Young at Heart
d. Gordon Douglas /1954 / USA / 117 mins
It would be impossible to review this film without first and foremost acknowledging the odd-couple pairing of Doris Day and Frank Sinatra, both at the height of their careers. It proved a chance to showcase two great musical talents and (although they had already worked together) provided an opportunity to release a lucrative soundtrack. The film itself was a remake of the well received 1938 film, Four Daughters, which had already been a starting point from which to create two sequels, Four Wives and Four Mothers.
Frank Sinatra plays the misanthropic Barney Sloan, a man who has struggled through the depression, the war and has little to show for his troubles but his musical ability and a bum leg. Up until his arrival, Laurie Tuttle (Day) is leading a life that can only be described as wholesomely saccharine. Young at Heart follows the eccentricities of this mismatched couple as they learn to open up to one another.
Without a doubt the most interesting thing about Day (fresh out of the success of Calamity Jane), is her incredibly well-cultivated image. Not a single hair is ever out of place and not once does Laurie get out of bed, not already made up. There is little room for Laurie to manoeuvre or develop throughout the film, leaving Sinatra as Barney to act as the catalyst of interest and intrigue for the audience. This is mostly due to the fact that she ends the film in the same manner that she started, the perfect promotion for 50s, consumerist America and virginal womanhood. Day’s image is honed to the point of the suffocation of her character, whereas other films like The Thrill of it All allowed for more freedom and plenty of opportunities for slightly more mischievous roles. Day herself however, embraces the part of Laurie with as much vigour as she would any other and manages to charm her way through lacklustre writing.
Laurie’s decision to be with Barney is counterpointed by her spurning of Alex (played by Gig Young), a man who compliments her in every way. Alex is affluent, kind and far more handsome than the plain men that her sisters are clearly so unhappy with. Laurie shows her dependence on men as being born from her desire to fix them (in this case, Barney’s depression). There’s no escaping the message that a woman’s task is to tame a man and are equally, the only ones capable of doing so. It would be hard to say that Hollywood’s depictions of heterosexual relations are any more progressive now than they were traditional then, but it is worth noting that despite the presence of Sinatra, this is without a doubt, primarily a Doris Day film (highlighted by her top billing) and that she was more than capable of overshadowing the men who supported her.
The director, Gordon Douglas, doesn’t quite handle the story with the same finesse that was evident in the success of Four Daughters and the script feels too divided to truly show an evolution to Laurie and Barney’s relationship (in one jump cut they have revealed their affections to each other, married and have begun to experience troubles at home). Frank Sinatra shows he is a capable actor as well as a gifted musician and does a good job of doing the otherwise impossible, adding a harder edge to one of Day’s more overly sentimental films, “There’s a place for people like you who go around laughing for no reason” he tells the Tuttle family upon meeting them. As a slice of white-picket-fenced, aspirational Americana it manages to elevate itself to a respectable level due to the abilities of its two leads. Unfortunately, due to problems with pacing and exposition, Laurie and Barney are never able to connect on the same level that Day and Sinatra are able to as stars. As a romantic comedy/drama it doesn’t quite hit the same notes that Day achieved with Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk or in fact either of their other films together.
Considering Barney’s curmudgeonly influence on the film, it is surprising that the newly changed, happier ending was opted in by Sinatra. His desire to give Barney a happier ending was brought on by the amount of recent roles he had played where his characters had died. This change not only upset critics of the time but also denied audiences what would have been one of Doris Day’s darkest films, certainly making it better remembered today. On the other hand, the ending is in keeping with the general tone of the film and more damage might have been done to an already strained script if the film had shifted so suddenly into more morose territory. What we’re left with instead is an adequate romantic drama, performed as it is by two of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden era.