Young at Heart (Gordon Douglas, 1954)

Young at Heart 4It 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. 

Doris Day and Frank Sinatra

Doris Day and Frank Sinatra

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.

Poor relations coming home for Christmas

Poor relations coming home for Christmas

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.)

Dorothy Malone, Doris Day and Elisabeth Fraser with Robert Keith

Dorothy Malone, Doris Day and Elisabeth Fraser with Robert Keith

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.

Doris Day and Gig Young

Doris Day and Gig Young

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.

Ethel Barrymore with Day and Sinatra

Ethel Barrymore with Day and Sinatra

17 thoughts on “Young at Heart (Gordon Douglas, 1954)

  1. Great review even though I don’t agree with some of your comments!
    I think John Garfield nailed this character in Four Daughters. I can’t see anyone else in the role, not even Sinatra.
    As portrayed by Sinatra, I just couldn’t feel much sympathy for ‘Barney’ and I never saw any chemistry between him and ‘Laurie’. I could imagine her feeling sorry for him and wanting to help him, but that’s all.
    The way his character is written, I don’t expect a happy ending for him. And it really is a Hollywood ending to think he would make Laurie happy. They are just too different.
    On the other hand, I thought Doris Day and Gig Young were the perfect couple!
    Still, the Sinatra songs are magic.

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    • Vienna, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this film – we can’t always agree on everything, and it’s great to hear your opinions on this. I love Garfield in the original – hoping to write about that whole series of films soon – and agree he nails it, but to me Sinatra gives a different take on the character which is equally powerful. I do feel very sympathetic to him, especially when nobody is listening to him singing.

      Definitely agree that it’s a Hollywood ending, but I’m not sure we can expect anything else in this kind of musical! I do like Jeffrey Lynn’s character in ‘Four Daughters’, but find Gig Young’s version annoying – I like him as an actor and think he gives a great performance, but the character is just so overbearing. Glad we agree on the Sinatra songs, anyway! Thanks again, Vienna.

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  2. Another fine Sinatra performance, and his singing is just sublime. A good Gordon Douglas movie in my opinion – funny he just came up in a discussion at my place too. I think the word is serendipity.

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    • Serendipity indeed! Definitely an underrated director, Colin – I’ve just been over to your place to look at the discussion and have learned quite a bit, so many thanks for commenting. I didn’t realise Douglas had made all those Westerns, and will look out for them. I did review a good Cagney film of his a while back, ‘Come Fill the Cup’, about an alcoholic newsman, which seems to have a cult following judging from the amount of comments I’ve had from people desperate to get hold of a copy. I’ve recently seen a couple of films that Douglas made with Sinatra, and quite liked ‘Tony Rome’, a lighthearted detective movie, but I thought the sequel, ‘Lady in Cement’, was a waste of time.

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    • If you like Sinatra’s singing, I’d definitely recommend it! If you do record it, I hope you enjoy it, Ruth – if you find the first half hour too sugary, stick with it, because the mood does change later! Thanks for commenting.

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  3. Thanks for your post and for your perceptive look at the 2 films you discuss – it really would be hard to fill John Garfield’s shoes! I recall the remake as a pleasant film, but I thought that the Sinatra/Day pairing never jelled. She seemed way too strong to tolerate his character (and physically they didn’t make a good match, either). I agree with Day also that the changed ending really doesn’t work (and it also deprives her of a big emotional scene; maybe that was the reason Sinatra wanted the change, so the focus wouldn’t go to her?). The original film really didn’t need a remake; it’s too bad something else couldn’t have been fashioned for Day and Sinatra, focusing more on showbiz couples and competition; that maybe would have worked better.

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    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, G.O.M,, though it seems we disagree on this film – I think the attraction of opposites in the Day/Sinatra pairing works well. You make an interesting point about the emotional focus here. Day does still have a powerful scene at the hospital and I actually think that goes on longer in this version, keeping the focus on her at that point, though it swings back to Sinatra in the final scene. It’s a pity she isn’t given better songs in this, and also that they didn’t get a chance to do another film together after this one – something about a showbiz couple might have worked well, I agree. Thanks again!

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  4. “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.”

    Indeed Judy, and though its been years since I saw this I do remember the spirited songs and the superlative singing from old blue eyes. Yes great to have songs from Porter and Arlen. And impressive chemistry between the leads. While I’d be hard-pressed to rate this movie over Garfield’s FOUR DAUGHTERS I’d be equally foolish to compare them in any meaningful way. Its apples and oranges here. Anyway, as always you write with authority and enthusiasm, and this is a fantastic review!

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    • Sam, I watched both films close together and was struck by just how different they feel, despite large chunks of dialogue being the same in both, so I agree with you on the ‘apples and oranges’. And yes, superlative is the word for Sinatra’s singing in this. Thanks so much for the great comment and for all your support!

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  5. At first glance, this rather oversentimental film should not work, at all.

    Dominated by Sinatra to the point that, upon the threat of his withdrawal from the movie – the script was dramatically altered; the original director of photography, the much respected Charles Lang, unceremoniously sacked; and Marty Melcher, one of the principal’s of the Production Company, (as well as husband of joint principal and co-star, Doris Day), banned from the set. All of these demands…and more, made upon…and met by Warner Bros, must have caused considerable tension during filming. Fortunately this does not show in the finished product.

    With the talent of Director, Gordon Douglas, fine acting of the co-stars and cast, as well as Sinatra’s superb renditions of songs from Porter, Arlen, the Gershwins, Mercer, and Van Heusen, “Young At Heart” turned out to be a money-making hit – and, in my opinion, worth “the price of admission” for Sinatra’s exceptional singing and performance.

    Judy, thanks for encouraging me to revisit this movie.

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    • Glad to hear you enjoyed revisiting this, Rod – I must agree that all the tension that must have been there on the set doesn’t show in the film. Thanks for the interesting recap of the problems behind the scenes. I’d have to admit there are some oversentimental parts, but, as you’ll have gathered, I’m a big fan of the movie overall, and above all for Sinatra’s performances of those songs. Thanks for the great comment!

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  6. While I love John Garfield and “Four Daughters,” I actually prefer “Young at Heart,” in large part, of course, because of the music.

    I also happen to like the more positive ending. While I am a huge fan of tragic endings, sometimes, a happy ending (even if cheesy and fake) is just what I’m in the mood for.

    Wishing you a wonderful new year,
    Patti

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    • I’m not sure which one I love the best, but it might just be ‘Young at Heart’ – and I definitely think a musical like this cries out for a happy ending, even if they could have made it a bit less cheesy! Thanks for the comment, Patti, and I wish you a wonderful new year too.

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  7. Pingback: Which is Frank Sinatra’s best film performance as an actor? | Movie classics

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