Day and Sinatra are matchless in... Young at Heart (1954)

Doris Day had a lot of terrific film partners in her career: Gordon MacRae, James Garner, Howard Keel, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon, David Niven, Clark Gable (look out for my review of that film in a few weeks!), and of course, the greatest of them all, Rock Hudson. Now, that list isn't totally comprehensible -- I left a few names out -- but you get the gist: Doris got to act with some incredible talent, and she always worked on their high level. That's why her teaming with Frank Sinatra is so unique. You have two of the 20th century's greatest artists working together and in my opinion, they match each other every step of the way. They have different styles and admittedly different personas, but you can't tell me that both of them weren't trying their damnedest to make the film work.

Is Young at Heart perfect? Goodness, no. Is it an admirable melodrama saved by the presence of its superb cast? Definitely. I recognize that not a lot of people will agree with me. I can't tell you how many negative reviews I've seen of this film. Maybe it's because of Day and Sinatra -- you except some big, cataclysmic explosion to happen before your eyes, and instead you get little, intermittent firecrackers. It's understandable. I had my standards lowered by so much of the grumpiness I was reading that when I saw the actual product, I was able to enjoy it. Hopefully this review will you give you a better sense of what you're getting into.

The film opens the way every film should: Sinatra's voice crooning "Young at Heart" as the credits are placed over the ideal all-American street, where the flowers are in bloom, the fences are white, and everything is sweet and quiet. The camera then expertly cranes through the living room window of the Tuttle home, Pop (Robert Keith) playing "Young at Heart" on the flute, Aunt Jessie (Ethel Barrymore) watching
boxing and begrudingly paying her brother when her guy loses, and daughter Laurie (Day) going upstairs with milk and a plate of cold chicken. She is sharing it with her sister Amy (Elisabeth Fraser) by the window when they notice their other sister Fran (Dorothy Malone) coming home from her date with Bob (Alan Hale Jr.). Fran rushes inside the house and breaks the news that she and Bob are engaged.
Everyone is thrilled, but the audience gets its first clue that Fran might be entering this marriage for the wrong reasons. She boasts that this was only their seventh date and she made sure to look extra beautiful so he would propose; plus, Bob is becoming a very successful real estate developer, meaning he is wealthy. We'll see how this shakes out as the film goes on...

Back in their room, Laurie wonders if Fran really does love Bob. A romantic, Amy thinks so, saying that sometimes it only takes one look to fall in love. Nevertheless, Laurie wants them to make a pact: they'll either have a double wedding or stay together as old spinsters. When Amy doesn't immediately agree to it, Laurie asks if she has someone, like maybe Ernie, their plumber who constantly finds things to work on for weeks on end at their house to be around Amy. Amy brushes it off, though, and Laurie declares that if she is going to have a marriage, it's going to be one filled with laughs.

The next morning, the Tuttle girls and their father are doing their daily music practice while Ernie is in the kitchen working, also known as making goo-goo eyes at Amy. When she checks over his work, it's clear that Amy likes him, despite his awkwardness around her. Laurie, meanwhile, is seeing Pop off to his job as a music professor when she sees a commotion going on next door. The neighbor's dog is having puppies,
just as Laurie predicted the neighbor says. With the help of Alex Burke (Gig Young), who was passing by, the puppies all make it; however, he advises the dog's owner to either bottle-feed or drown the last puppy since its mother doesn't have enough, um, "space" to feed all nine of them. Laurie is horrified and takes the small runt for herself. Hearing that her last name is Tuttle, Alex apologizes and introduces himself as the son of one of Pop's old friends. He easily charms Laurie and invites himself to dinner that night.

Arrogant and brash, Alex quickly finds a place with the Tuttles. Commissioned to write a musical for Broadway, he takes up Pop's offer to board at their house while he composes it. He even smooth-talked his way into getting a temporary job at the university. At the beach one day, everything seems to be going beautifully for the family. Pop plays with the dog; Aunt Jessie watches over the corn and the clams they'll be having
for dinner; Fran and Bob dig for more clams; Amy stitches an "A" onto Alex's sweater with Ernie by her side; Alex collects firewood; and Laurie is listening to a record. When Pop complains that it isn't real music, Laurie can't help but tease him by singing the lyrics to the pop tune. "Ready, Willing, and Able" is classic Doris Day -- simple, adorable, and playful, Day is delightful to watch.

