It must be a daunting prospect to step into a role which another actor has already made his own. But Frank Sinatra did it at least twice, in musical remakes of much-loved movies. In High Society he took on the role which had won James Stewart an Oscar in The Philadelphia Story, and a couple of years earlier he stepped into the shoes of another legend, John Garfield. In Young at Heart, starring opposite Doris Day, Sinatra plays the character who turned Garfield into a star – a bitter, mixed-up young musician who believes the fates are out to get him.
I’m a big fan of Garfield and of the original 1938 film, Four Daughters, also starring Priscilla Lane, which I hope to return to here in the New Year, as part of a series about films focused on groups of sisters or female friends. However, I also really like the remake, directed by Gordon Douglas, who worked with Sinatra on several other films. This version keeps a lot of the same witty dialogue by Julius Epstein and Lenore J Coffee – and Sinatra burns up the screen as Barney Sloan. (His name has been changed from Garfield’s Mickey Borden.) Day is also perfectly cast as Laurie Tuttle, the golden girl who tries to break through Barney’s defences, but sadly she doesn’t get any musical numbers to equal the three great torch songs which Sinatra performs in the course of the film. Sitting at the piano nursing a cigarette and wearing a battered Fedora, he looks as if he has materialised from the sleeve of one of his albums of sad songs, such as In the Wee Small Hours, released the following year.
Both the original film and the remake centre on a family of musical sisters (just three in the later film) and their love lives. But a big loss in the remake is that it cuts out the first 20 minutes or so of the original, which showed the sisters’ everyday lives and the way they help one another. In the older film, while not exactly poor, the household is clearly short of money, and the motherless sisters share clothes, eke out their food through thrifty cooking and turn old curtains into gifts for their father. The glossy 1950s musical loses all this, and presents a much wealthier family with a lavishly furnished house. Here there are no money worries and no pressure on the girls, Day, Dorothy Malone and Elisabeth Fraser, to marry, beyond their own longing for love and status. Another sad change is that in this version it is only the men who make their careers in music – the fourth sister, Kay, who became a professional singer in the original film, has been cut out completely.
On the plus side, there are a lot of festive trimmings and Christmas scenes in this movie, and the great title song, performed by an unseen Sinatra, creates a warm-hearted atmosphere (“fairytales can come true, it could happen to you…”), which continues for the first 35 minutes or so. This whole section is a feast of glorious Technicolor sweetness and fun, including an idyllic seaside picnic. It’s all highly enjoyable, and it is especially good to see Ethel Barrymore in one of her last roles as the down-to-earth Aunt Jessie. At times, though, the film does teeter dangerously near to overloading on sugar – until the mood suddenly changes with Sinatra’s arrival.
Sinatra doesn’t turn up until more than 30 minutes of the film have elapsed. Before that, much of the action is dominated by loud-mouth composer Alex Burke (Gig Young). He turns up from nowhere and immediately turns stand-in vet to deliver a neighbour’s litter of puppies – including a runt. Alex cheerily suggests that perhaps the ninth pup should be drowned, to the outrage of Laurie, who steps in to save the puppy and bottle-feed him. Her new-found friend quickly insists that he was only joking, and Laurie thaws towards him – but the suggestion of callousness has been made. As well as casting a doubt over Alex’s character, this incident also shows where Laurie’s heart lies. She steps in to protect the puppy just as she will later make it her mission to cherish lonely outsider Barney. Doris Day is infectiously warm and forthright as Laurie, entering into other people’s emotions.
The first glimpse of Sinatra is one of the film’s most memorable moments, when he turns up on the doorstep and is first seen standing with his back to the front door. Then he turns round and looks in from outside, with an expression of such hardened misery that it immediately tells the character’s story. After coming into the house and taking over the piano, he tells Laurie the sorry tale of how he has always been daunted by “them” (the fates), who won’t allow him any happiness. The words are almost the same as those spoken by Garfield in the earlier film, but somehow the sarcasm and self-pity seem darker and less playful in this version, maybe because Sinatra’s delivery is so hard-boiled – and also because his thinness goes to the character. When he says “I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” you believe it. There are a number of scenes where he stands in a dark corner while the rest of the cast are in the centre of the film, bathed in colour. (Reportedly, Sinatra had the great Charles Lang sacked as cinematographer because he felt that he worked too slowly. That’s a pity, but the camerawork by his replacement Ted D. McCord does still include a lot of memorable shots.)
