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Young at Heart is one of those carefree Hollywood movies with a title that's totally unrelated to the story or subject most of the characters are young, period, and the old ones are no more youthful in their hearts than in the rest of their bodies. But the title had drawing power in 1954, thanks to Frank Sinatra's recording of the eponymous song, a major hit that Billboard deemed Song of the Year just in time for the picture's end-of-year release. The importance of Sinatra's record in naming and marketing the film was ironic, since rising star Doris Day had top billing in the picture, and her husband, movie producer Martin Melcher, reportedly hustled behind the scenes to get her renditions better exposure than Sinatra's versions. This infuriated Sinatra so much that he refused to work unless Melcher was banned from the set. Day herself had a "fine relationship" with Sinatra, though, and recalled in Doris Day: Her Own Story that she felt "understanding and compassion" for him despite the "sure and rather cocky exterior" he brought with him to the film, which was the only one they ever worked on together.
Sinatra may have been cockier than usual, since his career was on the upswing after several years of unhappy events including the breakup of his marriage to Ava Gardner, health problems with his singing voice, and the end of his music contracts with MCA and Columbia Records as his audience and album sales declined. His turnaround began with an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for the 1953 army picture From Here to Eternity. Then a new contract with Capitol revitalized his recording career, pairing him with great arrangers like Nelson Riddle and letting him develop a fresh image that combined aspects of the swinger and the outsider, reflected in engrossing numbers like "One for My Baby," perhaps the strongest piece in the Young at Heart score. Feeling back at the top of his game, Sinatra followed the banning of Melcher with the firing of Young at Heart cinematographer Charles Lang, whose meticulous setups didn't jibe with his loose, from-the-hip style; the replacement was Ted D. McCord, also a first-rate talent. Sinatra was definitely feeling his oats, but his meddling did no harm to the picture, which performed well at the box office.
Young at Heart is a remake of Four Daughters, the 1938 drama by Michael Curtiz that marked John Garfield's screen debut; adapted from Sister Act by Fannie Hurst, it was followed by the sequels Four Wives and Four Mothers in 1939 and 1941. All of the pictures center on a family headed by a music-loving patriarch (played by Claude Rains in the '30s and '40s films) and his musically inclined offspring, who get into various scrapes, usually of a romantic nature. Young at Heart lowers the daughter count to three but retains the basic story line of its predecessor. Day plays Laurie, the youngest daughter, and Gig Young plays Alex Burke, a likable composer who comes for an extended visit to the sisters' dad, eventually winning Laurie's heart. Sinatra plays Barney Sloan, a cynical songwriter hired by Alex to do arrangements for the Broadway show he's composing. Barney is constantly lamenting the way fate has tricked and cheated him at every stage of his life, and Laurie takes on the mission of raising his spirits and improving his outlook. When she and Alex announce that they're engaged, oldest sister Fran is delighted but middle sister Amy is devastated, since she's been nurturing a secret crush on the composer. Barney is likewise disappointed that Laurie is marrying another man. Laurie soon realizes that Amy and Barney now have broken hearts because of her, so she runs off with Barney on her wedding day, settling down with him in New York, where he tries without success to build a musical career. During a holiday visit to Laurie's family, Barney gets the false idea that she and Alex still have eyes for each other, and sets out to kill himself by driving his car blindly through a raging snowstorm.
In the 1938 film, with Garfield in the part, Barney perishes in the resulting crash; but in Young at Heart he makes a slow recovery that also eases his long-time psychological woes, justifying the lyrics we hear ("Fairy tales can come true/It can happen to you....") as the story closes. This big change in the ending was prompted by nothing more complicated than Sinatra's refusal to make the picture if Barney died. Day considered this a very bad decision, saying later that "there was an inevitability about that character's death that would have given more dimension to Sinatra's performance" and "enhanced the film." The revised conclusion works reasonably well, however, if you think of Young at Heart as a cousin of the following year's great melodrama All That Heaven Allows, where the near-death of a man similarly strengthens the bond between him and the heroine. In any case, Sinatra's sensitive acting makes the denouement plausible and touching.
Along with Suddenly, an assassination thriller released two months earlier, Young at Heart propelled Sinatra into several more first-rate pictures including Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955, Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running in 1958, and John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. It also paved the way for Day's major dramatic roles in Love Me or Leave Me (1955), Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Midnight Lace (1960).
Although director Gordon Douglas didn't muster the cinematic energy he'd lavished on the creature feature Them! earlier in the year, his work on Young at Heart pleased Sinatra enough to spark no fewer than four collaborations with him in the 1960s, from Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964) to The Detective (1968) and the twin thrillers Tony Rome (1967) and Lady in Cement (1968). The good grosses and largely good reviews of Young at Heart also made it a creditable outing for Young as the composer, Dorothy Malone as the eldest sister, Elisabeth Fraser as the middle one, and Ethel Barrymore as an elderly aunt, the next-to-last movie character she played before her death. And every song is a winner, especially "Just One of Those Things" and "Ready, Willing, and Able" from Sinatra, "There's a Rising Moon for Every Falling Star" from Day, and "You, My Love" from both together. Plus the infectious title tune, of course, which you'll be humming long after the end credits are over.
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Gordon Douglas
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Lenore Coffee, based on Sister Act by Fannie Hurst
Cinematographer: Ted D. McCord
Film Editing: William H. Ziegler
Art Direction: John Beckman
With: Doris Day (Laurie Tuttle), Frank Sinatra (Barney Sloan), Gig Young (Alex Burke), Ethel Barrymore (Aunt Jessie Tuttle), Dorothy Malone (Fran Tuttle), Robert Keith (Gregory Tuttle), Elisabeth Fraser (Amy Tuttle), Alan Hale, Jr. (Robert Neary), Lonny Chapman (Ernest Nichols), Frank Ferguson (Bartell).
C-117m. Closed captioning.
by David Sterritt