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"He was young and crude, some kind of country-boy joke, but a woman could feel him across the room."
--Tagline for Youngblood Hawke
There's no telling how much heat Mary Astor was feeling across the interior settings for this 1964 romantic melodrama, but it definitely wasn't about the art of acting. Though she was as expert in this as in any of her films, meaning she could steal a scene with the bat of an eye, she was tired of the grind of making movies. After one more film, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), she would turn in her union card, officially retiring from the screen.
Astor was fifth-billed as an aging stage star involved in a young writer's first play, hardly a central role in the story. By the point she turns up on screen, young Southerner James Franciscus has arrived in New York to start his literary career, won the heart of talented editor Suzanne Pleshette and embarked on an affair with married socialite Genevieve Page, who vacations near the Nassau house in which Astor and Franciscus are developing his script for her.
Herman Wouk's novel was loosely based on the life of Thomas Wolfe. It maintained his background, his conflicting drives -- the urge to rise from near poverty vs. the thirst for artistic excellence -- and his affair with a married woman (in real life, theatrical designer Aline Bernstein). But to create a romantic triangle, Maxwell Perkins, the editor who helped him pare down the original unwieldy manuscript for Look Homeward, Angel, was transformed into a beautiful young woman. Further paring and some sanitizing was required to turn Wouk's 700-plus page tome into a marketable movie, focusing even more tightly on the romantic plot.
In the hands of a run-of-the-mill director, the results would have been negligible. Fortunately, when Warner Bros. picked up the novel's rights, they entrusted it to their resident master of turbulent young romance, Delmer Daves. After first establishing himself with action films, particularly gritty, adult westerns like Jubal (1956) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Daves had made the transition to melodrama with A Summer Place (1959). His romances maintained a high level of dramatic excitement while also showcasing their younger stars, many of them under contract to Warner Bros. He had helped make Troy Donahue a star with A Summer Place and Parrish (1961), then worked his magic on Pleshette in Rome Adventure (1962), which teamed her with Donahue and the young Angie Dickinson.
The only things holding Daves back on Youngblood Hawke were the budget and a major casting problem. Although originally announced as a Technicolor feature, the film was cut back to black and white to save money, which significantly diminished the potential for glamour in a tale of the Jet Set at play. Warren Beatty agreed to star in the film -- hot on the success of his film debut in Splendor in the Grass (1961), followed by The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and All Fall Down (1962) - but backed out before the contracts were signed. His decision to make Lilith (1964) instead almost sunk his career just as it was taking off.
In his place, Warner's considered Bobby Darin, Stuart Whitman, George Peppard and Terence Stamp. Instead, they cast James Franciscus, a talented young actor who had worked his way up from TV guest shots to the lead as a crusading school teacher in the series Mr. Novak. The actor wasn't exactly bad in the role, and he certainly looked good, but he lacked the star power Beatty might have brought to the picture.
To play Franciscus's paramour, the studio cast Page, a French actress who had begun making inroads into American filmmaking with Foreign Intrigue (1956). To play a member of New York society in Youngblood Hawke, she requested a diction coach to help cover her French accent. Instead, Daves added a moment of her talking on the phone in French to make it clear her character was a native French-speaker. As it turned out, she gave one of the best-received performances in the film, expertly capturing the character's conflicting emotions.
Warner Bros. focused their marketing on the film's inside peek at New York society, a position greatly helped by a high-class supporting cast including Eva Gabor as the socialite who introduces Franciscus to the upper crust, Astor, John Emery as Astor's co-star, Kent Smith as Page's husband and Edward Andrews as a sharp-tongued critic. The director also captured some high-gloss location shots of New York City, which were effectively contrasted with the roughhewn beauties of Franciscus's Kentucky home, demonstrating once again the talent for dramatic use of landscapes that had made the director's Westerns so strong.
In addition to being Astor's next-to-last picture, Youngblood Hawke would be Daves' last melodrama. The film was not a major player at the box office, which was no problem for Warner Bros. in a year in which My Fair Lady was raking in profits. But the audience for this kind of picture was more and more staying home to watch television. Daves would finish his career with one more Warner Bros. picture, the family-oriented comedy-drama The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1965), starring Maureen O'Hara and Rossano Brazzi. In a curious footnote to Youngblood Hawke, the film's title would be taken by an indie band founded in 2012 on the West Coast.
By Frank Miller
Director: Delmer Daves
Screenplay: Daves, Herman Wouk
Based on the novel by Wouk
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Score: Max Steiner
Cast: James Franciscus (Youngblood Hawke), Suzanne Pleshette (Jeanne Green), Genevieve Page (Frieda Winter), Eva Gabor (Fannie Prince), Mary Astor (Irene Perry), Lee Bowman (Jason Prince), Edward Andrews (Quentin Judd), Don Porter (Ferdie Lax), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Sarah Hawke), Kent Smith (Paul Winter, Sr.), John Dehner (Scotty Hawke), John Emery (George Peydal), Hayden Rorke (Mr. Givney), Werner Klemperer (Mr. Leffer), Martin Balsam (Party Guest)