 
Later, as Laurie splashes around in the water with Alex, Bob asks Fran when their wedding will be. At the start of the film, she mentioned June, but the more she silently stares at Alex, the farther away she pushes the date. Amy also has an eye for Alex, but he clearly wants Laurie, giving her a small gold bracelet that she happily accepts. Over s'mores that night, it's almost comical how lovesick Amy and Fran are, with only Aunt Jessie taking notice. Laurie is too busy snuggling with Alex and singing "Hold Me in Your Arms," appropriately enough.

Things are definitely starting to get complicated, and it's only just begun. One day, Alex tells Pop he's invited a piano player named Barney Sloan to come to town to help arrange Alex's music. When the door bell rings, the audience is treated to one of my favorite cinematic entrances. Gig Young opens the door to find a man's back to him. We cut to a close-up of the man's head, which turns around to reveal
that wonderful Sinatra face, his intense blue eyes captivating the viewer. As soon as we see that face, we can tell that Barney doesn't quite belong. Sinatra's thin frame and hollowed cheeks are in immediate contrast with the fit and tan Young. As soon as Barney speaks, it becomes more obvious, as he shows himself to be cynical, quiet, and world-weary. Rushing to get to the university, Alex explains that he got Barney a job
at a dive bar while he's in town and they'll find him a boarding house later. For now, he can start working on the arrangements while Alex is teaching, and with that, he's out the door. I always get the feeling that Alex doesn't particularly like Barney. He may recognize his talent, but he doesn't completely respect him. He just isn't as warm or vivacious as he usually is, and you can tell Barney picks up on it.

Anyway, hearing the piano being played, Aunt Jessie comes out of the kitchen and sizes up Barney. He's rude and abrasive, but she finds it amusing and offers to make him tea. As she fills up the kettle, Laurie comes home from grocery shopping and hears the piano herself. She loves how Barney plays Alex's music, but her efforts to talk to him are somewhat frustrating. When he plays a bit of his own original song,
she mentions that if he finished it, it could be a hit. But Barney doesn't believe it -- he's never gotten a break and it's doubtful he'll ever get one. Orphaned, barely educated, hit by the Depression and then WWII, Barney is definitely disillusioned with life. Laurie reminds him that he was also given talent, but he dismisses it: "Sure, they said 'Let him have a little talent. Not enough to do anything great on his own,
just enough to help other people. That's what he deserves.'" Laurie isn't buying it. She believes that people make their own destiny; they don't sit around and feel sorry for themselves. The best part is when Aunt Jessie comes in and makes a crack that causes Barney to smile. Laurie does a double-take, mirroring the audience's reaction. Barney likes to think he's tough, but I'd bet that Laurie is tougher.

At the bar where he is now working, Barney hangs out with Alex, Laurie, and Amy, getting him in trouble with the management. Just when it looks like he is about to be fired, Laurie saves the day when she recognizes the manager as the father of her high school best friend. She then gushes that their group came in just to hear Barney and they'll surely be coming back often. This is an example of their different philosphies. Without
Laurie's interference, Barney probably would have just accepted the firing, feeding into his woe-is-me mentality, but Laurie refuses to have no say in what happens to her. "Defeat" isn't in her vocabulary. Singing "Someone to Watch Over Me" at the piano, Barney is entrancing, but only to us and Laurie. No one else in the bar cares to listen, not even Alex or Amy, which is insane considering it's freaking Sinatra. The
fact that it is Sinatra helps the idea that Barney is more talented than he thinks, justifying Laurie's belief in him. You can watch the scene here. When this movie was made, Sinatra was in peak form. The previous year he had staged his infamous comeback in From Here to Eternity, winning him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and a revived career that would last until his death in 1998. Young at Heart helped cultivate his new image as the lonely crooner, the guy who would sit at a piano with his hat tilted and a lit cigarette waiting for him in an ash tray while he sang about heartbreak. His albums Where Are You? and In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning are proof that the persona was majorly successful.

Back to the film. A couple days have passed and Barney has gotten closer to Laurie. He helps her in the kitchen one day while she makes gingerbread cookies, putting the names of everyone in frosting on their own individual cookies. She puts a frown on Barney's before changing it into a smile. "You've improved an awful lot in one week, Mr. Sloan," she beams.

