Friday, November 26, 2021

Frank Borzage | Young As You Feel

rediscovering youth

by Douglas Messerli

Edwin J. Burke (screenplay, based on a play by George Ade), Frank Borzage (director) Young As You Feel / 1931

Frank Borzage’s Young As You Feel is a slight comedy of the “you’re as young as feel”-genre with the “aw shucks” wit Will Rogers playing the role of the Chicago meatpacking tycoon Lemuel Morehouse, a man who is so consistent and precise in his daily habits the servants wonder at the fact that it appears their master has changed his habit of sneezing just before the hour he enters the room for breakfast to just after the hour as he descends the stairs to the dining room. You can tell the time by when he swallows his cereal, egg, and pills.

     Of his two sons, Billy (Don Dillaway) is a social butterfly who spends many a night at parties, arriving home just as his father finishes his breakfast, planning to sleep most of the day instead of showing up to the office for which he paid a regular salary. The younger son, Tom (Terrance Ray) is a sports buff, who at the very same moment when Billy returns home he is off to the golf course, planning to return to the office, presumably by late afternoon.

      The indulgent Lemuel can’t even get them to sit down for a moment to talk with their lonely father, both gently mocking him for his regulated behavior. His business partner Noah Marley—reminding one a bit of Scrooge’s business partner Jacob Marley in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—reprimands him for not taking a stronger position with regard to his sons’ disregard for the business which pays for their extravagant lifestyles.

       Indeed, Tom has apparently just made a significant contribution to his golf club and Billy has purchased an experimental sculpture—actually a piece of junk fashioned as a burial memorial sold to him by the supposed art expert Colonel Stanhope (John T. Murray), a fraudulent expect on everything artistic and legal—which he is about to unveil as a gift to the city in order to help establish his social position.

      When Lemuel returns home after his day at work, he is met at door by a temporarily hired butler, who refuses him entry to his own home without an invitation. The gentle “pater” simply smiles and walks around to the back of the house where he is met by his real butler Robbins (Brandon Hurst) who has prepared his weekly teaspoon of champagne along with his nightly milk and apple.

      Downstairs, meanwhile, a party is going on in which Billy’s attention is immediately demanded by the obviously gay Russian poet Petrov who wants to read him the “exquisite text” he’s written on the sculpture, and at which most of the men spend their time flirting with one another instead of the female guests. As the evening’s singer Fleurette (Fifi D’Orsay) describes one version of the downstairs visitors: “Whoooo! He’s absolutely vibrant!” as she leans to one side, puts her hand on her hip and shakes her hips. 

      It is the arrival of Fleurette, who has been sent upstairs to change her dress, that changes everything for the 50-some year old Lemuel who discovers her half-naked in his own bedroom and takes up a joyful conversation with her the like of which he has been seeking all day. Indeed, on this day everything seems to have changed for him, one pill having been delivered a minute late, and he himself having no desire, as he does each day, to pay a game of checkers with Marley and able to get up to the nerve to tell him he simply wasn’t interested. 

      In his room with Fleurette he shares an entire bottle of Champagne and orders up another bottle from the shocked Robbins before, having been enticed to join the party going on in his own house, stopping the action as everyone turns to watch him, dressed in his funeral suit, drunkenly descending the grand staircase.

      Before his sons can even close their mouths from their stunned reaction, Lemuel joins up with Fleurette for a week of wild living, like his sons, arriving home early each morning and on many days not even bothering to show up at his office. They are quickly convinced that she is enticing him into a relationship that will end in blackmail.

      When Fleurette tells him that she has permitted Stanhope to sell her small plot of land in Colorado, Lemuel, having discovered the sculptural fraud Stanhope has involved his own son, he decides to join her in Colorado where she is going in hopes of getting back the money the crook has made from selling her property.

      When the sons—now dating the visiting Gregson sisters, Dorothy (Lucile Browne) and Rose (Rosalie Roy), the daughters of one of their father’s old friends—fearful that their “pater” will lose thousands of dollars, join forces with Marley and with their new girlfriends fly off the Colorado hotel along with the detectives who discovered their father’s whereabouts with the hope of halting the blackmail plot before it’s too late.

       From the moment he arrives in Colorado Lemuel shifts into action, after accosting Stanhope and discovering that the “art connoisseur” plans to pay Fleurette only $2,000 of the $40,000 he made on the sale of her land, arranging for the delivery of a large stone rock to the hotel lobby where government agents have returned Stanhope before he can escape. The beef tycoon announces his own unveiling to the hotel residents and the deliverers of the rock, suggesting that it might be beneficial for Stanhope to buy his new sculptural masterpiece, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” for $40,000, so that he might not be taken away to a new home in prison by the thugs who stand on either side of him. And thus he hands over the full amount to Fleurette which she plans to send home to mother.

      To thank her dear friend,  Fleurette, always flirtatious, finally gets him to her room in order to thank him, but at the very moment her husband suddenly appears, Lemuel convinced that finally he has met up with the moment of blackmail he has long expected. Taking out his checkbook to pay the amount they demand, both are shocked by his suspicions. They have fought and broken up only because of jealousy, Fleurette in particular becoming angry to his belief that she would take advantage of her dear friend. And when her husband discovers that they simply friends, he too takes umbrage at the businessman’s implications. Lemuel asks for their forgiveness, and all is about to end happily until his sons, business partner, the Gregson sisters, and detectives barge in.

       Lemuel explains, finally, that he at first began his odd behavior, imitating his son’s lives in order to teach his boys a lesson; but in fact he learned a lesson himself, that age is merely a word to which has been attached a requisite prescription. He feels suddenly as young as a 20-year-old and wants to die as an infant. His next stop is Paris via a long ship cruise. On the deck he stands with his arms about Fleurette and her husband as Marley suddenly shows up with two young women, all of them waving goodbye to Billy and Tom and Dorothy and Rose who may now settle down to the regular routine that their elders have left behind.

      As in many of this director’s films the romantic life finds a way to survive even under seemingly impossible conditions, but this is hardly the best example of his increasingly outdated convictions.


Los Angeles, November 16, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).

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