director: Delmer Daves
Cast: James Franciscus, Suzanne Pleshette, Genevieve Page

(US DVD: 13 Dec 2011)

Youngblood Hawke (James Franciscus) is a hot young writer from Hicksville, Kentucky, who sends his novel to one of them big publishers in New York City and lands in clover with an equally fresh young editor (Suzanne Pleshette) whose rueful glances he’ll spend the whole movie ignoring while he takes up with a wealthy trophy-seeking married socialite (Genevieve Page) who tells him she’s never done this before, and the movie evidently expects us to believe her.


In addition to being perfectly glamorous, Page is very much better than you may think the film requires, but in fact the film does requires it because she’s selling a character that decades of convention have conditioned us to read unsympathetically.


Anyway, Youngblood Hawke’s rough talent and virile charm catapult him into the limelight, arousing the admiration of another young debut novelist whose raw war novel, full of filthy language, also hits the bestseller list. (I mention this detail in case it makes you go “Hmmm.”) Everyone admires Youngblood Hawke, who is always referred to by his full name, but of course it wouldn’t be a story worth telling if this golden boy could sustain his success without hard lessons about over-reaching and losing touch and the wrong woman and the hollow nature of fame and money and yadda yadda.


Wikipedia says Herman Wouk’s original novel is supposedly inspired by Thomas Wolfe, but various details may encourage the reader or viewer to suppose there’s autobiography involved—such as the fact that Youngblood Hawke wins a Pulitzer, as Wouk did and Wolfe didn’t. Maybe it’s the book’s ending that was so inspired, but the film doesn’t replicate it, opting for (spoiler!) a happier resolution that may be more “Hollywood” but also happens to be less calculatedly “tragic”.


An interesting detail is how from the opening scenes, Youngblood Hawke is shown to have bad judgment about money while the women around him, from his mother to his editor to his mistress, are much smarter about it. Eva Gabor, Mary Astor and Mildred Dunnock are among the smart women.


Writer-producer-director Delmer Daves is a very intelligent triple-threat auteur whose career is dotted with first-class gems. This glossy soap isn’t one of them, although it’s always watchable and reasonably well-judged about the moving-and-shaking literary fantasy world it drops Youngblood Hawke into. That is, it never crosses into parody or absurdity, even if it’s not quite trying to be convincing. There’s only one step into utterly incredulous punishing melodrama, and that’s in Wouk’s book.


Andrew Sarris has condescendingly characterized Daves’ output as a triumph of stylistic conviction in an intellectual vacuum: “Call it Camp or call it Corn.” I disagree. Such items as Pride of the Marines, The Red House, Dark Passage, Kings Go Forth, The Last Wagon and the original 3:10 to Yuma have no vacuum up there. It’s true that before this sleek, sharp, black and white affair, Daves made a string of brightly colored romantic melodramas starting with A Summer Place (much smarter and better than it’s usually given credit for) and including another Pleshette showcase, Rome Adventure with Troy Donahue.


Oh yes, the sexy, smoky-voiced, self-possessed queen of TV comedy spent the ‘60s on the big screen just as much as the small one, although her career in films has been largely forgotten. She’s perhaps best recalled for a supporting role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and for one of those minor comedies that somehow everyone got around to seeing, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.


Youngblood Hawke was right before she starred in another “serious” and “adult” black and white soap based on a big-deal bestseller, John O’Hara’s A Rage to Live. It’s not a million miles removed from O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 in focusing on a “bad girl”—that is, one who has sex and likes it. She sleeps around so much that she’s literally the death of her mother. Of course she cheats on her husband, of course she’s karmically punished. She’s supposedly the one with the problem, for this masquerades as a serious study of “nymphomania”, but everyone around her behaves even more neurotically.


Directed by Walter Grauman without the wonderfully excessive style he showed in Lady in a Cage (one of my favorites of the era), A Rage to Live is available on-demand from MGM’s Limited Edition Collection, while Youngblood Hawke is available from on-demand from Warner Archives. Comparing these similarly minor and forgotten melodramas is instructive for understanding what Daves could bring to a project. It’s the difference between watching a bunch of far-fetched hysterics and watching a collection of people who might conceivably exist. One crosses into “camp” while the other just avoids insulting you. You’re free to decide which sounds like more fun.

Rating:

Michael Barrett is a San Antonio-based freelance writer who tries not to leave the house. He has degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio and University of California at Davis. He watches one film a day. In addition to his features and reviews on PopMatters, see also his PopMatters column, Canon Fodder. Since the early '90s he has written a monthly video column for the San Antonio Express-News, and his national publications include Library Journal and the Chicago-based Nostalgia Digest.


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