 
It seems that Laurie is the cause for his improvement -- she's been going to his boarding house and fixing up his room, and she chides him for his unkempt appearance. When she suggests he work on his song while she goes to do errands in town, Barney once again shoots it down, claiming that a hit song would do him no good because fate would just find another way to torture him. It's pretty melodramatic, and Laurie knows it, gently poking fun at it without being malicious. She becomes surprised, though, when Barney suddenly gives her a tender kiss on the cheek. "Don't think that's spur-of-the-moment stuff. I've been planning that for a week," he says. She pauses and then replies, "That's pretty mild for a week's thought, isn't it?" Barney covers by saying it was strictly a friendly kiss, but they both know better.

While in town, Laurie bumps into Alex, who helps her with her shopping. He tries to tell her he loves her, but she keeps getting distracted and misses it until the third try. They agree to get married next week and seal it with a kiss. That night, everyone gathers for Pop's birthday party. He gets presents from all of them, including Barney, which comes as news to Barney. Laurie had bought it and put his name on it,
knowing that he couldn't afford a gift and would look bad in comparison to the rest of the group. Laurie has another surprise: she bought Barney something too, a pair of initialed cufflinks. He's touched, but the feeling doesn't last when Alex and Laurie announce their engagement. Amy and Fran are also crushed, although they try to hide it, Fran even deciding that she and Bob will get married as soon as possible. When
Laurie goes to the kitchen to tell Jessie about Fran, she finds Amy sobbing at the table. However, she believes her sister is upset about her and Fran leaving the house.

At the bar, Barney has his suitcase beside him as he plays the piano absentmindedly. He goes into "Just One of Those Things," and as always, it's sublime. This is one of my favorite
songs and Sinatra is the best interpreter of it, without a doubt. You can see the rendition here. Barney turns around to see Laurie watching him. We're not sure how much time has passed, but apparently Barney hasn't been around lately, even missing Fran's wedding. Laurie's own wedding is in an hour, making it interesting that she came to see Barney before tying the knot. He confesses that he loves her, but Laurie
is steadfast that she plans on going through with the ceremony. Barney agrees to go to the wedding, mentioning that he and Amy will be in the same boat. When Laurie appears confused, Barney explains that he has noticed her sister's feelings for Alex, especially that night at Pop's party. Laurie doesn't believe it, but when she sees Amy helping Alex with his tie and crying once he leaves, she realizes that Barney is right. Later, everyone is wondering where Laurie is as they wait for the wedding to start. A telegram arrives -- Laurie has married Barney!

Five months go by until it's almost Christmas. Barney and Laurie are living in a small apartment in New York City, where he has a job playing piano in an Italian restaurant. Barney can tell his wife misses her town and her family, having read Aunt Jessie's letters dozens of times, but when he asks her if she regrets marrying him, she insists that she is still crazy about him. Hoping to cheer her up, Barney suggests they
sell his piano so they could have an expensive meal, but Laurie isn't having it -- he'll write plenty of hit songs on that piano, despite the failure of the two that were published since they were married. Unable to hock the piano, Barney tells Laurie to sell the bracelet Alex gave her; he's sick of seeing it and it makes him feel like Alex is still between them. With that, he storms out of the apartment.

It's time for another Sinatra classic! At his job, Barney croons "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" and it's absolutely masterful. You can watch it here. I particularly love Sinatra's acting in this scene. You can tell that Barney is regretting what he said to Laurie, and with his doom-and-gloom mentality, it's possible that he thinks his marriage is over so he really feels a connection with the song. Laurie comes in and sits nearby, pulling down her glove to show that she no longer has the bracelet. While still singing, Sinatra gives a slight smile, but the smile fades and he turns somber again as he ends the song with the lyric "the long, long road," demonstrating his belief that he and Laurie are still far from happiness.

For Christmas, the couple return to the Tuttle homestead. Ernie drives them to the house and reveals that he and Amy will be married soon. You can practically hear what the Sloans are thinking -- Laurie is wondering why Amy isn't with Alex, and Barney is fearful that with Alex available and Amy's feelings intact, Laurie will leave him. There's a sweet moment where Barney gifts Laurie with Alex's bracelet, admitting he saved it
from the pawn shop, but his insecurities quickly go into full force when Alex comes down the stairs. Later, Alex accompanies Laurie on the piano as she sings one of the tunes from his successful Broadway show. Afterwards, as he is leaving, Laurie returns her bracelet to him. They'll still be friends, Laurie divulging that she just found out she's pregnant; she's telling Barney at midnight as his Christmas present.

