How to Age From 17 to 14 in Five Years: ‘The Secret Heart’ and ‘Too Young to Kiss’

These two films by Robert Z. Leonard are showcases for June Allyson, who uses her youthful visage to her strategic advantage.

Now available on demand from Warner Archive are two minor entertainments directed by the old and reliable Robert Z. Leonard, both of which showcase June Allyson. A short, pert, perky blonde with a smoky voice, Allyson accents her ability to pass as a teenager.

The Secret Heart follows Hollywood’s postwar vogue for pat Freudian psychology. In a carefully worked out script with a flashback for the complicated backstory, we learn that Lee Adams (Claudette Colbert) is a hardworking real estate agent in New York because she’s paying off debts incurred by her late husband (Richard Derr), a frustrated pianist who embezzled bank funds and killed himself while she was having a good time with his friend Chris (Walter Pidgeon). If that’s not enough, the real focus of the drama is Lee’s moody, 17-year-old stepdaughter Penny (Allyson, almost 30 in real life), who keeps her father’s spirit alive by playing piano and falling for Chris as a substitute daddy, without realizing he’s got his eye on her stepmama.

This is an absorbing movie that presents its “case” in so thoughtful and detailed a manner (not the same as being credible, which is hardly an issue) that it must either end in inevitable tragedy or suddenly solve the mixed-up girl’s problems in five “truth shall set you free” minutes.

Guess which one it picks.

The film is a curiously smooth, artificial index of various troubling problems (via melodrama) against an attractive background of postwar American success. Lionel Barrymore is the tough-love shrink, Robert Sterling is the navy stepson with a complementary if understated mother fixation, Marshall Thompson is his gawky navy buddy whom Penny ignores, and Elizabeth Patterson is the housekeeper.

Allyson plays more piano (expertly dubbed) in Too Young to Kiss, one of five romantic comedies pairing her with Van Johnson. She’s aspiring pianist Cynthia Potter, who’s so frustrated with being unable to audition for a Romeo-ish producer (Johnson) that she masquerades as 14 in a children’s audition. She dons braces and the same kind of broad bonnet used by Ginger Rogers when pretending to be 12 in The Major and the Minor. He hires her on the spot, and when she tries to explain the truth, she becomes so annoyed with him and the nature of show biz (where a child prodigy is more valuable than an adult) that she continues the charade to torment him and make a point.

The venerable married team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (most famous for The Diary of Anne Frank ) wrote this nonsense in so cleverly motivated a manner, and Allyson plays a talented delinquent so mischievously (winning a Golden Globe), that our interest is maintained in a story that uses slapstick to skirt the inappropriate. Cynthia’s dual nature (with her “sister” Molly) makes her a trickster who exposes all kinds of milieus and conventions, although sometimes it backfires. Her fears and second thoughts are as palpable as her frustrations, and there’s an undercurrent about how women must be treated as children or decorative objects to get any kind of traction.

Also in the cast are Gig Young (for some reason emphasized with huge shadows) as Cynthia’s unsympatico reporter-boyfriend, Paula Corday as one of the producer’s glamorous squeezes, Hans Conried as a harried emcee, and Esther Dale as the wise old housekeeper (equivalent to Patterson in the previous film). Its art direction was Oscar-nominated, but there isn’t much that’s special about it.

RATING 6 / 10