Film

Of Grifters, Wombats, and the Dizzy World of 'The Young in Heart'

The Young in Heart (1938) is a terrific example of the kind of movie Hollywood could do so well when it tried: a sophisticated comedy about people pretending not to be sentimental. With an amazing cast and crew, this sleek machine fires on all cylinders, not unlike its left-field creation of the Flying Wombat.

As the film opens, things are looking good for the Carleton family on the Riviera. Handsome son Richard (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is engaged to the unprepossessing daughter of an American millionaire, while his level-headed sister George-Anne (Janet Gaynor) tries to relieve herself of an obstinate Scotsman (Richard Carlson) whom she loves. Colonel Carleton (Roland Young), called "Sahib" supposedly from his days in India but actually from a role he played on stage in Canada, can't resist burning his future father-in-law at cards, while flighty mother Marmy (Billie Burke) twitters as usual.

Alas, the engagement is off and the Carletons are invited to leave posthaste when their history as bunco artists comes to light. On the train, they make friends with an old lady in First Class who goes by the name of Miss Fortune, played by Minnie Dupree, a longtime stage actress who steals the picture. Miss Ellen Fortune falls under the spell of this charming clan and invites them to stay at her London mansion, but this time the charm may be running both ways. In order to cement their friendship and possibly get mentioned in her will, the Carleton family changes its behavior even to the extremity, distasteful and unprecedented as it may be, of seeking regular jobs.

The Colonel finds himself selling the Flying Wombat, a gorgeously sleek and modern automobile that's one of the screenplay's deliciously random details that discombobulate viewers just enough to enjoy what might have been a predictable ride. The Scotsman keeps showing up in a huff after promising never to return, while Richard lucks into a menial post at an engineering firm and begins an understated attachment to a down-to-earth working woman (Paulette Goddard) whose lapels are almost as wide as the desks.

Another disorienting detail: that engineering firm seems to have started out by doing a number on itself, for its cavernous, be-muraled offices are so vast, you'd think a moving sidewalk was necessary to cross the lobby. That's typical of monumental designer William Cameron Menzies, who has a field day in this movie, which happens to be the first film on which he received a credit as "production designer", a term he invented. He lavishes details on the hotel, the train, the car dealership, and Miss Fortune's mansion. The ability to photograph all this opulence while also lighting Gaynor and Goddard with the proper glamour gave legendary cinematographer Leon Shamroy a chance to earn the first of his 18 Oscar nominations.

Billie Burke, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Janet Gaynor, and Roland Young in The Young in Heart (1938) (IMDB)

In fact, the whole production is choking with the finest talent that producer David O. Selznick could buy for this indie release through United Artists. He employed some of the people with whom he'd continue on Gone With the Wind the following year, including Menzies, art director Lyle Wheeler, and editor Hal C. Kern. Composer Franz Waxman received two Oscar nods for his work here, and this was one of costume designer Omar Kiam's last Hollywood projects.

Special effects artist Jack Cosgrove is responsible for a remarkable model sequence whose details I won't disclose, since it's one of those developments that just drops into the film out of the blue. Rest assured, it's exciting. Cosgrove's long association with Selznick resulted in Oscar nods for Gone With the Wind, Since You Went Away (1944), and two Alfred Hitchcock films, Rebecca (1940) and Spellbound (1945). His long association with Menzies included another nomination for Pride of the Yankees (1942) plus work on Invaders from Mars (1954). There were giants in the earth.

Prolific director Richard Wallace isn't exactly recalled as an auteur whose career is studded with gems, so we're drawn to the conclusion that the famously hands-on Selznick was firmly in control here. He was so in control that, according to the American Film Institute catalogue, he reshot the ending when a preview audience didn't cotton to the death of one of the characters. The IMDB, which isn't always reliable, indicates that three other directors worked without credit.

As for that Wombat, it's played by the famous Phantom Corsair, a unique prototype that never got put into production due to its maker's untimely death. The car now resides in Reno, Nevada's National Automobile Museum. This movie makes you wish you could buy one.

All that gloss, and even the professionalism of the cast, would fall short if the script wasn't strong. Fortunately, the script is the best thing about a picture where everyone is at the top of their craft. Two illustrious writers, Charles Bennett (mostly associated with Alfred Hitchcock) and Paul Osborn (playwright of Morning's at Seven and On Borrowed Time) adapted a Saturday Evening Post novel called The Gay Banditti by I.A.R. Wylie, a very popular writer now forgotten. She deserves remembering, not least for her strong heroines.

This particular story is largely driven by intelligent women, except for the scatterbrained Marmy, and that seems unsurprising when we consider that Wylie was a former Suffragette who preferred living with women. If this screenplay is faithful to her novel (not counting the death that Selznick resurrected), she folded conventional romantic resolutions into a fresh weave that must have felt very modern in 1938 and still does.

This film was released on an MGM DVD back in 2004. The new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of what the TCM website calls "an inexplicably neglected film" looks and sounds great. The disc has no extras besides the trailer, but the film is so unexpected that it may be extra enough.

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