When Barney hears that Bob is taking Alex to the train station, he joins them in order to buy cigarettes from the drugstore. Out of earshot, though, he asks Bob if he could drive Alex instead; he has something he wants to discuss with Alex in private, so Bob agrees to get Barney's cigarettes while they're at the station. On the way there, Barney apologizes to Alex for stealing Laurie, but Alex says not to worry about
it and even slips him money to help with things as the train departs. Driving away, Barney hits his lowest point and decides Laurie will be better without him. He turns off his windshield wipers, allowing the falling snow to cover his field of vision, and steps on the gas. Director Gordon Douglas does a marvelous close-up on Sinatra's face. It may be one of my favorite cinematic shots:

Back at the house, Laurie and Amy do the dishes and admire how much has changed in the last year. Amy finally admits she thought she was in love with Alex, but after Laurie's telegram came, Ernie took charge and kept the family together, making Amy realize how wonderful he is. Their rosy moment is interrupted by Fran's sobbing. The girls rush to find Pop on the telephone with the police, who have found Bob's car
crashed. Unaware that Barney was the driver, Fran is devastated on the way to the hospital. She admits that she never appreciated the kind and generous Bob, leading Laurie to say she can make up for it now. Outside of the hospital room, the family learns who was really injured and at his bedside, Laurie tearfully refuses to let Barney give up on life, telling him that he's going to be a father before he is wheeled to surgery.

 
We cut to over a year later at the Tuttle house. Laurie is grinning ear to ear as she comes down the stairs and sees Aunt Jessie holding her and Barney's baby. We hear the song Barney had been having trouble finishing throughout the film being played on the piano and suddenly Barney's voice accompanies it -- he survived the surgery! Fran and Bob are cuddling nearby, as are Amy and Ernie while Pop watches over it all. Soon, Laurie joins her husband at the piano and we get our one and only Sinatra/Day duet. You can see the final scene here.

Many people seem to find fault with this ending, thinking that it would be more realistic or carry more emotional resonance if Barney died. I completely disagree, but I'm also the kind of viewer who loves happy endings. Young at Heart was a remake of 1938's Four Daughters, with John Garfield playing the doomed Barney. In that film, he does die and according to the cynics, that makes it better. I just don't see the logic -- we all know movies are fiction, so why must they adhere to reality? Plus, people survive car crashes all the time. In addition to that, I think Laurie and Barney deserve a nice ending. They're decent people who really do belong together, and the fact that he lives proves to Barney what Laurie has been saying along: he can change his own fate, he doesn't have to sit around and mope about it. He fights to make it through the surgery because he needs to for his family. The old Barney probably wouldn't have done the same, instead leaving it up to "the destinies." Sinatra actually refused to make the film if his character died. His motivation is a little murky; some say it was vanity, others say it was because he had died in his last two films, From Here to Eternity and Suddenly. Day thought the original ending should have been kept, writing in her autobiography that "there was an inevitability about that character's death that would have given more dimension to Sinatra's performance" and it would've "enhanced the film."

My problem with the ending lies somewhere totally different: the duet. I cannot believe how stupid Warner Bros. was to give Frank Sinatra and Doris Day only one song together; they missed an incredible opportunity. And it's not even a particularly great song! That's another issue I have -- Doris is given largely forgettable music while Frank has numbers that were popular years before this film. I have a feeling this was because of where their respective careers were at this point. Doris was a definite star, having made an admirable debut in 1948's Romance on the High Seas and having continued her success with On Moonlight Bay, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, and Calamity Jane to name a few. (By the way, I'm pretty sure the Tuttle house is the same one from On Moonlight Bay and By the Light...) Frank, on the other hand, was just getting back on the upswing, as previously mentioned. He had recently signed with Capitol Records after being dropped by Columbia in 1952, and proven successes like "Just One of Those Things" and "One for My Baby" was a good way to reintroduce Sinatra to the radio and record stores. The film was actually given its title after Sinatra's version of the song became #1, his first big single since his career slump.

