The King and Queen of Postwar Pop

[6 May 2014]

By Michael Barrett

Doris Day and Frank Sinatra were the king and queen of America’s postwar popular songs, and they made one film together. Young at Heart, titled to cash in on the popularity of Sinatra’s recent hit song of the same name, proved a popular film and remains nostalgically watchable and revealing today.

The gorgeously artificial and evocative opening shot opens high on a tree-lined suburban backlot as we hear Sinatra’s performance of the title song, which has nothing in particular to do with the plot. Then the camera pulls over to the right and dollies in toward the warm, welcoming window of one house, where an older man (Robert Keith) plays the violin while an older woman (Ethel Barrymore) watches TV.

The show turns out to be a boxing match, and the couple are siblings in a house where the man’s three adult daughters reside. The shot has quietly set up certain conventional expectations and just as quietly tweaked them as an undercurrent of violence and competition is beamed into this peaceful abode.

This achingly beautiful and perfect vision of middle America will have a dissonant chord introduced—actually, two. Actually, three. (And perhaps four, if you consider the absent mother.) First, the daughters (Doris Day, Dorothy Malone, Elisabeth Fraser) are all uncertain about love and marriage, with Malone reluctant to marry her hearty suitor (Alan Hale Jr.) while Fraser ignores the plumber (Lonny Chapman) who moons for her.

Second, an unbearably healthy, egotistical, dominating flirt (Gig Young) comes to stay and causes all the daughters to fix their eyes on him, while he sets his clearest sights on Day. He embodies America’s preening, entitled, postwar brashness, and the movie presents him as just a bit much.

Third, quite late into the film and introduced in a “star” manner as his head turns to the camera in close-up, arrives moody chum Barney Sloan (Frank Sinatra) at the final phase of his alarming skin-and-bones youth. With his tilted cigarettes and fedoras, he plunks the piano and slumps his shoulders and makes self-pitying speeches about how the fates have always had it in for him, have never let him succeed, have never let him get away with doing it his way. He emphasizes that he changed his Italian name into Barney Sloan “to fool them”.

He’s walking defeatism introduced into the most robustly insular Hollywood fantasy. Can Day’s natural midwestern glow cure what ails him, or will he only drag her down? After Young Man with a Horn, this is the second film where Day embodies “health” for a troubled musician.

The movie keeps providing evidence that love and marriage, while eternally proposed as the normal resolution to restless yearning, aren’t all they’re supposed to be. For all the daughters, Young’s character represents the dissatisfaction of indefatigable and unreachable self-assurance, while the husbands they do get have an air of “settling” for what’s at hand. As things work out, even the confident Young gets one in the eye, and the viewer is hardly sorry.

The only marriage we get to study in any depth is the financially struggling one of Laurie Tuttle and Barney Sloan; her frustrated optimism crunches against his self-deprecating funk. He’s the kind who even interprets his good luck as bad luck; she points out that he’s published two songs, and he points out they didn’t sell. She’s attracted to him not just as a curable “case”, if a dangerous one, but because, somehow, out of his gloom comes glory.

While Day sings perky mediocrities written for the film, Sinatra croons classics like “Someone to Watch Over Me”, “Just One of Those Things” and “One for My Baby and One More for the Road”, his rueful delivery earning the term “iconic”. To emphasize his isolation, he sings them in noisy joints where the drunken crowd pays no attention.

This film is a remake of the excellent 1938 film Four Daughters, with the same producer (Henry Blanke) and same writers (Julius J. Epstein and Lenore Coffee). Liam O’Brien is credited with “adaptation”, and one wonders if he simply revised the 1938 script. To understand Sinatra’s character, it helps to remember the role was originally played by John Garfield.

The big difference, aside from dropping one daughter (so there’s never any storyline about a woman having a career), is the ending, which some sources claim was demanded by Sinatra. It’s now what most people think of as a “Hollywood ending”, since people forget that “serious” Hollywood dramas of the studio era specialized in melodramatic tragedy, and indeed this project is based on a Fannie Hurst tearjerker.

While the new ending is convincingly “feel-good” and aesthetically “full circle” (or half-circle, camera-wise), it’s also a victory for common sense pulled back from the convenience and absurdity of a more contrived sacrificial melodrama that the story really doesn’t need. And the fact that the film doesn’t go there provides another curious distortion in the film’s classical weave.

Mind you, the happy ending has its own absurdities. I can’t think why someone gets wheeled into an operating room after being wrapped head to foot in bandages—wouldn’t they have operated already? But leave that aside. Even in its happy ending, the movie is saying that contentment is ultimately a matter of wanting what you get rather than getting what you want, of making a personal decision to be contented—an act of will, almost a determinism of the spirit in the face of your choices.

It’s a common enough lesson, though not after all a very easy one. It’s one that Laurie Tuttle (Doris Day) knows better than the guy who wants to do it his way. This is demonstrated to our edification in the scene where Barney Sloan is ready to pick a fight with his boss and get fired, while Laurie Tuttle smoothly makes friends with the same boss and emphasizes that she and her friends are there to hear Barney Sloan play.

Olive Films has licensed a print from Paramount (of what was originally a Warner Brothers film) and issued a bright and warm if grainy copy on Blu-ray and DVD, with textures fairly popping out. I spent as much time staring at the creamy upholstery and wallpaper as at everybody’s blue eyes. Ironically, Ol’ Blue Eyes is suddenly grey during his big bleak winter-storm scene, when he feels “snowed in” by his life. This is the climactic moment when director Gordon Douglas, who would later direct Sinatra’s late ‘60s detective thrillers, comes close to adopting the colorful expressionism of Douglas Sirk.

Like many a creamy Hollywood dream of the ‘50s, Young at Heart simmers with tensions and uncertainties that at least temporarily undermine its golden vision of paradise. That restless ache is coming from somewhere, and it never quite disappears.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181200-young-at-heart/