An original, funny and sweet comedy about a family of con artists, The Young in Heart (1938) isn't as well known as it should be, perhaps due in part to its vague and not very descriptive title, which many may also confuse with Young at Heart (1954), the Doris Day -- Frank Sinatra vehicle. Anchor Bay had previously released this title to VHS, but this seems to mark its DVD debut, by present owners Disney via distributor MGM.
The picture opens on the French Riviera, "Coney Island with a monocle," so say the titles. Shyster Richard Carleton (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is about to marry a young woman from Georgia worth millions, but his family's elaborate plot is discovered at the last minute, and with sister George-Anne (Janet Gaynor), mama Marmy Carleton (Billie Burke) and their father, Colonel "Sahib" (Roland Young), Richard boards the first train for the English Channel.
On the train George-Anne meets a lonely -- and rich -- old lady, the coincidentally-named Ellen Fortune (Minnie Dupree). She is so sweet, so pure and unsuspecting that after the train derails and they pull her from the wreckage, she doesn't think twice about inviting the entire family to stay in her cavernous London mansion. Good fortune dropped into their laps, the Careltons plot and scheme to inherit the old lady's estate, but they are unprepared for the impact that her unflinching faith in them would have on their unscrupulousness.
The Young in Heart is a delight. The script, by Charles Bennett (who wrote all of Hitchcock's best British films) and playwright Paul Osborn has just the right balance of screwball-style comedy and genuine heart. The Carletons are indefatigable grifters who've spent so many years masquerading as eccentric socialites that "Colonel" Carleton and his wife seem blithely unaware of where their play-acting ends and their real lives begin. This is both funny and it serves to make believable the second act's conflict.
Once situated at Miss Fortune's mansion and in an effort to appear legit, the Carletons reluctantly agree to look for real employment. One funny scene has the Colonel and Richard looking bemusedly at a construction site. Watching the construction workers go about their business the two men are genuinely puzzled by it all: where's the fun in that, they ask themselves? Later, when the Colonel gets a job as a salesman at a high-priced, futuristic car dealership, he is surprised to discover that he really enjoys working after all, and his childlike pleasure rubs off on the audience.
Similarly, Richard gets a job at a hydraulic engineering firm, working under Leslie Saunders (Paulette Goddard, then Mrs. Charlie Chaplin), with whom he falls in love. He becomes genuinely interested in engineering. But as the family finds real value in going straight, their con proves all too successful. They fool themselves itself into believing they're only interested in Miss Fortune's fortune, but her unceasing kindnesses and understanding eventually begins to melt away their cold determination to steal her money. (In another smart move, the script has each character transform at a different pace, and under slightly different circumstances.)
As with all of David Selznick's films, The Young in Heart is impressively mounted, quite lavish at times. William Cameron Menzies did the production design, which includes swanky European nightclubs and even a state-of-the-art penguin exhibit. The film's unexpected train wreck is quite elaborate, generally more convincing and dramatically photographed than the much more famous one in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).
But the film's most memorable design, almost a star itself, is the line of cars the Colonel finds himself selling, the "Flying Wombat," a "car of the future," which is sort of a cross between a present-day Porsche and a '30s sedan. It was actually a concept vehicle, a Heinz Phantom Corsair, conceived by Rust Heinz, though Menzies did design the equally evocative dealership, which adds dozens more of these cars via matte paintings. It's a fascinating vehicle, prominently featured, so car buffs will want to rent the DVD for it alone.
Adding immeasurably to the film's success is its superb cast. Gaynor, in her last film before retiring, is very good as the family's tough-as-nails daughter, whose personal conflict about cheating Miss Fortune becomes its emotional center. (However, MGM's art department doesn't seem to know who the top-billed actress is; note who's picture is on the DVD's cover.) Conversely, The Young at Heart marked stage actor Richard Carlson's screen debut, as Gaynor's determined boyfriend. He's very good, and it's a shame he was soon delegated to second-rate roles as a Universal contract player. Interestingly, the Minnesota-born Carlson plays a Scotsman here (complete with reasonably convincing brogue), making one wonder if production designer-turned-director Menzies remembered him when he cast Carlson as a Scottish heir in The Maze 15 years later.
Roland Young and Billie Burke had already played, memorably, a married couple in Topper the year before. This film would solidify their reputation as an unofficial "team." They would go on to make five more films together, with Burke typically the flighty wife to Young's beleaguered husband. Both are delightful here.
One Curious Note: The original onscreen credits from 1938 cite Disney Enterprises as the picture's copyright holder. Did Walt have money tied into this production? This reviewer has never seen any evidence of this, yet....
Video & Audio
MGM's release of The Young in Heart is a very good transfer in full frame format. Leon Shamroy's Oscar-nominated cinematography looks pristine with excellent blacks and good detail. The opening titles are windowboxed. A previously available colorized version is thankfully not included. The mono sound is good for its vintage; included are optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
The lone extra is an original Trailer, complete with narration and text. It's in very good shape, and amusingly bills actress Goddard "in her first talking role!" (having first starred in Chaplin's Modern Times).
The Young in Heart is a near-perfect comedy, losing its way only slightly near its climax, though even there it smartly avoids obvious third act cliches. It's sweet and funny and perfect escapist entertainment that holds up wonderfully well today.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.