Something that surprises me is that all of the plot synopses and articles I read about this film fail to mention Fran's infatuation with Alex. Amy's crush is super obvious, but you can tell Fran has one as well, due to the continual close-ups of her watching Alex doe-eyed or looking disappointed when he's with Laurie. It feels a little bit too much to have all three Tuttle sisters fall for Alex, especially when no one ever realizes
Fran's feelings. Alex basically becomes the Tuttle girls' stop before fully growing up, like the fantasy you have before you meet the real thing. Amy recognizes that he is simply a crush and instead chooses someone more lasting; Fran understands that she has been mistreating Bob and was pining after something unattainable; and Laurie, well, Laurie never actually says she loves Alex. She says she adores him and that marrying him could be "fun," a throwback to her statement at the beginning of the film that she desires a marriage with "a lot of laughs." Alex would provide that, but Barney is who she belongs with and she figures that out eventually.

I wish Day and Sinatra had done another film together, because I think they were wonderful as a team. Frank was known for having a bit of an edge to him, thanks to off-screen exploits like punching journalists and battling with wife Ava Gardner, but what people often overlook is that Doris could have an edge too -- just look at her work in Love Me or Leave Me, which was made the next year. Although she developed a reputation for being sunny and squeaky clean, Day had a personal life that was anything but. Still, she perserved and was able to transport audiences with her delightful and winsome performances. She was incredibly skillful in comedy, but she was just as masterful at drama, and Young at Heart is a shining example of what she could do.

The third star of Young at Heart, despite her fourth billing, is Ethel Barrymore. As always, Barrymore steals almost every scene she is in, her Aunt Jessie providing a sharp wit and humor that keeps the movie from being too saccharine. I love watching Ms. Barrymore; she was such a steady presence, with steely resolve and that inimitable voice. Can I be Ethel Barrymore when I grow up? Young at Heart would be her second-to-last film before dying in 1959 at the age of 79. The entertainment world lost a truly great actress.

While not the best musical drama you'll ever see, Young at Heart is a wonderful, genuinely likeable flick that boasts top-notch acting from everyone in the cast and also some of Sinatra's greatest musical moments. You can catch the film in five parts on YouTube, starting here. Even if you don't think you'll like it, watch it. Why? Because it's freaking Doris Day and Frank Sinatra.




























With love,
Michaela

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This is my entry to the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by Crystal. You can read the other tributes here.

Comments

  1. I agree - it definitely works having a happy ending. When I saw the original, I was a little surprised, because it seemed much more clear that she loved the Alex character, whereas, as you say, in Young at Heart she doesn't really seem to love him that much.

    More duets would have been lovely! Couldn't have had too many. :)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading! Happy to hear you agree about the ending! I haven't seen the original yet, but from what I gather, it does sound like Alex and Laurie are a better match. I'll forever lament that we don't have more Day/Sinatra duets.

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  2. Sinatra's "comeback" persona was more than a posture -- it was his life. His new popularity in the 50's and 60's was bolstered by the fact that he had experienced major public failures, personally and professionally, in the late 40's. His marriage fell apart, he develoed vocal problems, his movie roles were not as good, his record company (Columbia) didn't know how to handle him, he was in serious financial trouble -- and he turned it all around.
    Linda Sandahl (http://www.lindajsandahl.net/)

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    Replies
    1. Yes, Sinatra certainly hit his lowest point in the very early 1950's -- it's practically worthy of its own movie! I agree that his new jaded persona bled into the reality. He had hit rock bottom and he refused to go there ever again, and for the rest of his life I would say he succeeded. However, all those troubles did allow him to tap into some seriously vulnerable places. Just listen to something like "I'm a Fool to Want You" or watch a film like The Man with the Golden Arm and you'll see what I mean.

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  3. I love this film and agree that Sinatra and Day make a great couple in this. It's very interesting to compare it with Four Daughters which I also love. The unhappy ending is powerful there, but I really can't see it working in a musical entitled Young at Heart - this version cries out for a happy ending.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The more I hear about Four Daughters, the more it sounds like its ending was justified. Young at Heart's ending just feels right; I don't think I would have liked it as much if Barney had died, especially since I think he and Laurie are supposed to be together. Thanks for stopping by!

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