Four years away from her breakthrough comedy role at MGM in The Thin Man
(1934), Myrna Loy played one of the femme fatale
roles that characterized her early career in The Truth About Youth
(1930). This pre-Code drama was directed by William A. Seiter and produced by Warner Bros. subsidiary First National Pictures. The film is based on a 1900 play, When We Were Twenty-One
, by Henry V. Esmond.
The Truth About Youth
is one of three films (the others being 1929's The Squall
and 1930's The Devil to Pay!
) in which Loy plays the sexy "other woman" to Young's virtuous ingénue. This time around, Young is Phyllis Ericson, a pretty young thing who is engaged to marry playboy Richard Dane (David Manners). As it happens, Phyllis's mother (Myrtle Stedman), is the housekeeper of Richard's mentor Richard Carewe (Conway Tearle), who raised the boy from childhood after the death of his father.
The action begins on the occasion of Dane's 21st birthday, for which Carewe has planned a surprise birthday party. Dane, whose nickname is "The Imp," fails to show up as he has gone to a nightclub to see Kara (Loy), a gold-digging showgirl who sings and dances under the name "The Firefly." Returning home the worse for wear, Dane accidentally drops a note from Kara that is found the next morning by the housekeeper and shown to Phyllis. In an effort to smooth things over, Carewe tells Phyllis that the note was actually his - a believable lie since the note was addressed to "Richard," the first name shared by Dane and Carewe.
Phyllis is distraught, because she is actually in love with Carewe even though he is old enough to be her father. More entanglements ensue when Kara agrees to marry Dane under the mistaken notion that he is wealthy, and Carewe unwittingly hires Kara to pretend to be his lover in public. Despite the age difference, the movie attempts a happy ending by allowing Carewe and Phyllis to pair off in a final clinch. With Young a dewy-eyed 17 and Tearle a rather dissipated 52, they form a questionable May-December couple. The truth about youth, indeed!
Loy was actually a professional dancer, having trained with Ted Shawn (husband of modern dancer Ruth St. Denis and her co-leader with the Denishawn dance company), and The Truth About Youth
is one of the few films in which she gets to show off this ability. At the nightclub, she performs such songs as "Playing Around" and "I Have to Have You." She sings in a light, clear voice (apparently her own) and struts about nimbly. Young gets top billing, but it is Loy who steals the film as the flashy and amoral "Firefly," whose taste in men runs to those "who crush the life out of me and make me like it!"
The teenaged Young was admittedly intimidated by the older and more experienced Loy, but the two actresses became friendly on an equal footing after both emerged as first-tier Hollywood stars. Young would recall Loy as "one of the substantial, one of the very important, people in the motion-picture industry. Even when she started out, she had a quality about her, but by the time she got to MGM she was so well-seasoned. I loved that part of her career. That had real elegance, I thought. That's when she realized her full potential, because Myrna's one of those rare people with humor in our business... She was always a little bit wiser, more compassionate and sophisticated."
The Truth About Youth
was preserved intact at the Library of Congress and, in addition to its showings on TCM, is available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection, where it forms a double feature with another Loretta Young movie, The Right of Way
By Roger Fristoe
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