Novelist Fannie Hurst remains a vital presence not so much for her weepy novels (are they still read?), but in film adaptations made and remade over the decades. IMITATION OF LIFE/’34 & ’59; BACK STREET/ ‘32, ‘41 & ‘61; HUMORESQUE/’20 & ‘46*; and SISTER ACT which became FOUR DAUGHTERS in the late-‘30s and then YOUNG AT HEART in ‘54. John Garfield made a huge splash in the first film, as the ethnic urban outsider (read New York Jew) who dirties-up the happy, clean, WASPy family of music professor Claude Raines and his four pretty daughters. And the girls are already in a tizzy over handsome young boarder Jeffrey Lynn. Something’s gotta give! Michael Curtiz dashes thru this version, cutting sentiment with Garfield as his trump card, a personification of the dangerous, new-to-the-screen Group Theatre vibe which matches up nicely with his chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. Nowadays, since just about everyone acts this way, the frisson is less, er, frissy, though still visible in contrast to the other players.
Sixteen years on, Frank Sinatra (only a couple of years younger than Garfield would have been) is the new ethnic urban outsider (read New York Italian). Sinatra hasn’t an actor’s vibe, in fact, he hardly changes his expression all thru the pic. (He finds his key and sticks to it.) He gets his outsider status, his ‘otherness’ simply by looking like he just stepped out of a Concentration Camp. (About to record his classic downbeat IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS album, he’s got the Ava Gardner blues written all over him.) Gordon Douglas helms at half-speed compared to Curtiz, tweaking the plot into operatic ecstasies of woe. And even with one less sister we gain thirty minutes. (An improved meet-cute a plus; a cop-out ending a minus.) Meanwhile, lenser Ted McCord heightens the studio soundstage look, a picture layout straight from Good Housekeeping Magazine. The artificiality suits Doris Day as the sunny girl who drops nice Gig Young for needy, dangerous Sinatra, ghettoized by the brightness. (Frankie’s visual tour-de-force comes later, in a suicide drive.) Day was in her prime in the mid-‘50s (pace the current critical celebration of her later, labored comedies), but matches up so smoothly with Gig Young’s tunesmith that the plot mechanics (and her fashionable ‘ducktail bob’) make her more of a masochist than may have been planned.
DOUBLE-BILL: These make a self-recommending Double-Bill, loaded with matching dialogue & camera angles for an unusually revealing look at the cultural ‘givens’ before & after WWII.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Make that a very loose remake on HUMORESQUE. The original silent is presumably closer to the book. One of director Frank Borzage’s best early efforts, even with a truncated ending, the tenement apartment scenes are particularly fine with period flavor, along with some uncomfortable period stereotypes, perfectly caught. Not yet out on DVD, the best Hurst pic may be Frank Capra’s superbly handled THE YOUNGEST GENERATION/’29, one of the few ‘Part-Talkies’ to take advantage of that bastard format.