Friday, December 4, 2009

The Young in Heart (1938): Charming Charletons

Not to be confused with Young at Heart, a 1954 musical starring Frank Sinatra and Doris Day, The Young in Heart (1938) is a delightful, almost forgotten comedy produced by master showman David O. Selznick. Although not a holiday related film, The Young in Heart is often shown during the Christmas season and its theme of love, faith and generosity changing hard hearts into soft, is perfect for this time of year (actually any time of year).

The Carletons are a family of charming cons, grifters of the highest order, on the make for the biggest bundle they can find. The foursome includes father Carleton or Sahib (Roland Young), as he is called, due to his fictional background in India (sahib is an Indian term of respect which refers to European men stationed in India during its colonial period); mother Carleton or Marmee (Billie Burke), yes, as in the affectionate maternal moniker given in Little Women; dashing son Rick (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.); and clever daughter George-Anne (Janet Gaynor), whose mentally at the helm of the pack of charismatic mercenaries. Tossed out of Monte Carlo (or as it is called via screen text at the film's beginning ~ The Riviera: Coney Island with a Monocle) by the authorities for shady dealings, the Carletons head to London, homeless and penniless, but magnificently tailored. En route, they meet a very kind but very lonely and more importantly, very wealthy old lady aptly named Miss Fortune (Minnie Dupree). She is taken by the striking group (in more ways than one) and desolate about her solitude, invites them to stay with her at her London mansion. As part of a grand ruse, the mooching menagerie moves in with the old gal and starts acting responsibly, the men even gaining employment, something they've never known. Paulette Goddard and Richard Carlson play Fairbanks and Gaynor's sweethearts respectively.

Not a big box office hit, nor a much viewed classic in recent years, in 1938 The Young in Heart was overshadowed at the Selznick studios by the pre-production of the producer's mega project Gone with the Wind (1939). In his autobiography, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. devotes a mere quarter of a page to his contribution to the film. Paulette Goddard, a neighbor of David Selznick and hopeful for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in his film, was put under personal contract to the producer and cast in The Young in Heart. Married to Charlie Chaplin at the time*, Goddard made her feature debut in his silent classic Modern Times two years earlier and Heart would be her sound debut in a featured role (the vivacious actress had bit parts and was a chorus girl in some early musicals). Also making their debut is Richard Carlson, an actor who became a staple in Hollywood as a dependable second lead in several fine productions. On the opposite end of the spectrum, first billed Janet Gaynor would make this her last film before retirement and marriage to costume designer Adrian (although she would make one more film, Bernardine in 1957). Famous as the first actress to win a Best Actress Oscar, Gaynor was at the height of her career when choosing to leave films.

Roland Young and Billie Burke, as the wacky, ditsy heads of the Carleton family, reunited in this film after making a splash in the previous years ghostly comedy Topper. They would again make funny as daffy marrieds in the two Topper sequels. Fluttery Burke adds just the touch of feather brained whimsy for which she is famous. As the key figure of Miss Fortune, Selznick wanted to use famous Broadway stars Maud Adams and Laurette Taylor and both actresses even made a screen test but in the end, they passed on the opportunity and little known Minnie Dupree was cast, giving a charming performance as the spinster with the heart of gold.

As awards go, the clever comedy was nominated for Oscars in the Music and Cinematography categories. Much thought to detail and resources were put into The Young in Heart and the great deco sets are superb. Speaking of design, the car in which the Sahib attempts to sell as his livelihood, the "Flying Wombat", was actually a 1938 Corsair and was designed by Rust Heinz, member of the famed Heinz Ketchup family. Reported cost in 1938 dollars to produce the car...$24,000! Unfortunately, with Heinz death, plans to complete the auto never materialized.

* For more on the Charlie Chaplin ~ Paulette Goddard Marriage you may want to check out, "The Chaplin/Goddard Marriage: Was It Legal?"


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  2. Rupert, I saw this a few months ago and absolutely agree about what a delightful movie it is. I love the screwball comedies of the 30s, and maybe it's because this film doesn't fit that mold that it's been so unjustly neglected. In the screwball comedies, strait-laced characters tend to break out of their shells, but in this one a family of scoundrels learns the joys of going straight. So in a way it's almost an anti-Capra comedy--just the opposite situation from a movie like "You Can't Take It With You." Every single actor in it is great and is perfectly cast, and together they form a really strong cast. It's interesting that "Topper," which you mention and which was released the same year, also features a fantastic futuristic car like the Flying Wombat. Great post that brings attention to a movie that for lovers of vintage comedy (like us) should be a must-see.

  3. Wow. I've seen this movie only once on TV, a long time ago, before I was even in school, with my mom one afternoon. I remember her telling me about "Topper" and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Billie Burke. I'd since forgotten the title. As I read your review, all the little pieces of that memory began to fill in, until I realized that this was that movie. Thanks, Rupert, for finally putting a title to that memory.

  4. I saw this movie and really enjoyed it. I really liked TOPPER too. Loved the "Zip" effect. And Constance is Great in it.Well actually, everyone in the movie was great.

  5. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush................

  6. This is a wonderful movie. I think a scene or two with Carlson and Gaynor ended up on the cutting room floor (have seen a still), which is too bad. Carlson is adorable with his Scottish brogue.

    You might enjoy seeing photos I took of the actual Wombat from the film at Reno's National Automobile Museum summer before last.

    It's stunning!

    Best wishes,

  7. This is an utterly charming film. Originally, the elderly woman died at the film's end. However, at the first preview, the audience protested, and another ending had to be filmed. (Thankfully) I disovered this due to the book "More Films of the 1930s". Books like that added to my collection immensely, as they piqued my interest.



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