restricted access 6 Dark Musical Melodrama: From Young at Heart to West Side Story
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After the appearance of A Star Is Born, brooding musical melodramas such as Young at Heart (1954), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) fused elements of jazz noir and realism with a star-is-born clash between romance and career (or crime). Experimental variations on noir-styled musical melodrama such as Sweet Smell of Success (1957), A Face in the Crowd (1957), Elevator to the Gallows (1958), and West Side Story (1961) revealed a studio system further unraveling and films changing as film noir and noir musicals declined by the late 1950s. Hollywood went after an emerging teenage market, as a new generation flocked to see Frank Sinatra with Doris Day in Young at Heart. YOUNG AT HEART Warner Bros. remade Michael Curtiz’s 1938 black-and-white melodrama Four Daughters, which had made a star out of John Garfield, as a new color musical melodrama called Young at Heart. Young at Heart was produced by Blues in the Night noir veteran Henry Blanke (who produced the original and The Maltese Falcon) shortly after thirty-nine-year-old Garfield’s tragic death while under pressure from HUAC to name names. Gordon Douglas, another noir crime veteran, directed it. Julius Epstein and Lenore Coffee (who had also worked on the original ) scripted the film, and Liam O’Brien adapted it.1 Young at Heart opens as a sunny musical vehicle for perky, blonde Doris Day, attesting to the popularity of domestic melodrama adapted as color noir musicals in the postwar television era. Reprising Garfield’s moving 1938 performance, second-billed Frank Sinatra transforms Young at Heart’s cheerful opening into a chapter six Dark Musical Melodrama From Young at Heart to West Side Story da r k m us ic a l m e l od r a m a 119 noir musical melodrama with his downbeat entrance 35 minutes into the film. It was Sinatra’s first singing role after his dramatic Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity revitalized his career. Like Day and Priscilla Lane, Sinatra started as a band singer. He sang with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands, becoming a huge success during the wartime musicians’ strike as a solo vocalist. In 1944, he introduced himself as the “hoodlum from Hoboken” on Armed Forces Radio and sang “Long Ago and Far Away” from the noir musical Cover Girl. He performed with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (1945) and On the Town (1949), married Ava Gardner, and then suffered vocal hemorrhage. Another real-life star-is-born character, his career declined even as his wife became a celebrity. In Young at Heart, Sinatra played a gritty part, as he later would do in Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Joker is Wild (1957), and Pal Joey (1957). Sinatra’s bitter performance as emaciated self-destructive jazz musician Barney evoked A Star Is Born’s Norman Maine. As Garfield had before him, Sinatra stole the picture (and the girl). He captivates beautiful Laurie (Day), his friend Alex’s (Gig Young) fiancée, with a mesmerizing rendition of “Just One of Those Things” in a deserted late-night dive, recalling the melancholy mood of A Star Is Born’s “The Man That Got Away.” Barney marries Laurie, sweeping her away from her loving suburban family home to a life on the skids as wife of a musician-gambler who faces tough times in New York (recalling Blues in the Night’s antihero). He eventually tries to kill himself in a car crash on a dark snowy night. Young at Heart shifts from a scene of familial bliss to a seedy world of bookies and jazz music in the urban jungle, breaking Day’s heart. The nuclear family in suburbia is depicted as far more pleasant than city life in the Big Apple, a theme reflecting the mood in postwar suburban baby-booming America. The film surprisingly ends with the couple singing together in celebration, crooning to their child who is born with her family in suburbia. Like the antiheroes in Blues in the Night and Young Man with a Horn, Sinatra’s tormented piano player/composer in Young at Heart strives for jazz music artistry but never achieves fame. He writes music for his less-gifted friend Alex who uses Barney’s compositions and arrangements to achieve success on Broadway while Barney struggles to make a living. This mirrors the real life of...


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Subject Headings

  • Musical films -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Film noir -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Jazz in motion pictures.
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