The relationship between Laurie and Barney quickly becomes intense, although unspoken. On the surface, Laurie is still supposed to be in love with Alex, and she rashly accepts a proposal from him. But her true feelings are seen when she goes along with Alex and the family to hear Barney sing at a club, where he is slighted and insulted by the manager – and then the customers laugh and talk all through his number, a heartbreaking version of Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me. Alex takes little notice of the song, showing his own smug limitations – a musician who doesn’t appreciate music. But Laurie is bound up in the lyric and reacts especially strongly when he reaches the line “Oh, how I need…” This scene really paves the way for Laurie’s decision to jilt Alex at the altar and run away and marry Barney instead. (The word ‘need’ crops up a lot in this film. When proposing, Alex says to Laurie ‘I love you, and I need you’ – and later, in a key moment towards the end of the film, she says exactly the same words to Barney. Also, when Laurie and Barney pay a visit to her family, as they enter the house he says to her ‘Stay close to me, I’m going to need you.’)
Later there are two more scenes where Sinatra sings torch songs, Cole Porter’s Just One of Those Things, which expresses his feelings about losing Laurie to Alex, and Harold Arlen’s One For My Baby (And One More For the Road), which he performs at a club in New York, when he fears he is losing her again. These are all great performances where he really dramatises the emotion of the songs through his voice and expressions, and they add up to make the film a must for anyone who appreciates him as a singer.
In all honesty, I’d have to say the whole love triangle is clumsily worked out in this version of the story, where Laurie’s motivation is confusing. It is made clear that she really loves Barney, yet some scenes are kept in from the earlier film where she nobly relinquishes Alex because she has realised that her sister, Amy, is in love with him. Surely it has to be one thing or the other. On top of this, the whole idea of Laurie running out on her wedding is very difficult to swallow. The warm-hearted character Doris Day has portrayed through the whole film up to this point just wouldn’t treat people in this way. Maybe that is why the elopement happens off screen and Laurie is only seen again once she is married, and trying to support Barney in his failing musical career.
Despite feeling sorry for him in the wedding scene, I do find Alex a rather unsympathetic character in general because he is so full of himself and so insensitive to the feelings of others. In particular, the way he uses Barney’s talents while failing to pay him properly is infuriating – a puzzling aspect of the plot that the scriptwriters never really address. I think it is supposed to seem amazingly kind, if patronising, when Alex hands Barney a wad of cash as a Christmas gift. However, Alex has built his own career on musical compositions heavily reworked by Barney, so, unless I’m missing something here, surely he should be sharing the takings anyway.
A word of warning… I’ll be discussing the ending in this next bit.
In Four Daughters, the film takes a tragic turn near the end, when Garfield’s character commits suicide after realising that his wife still loves the Alex character. This is then followed by a muted happy ending where the lover she jilted (Jeffrey Lynn) turns up at her home some time later and they are reunited.
However, in Young at Heart, Sinatra insisted on a change to the sad ending, so this time round Barney’s suicide bid fails, and the story ends with a Christmas scene where he and Laurie sing together. Day thought the changed ending weakened the film, and it’s certainly true that the happy family scene has its dodgy aspects, In particular, it’s just too cheesy that their baby daughter has been called ‘Lightning’ because Barney always thought that he would be struck by a bolt some day. But a musical entitled Young at Heart demands a happy ending… and the only Sinatra-Day duet in the whole film is a fitting way to end, even if You, My Love is not as strong as some of the other numbers. I’m aware this film has its flaws, but I do really like it and it is one I can often return to, above all for the great Sinatra vocal performances it includes.