Youngblood Hawke (DVD Review)30 Jan, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars James Franciscus, Suzanne Pleshette, Geneviéve Page, Mary Astor.
There’s not exactly an eBook-era feel to the quaint movie version of Herman Wouk’s doorstop novel about the novelist’s angst, but this is probably the trashy selling point for a black-and-white potboiler about a Kentucky truck driver (as Elvis once was in Mississippi) who comes to New York as a hotshot writer to conquer publishers, editors, agents, effete critics (well, at first) and the bed of another man’s wife.
Having recently exhausted the teen-libido genre at Warner Bros. in the late ’50s and early ’60s, a onetime director of Westerns (Delmer Daves) took on a slightly more advanced demographic at a time when studio bean counters were likely seeking some level of replication of what they’d gotten out of Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, which had inspired 1958’s moderately popular show-biz-aspirations drama with Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly. And to be sure, YH’s cast of characters (not counting green Youngblood) has more mileage than the principals in Daves’ groundbreaking Christmas-of-’59 A Summer Place, which had proven enormously popular because it told teens that heavy petting (like, with a steam shovel) and beyond was OK during an otherwise repressed era when Paul Anka could still reap a Billboard hit out of tepid "Puppy Love."
Anyway. Even up through a tacked-on pneumonia plot thread at the very end, YH is prone to take on material that it doesn’t quite have the time to develop, starting with a squabble between the rich-folks contingent of the down-home Hawke clan and the poor ones. In a brief bid for major movie stardom, James Franciscus plays financially deprived Youngblood — at a time when the actor was headlining NBC’s popular “Mr. Novak,” a series that tried to do for the high school teacher what the network’s “Dr. Kildare” was doing for young physicians and their elder mentors. Mildred Dunnock, then still cornering the market on mother-of-men roles, continues her string here — and, amazingly, looks younger than she does in the 1951 movie of Death of a Salesman (where she repeated her stage role) and as Elvis’s mother in his 1956 Love Me Tender screen debut. What a little makeup will do.
Youngblood’s first manuscript gets him beckoned to the Big Town and a boilerplate contract with a publishing firm, one from which a sharpie agent eventually springs him. Our talented but raw wordsmith is then assigned an editor with a smoky voice (Suzanne Pleshette) who likely lights her cigarettes with the torch she carries to scant avail. Instead, her object of yearning sets his eyes on the mature blonde wife of a businessman at one of those posh Manhattan parties where literary folks of all stripes “mingle” — or more to the point, the blonde sets her eyes on him. This is the movie’s key performance — by Genevieve Page (no, not frumpier Geraldine) — and it’s good enough to enable the movie to catch a teeny bit of fire in the later going. This G. Page is probably best known as the actress in El Cid who isn’t Sophia Loren, and cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr.’s lighting makes her look mighty good with her hair down in clothed bedroom scenes that seem mighty chaste considering that they eventually motivate her character’s son to commit suicide at his private school when classmates begin taunting him that mom is fooling around. For her part, Dunnock’s Ma Hawke isn’t any too pleased herself.
It’s all very broad and overripe in that Warner early-1960s fashion, where sometimes known-to-be hammy performers like Don Porter, John Dehner and Edward Andrews play it to the Midwest summer-stock rafters the way a lot of predominantly TV actors did in that day. I can remember how outdated this kind of movie seemed in a year that also produced Dr. Strangelove and A Hard Day’s Night; as in Warner’s 1955 hit movie of Leon Uris’s Battle Cry, the censorship mentality of the fast-fading day still forced the script to use the word “harlot” when “whore” needed to be the designated pejorative.
And by the way, as is true about almost every movie about the novelist’s trade, we all but never see Youngblood actually writing.