Saturday, March 10, 2007

Four Daughters and Young at Heart: Thoughts on a Comparison

Four Daughters, 1938, with Priscilla Lane and John Garfield

The 1954 remake, Young at Heart, with Doris Day and Frank Sinatra

Four Daughters was made in 1938 from a story by Fannie Hurst and was a hit of its day. Young at Heart was a remake of the story in 1954 and was also a big hit. I recently had occasion to see these movies back to back and was startled by the differences between the two. Since both of the movies were equally popular with their respective audiences, it is possible to assume that they both offered to Americans a mirror of themselves that they accepted and liked. If so, things had changed drastically in the American home in the intervening 12 years.
While today many women my look to the 1950s as an idyllic time, when women ruled in their households and life focused on the stable nuclear family, Young at Heart, in comparison with Four Daughters, reveals some of the underlying psychological discomforts that would emerge to wreak havoc with us all a decade later in the 1960s.
The story revolves around four daughters who are all musical and are led by their musician father. They play in ensembles together and also sing. They live with their father and their Aunt Jessie, who tends house. First a young composer is introduced into the house and stays there, and all the sisters fall in love with him, all as they are trying to sort out who they love and who they will marry. Then the composer's friend comes (played by John Garfield and in 1954 by Frank Sinatra), a down-and-out bitter fellow composer with more talent. Both fall in love with the family's youngest daughter (played by Priscilla Lane and in 1954 by Doris Day). In Four Daughters, Lane is in love with the composer, and at the brink of her marriage is snatched away by Garfield. In Young at Heart, Day agrees to marry the composer but is snatched away at the last minute by Sinatra, whom she actually loves. In Four Daughters, Garfield dies in a suicidal car crash, and Lane and the composer eventually pick up where they left off. In Young at Heart, Sinatra survives the car crash, and and he and Day pick up where they left off in their difficult marriage with a baby on the way.

The plot change is the least of the differences. The entire feeling invoked by these movies is entirely different--although many of the lines are identical.

The dialogue in Four Daughters heaps jokes one on top of the other at a rapid clip. The daughters all tease each other, mercilessly tease the father, mercilessly tease both the composer and his friend, and the aunt plays games with them all. No matter how stinging the remark, the jokester also shares in being the butt of the joke, because joking is the activity, not scoring points. This family loves each other.
In Young at Heart, the pace of the dialogue is much slower with a lot fewer jokes. What comes off as a joke in Four Daughters often seems lifeless in Young at Heart. The jokester tends to take an air of superiority rather than joining in the fun.
In Four Daughters the men all seem feisty, each in their own way. In Young at Heart, the composer, played by Gig Young, seems unimpassioned and conceited. While Garfield is a compressed time bomb of energy, Sinatra is low key to the point of boredom. The father in 1954 seems embittered. The aunt in Young at Heart is played by Ethel Barrymore, who restricts her role to presiding over the roost with a know-it-all attitude. She is not funny.
In Four Daughters the girls go through their struggles over men within an ambiance of happiness with each other and a sense of psychological security. In Young at Heart, the three daughters (the singing Rosemary Lane character has been excised to make room for Doris Day), seem to have an air of restlessness or anxiety, even to the point of desperation. They love their father, but they tolerate him; they do not adore him, as the girls in the Four Daughters do. They seem either out for themselves or at the point of giving up. They are not happy; their love for each other is drastically toned down
As is the decor in the living room. The Four Daughters' living room is comfortable with big overstuffed chairs and voile curtains, giving a sense of coziness even in a large room. By the 1950s, there is a TV in the living room; the decor has been streamlined and is now in neutral colors. The room is cool, not warm.
In Four Daughters, sans TV, we get real classical music and beautiful singing from Rosemary Lane. In Young at Heart, we rarely get classical music and have to listen to Doris Day crooning popular songs (Sinatra is fine though).
Most important, the women's attitude toward men is markedly different in these two films. In Four Daughters the girls all like the composer, but they also have their own boyfriends and fiances around. The composer is a lively personality, and it is easy to see why they would fall for him. The oldest daughter is kind and respectful to her boyfriend, who woos her with flowers every day, even though she is enamored with the composer. But in Young at Heart, this same sister treats her boyfriend as if he were a clumsy eight-year-old. Dialogue is interpolated into the 1954 movie, in which this daughter chides the boyfriend because his hands are dirty, telling him not to wash them in the kitchen, but upstairs, and "take your coat off before you wash them!" she calls after him, and then smiles and folds her arms basking in her superiority. Her tone is not wifely but motherly to the point of condescension. There is no such condescension in Four Daughters. In short, in the 1954 story, the men are devalued within the orbit of the family.
In the Four Daughters, when one sister brings home for dinner the man she hopes to marry , it turns out that she forgot to turn the oven on, so the roast duck is inedible. In Young at Heart, the women are 100 percent competent and efficient housekeepers--a virtue they seem to lord over the men.

If one were to ask an American living at those times which was the better--1938 or 1954--one would expect them to say 1954, with the war and the depression behind them. In 1938, the country was beginning to regain hope as it was coming of the depression, but the war was on the horizon. Nevertheless, Four Daughters seems rooted in real family life in which people have a sense of what is important and also a sense of humor. Young at Heart gives the feeling of a family life that is now on shaky ground, and where men have been reduced to appendages of the ladies.

In Four Daughters, grace is said at the dinner table before the meal begins. In Young at Heart, there is no grace.

1 comment:

elena maria vidal said...

Great review! I have been wanting to see "Four Daughters" and make the comparison you just made. Thanks!