THE GRATING AMERICAN NOVEL: YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE (1964)

December 17, 2013

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If my blog posts were the only articles you read this year, you’d come away thinking Delmer Daves was the most popular man in America. Alas, this is only true in my living room. But this was the year I delved into Daves, helped along by a two-part retrospective at Anthology Film Archives. The first was way back in May (of which I gushed here), and the second wraps up today, for which programmers Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold culled from Daves’ less reputable potboiler period. After a long career of open-air Westerns, Daves made a surprising turn to soapy melodrama. The change was necessitated by his health. Daves suffered a heart attack in 1958, and was instructed to ease back on stressful location shoots for the relative safety of studio-bound pictures. So he turned to the soaps, for which he escorted Troy Donahue into stardom. The most famous of these is A Summer Place, which scored a #1 pop hit while embracing the sexually permissive mood percolating in the country. Anthology is screening A Summer Place (yes, which I also wrote about), as well as Youngblood Hawke, his last melodrama for Warner Brothers, and the much-derided topic of today’s post.

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The implausible novel by Herman Wouk regards a coal miner launched to stratospheric celebrity through his doorstopping book “Alms For Oblivion”. Hawke is also bulging with ravenous sexual appetites, though framed in Charles Lawton’s restrained B&W rather than the ripe Technicolor of Harry Stradling’s work in A Summer PlaceYoungblood didn’t match its predecessor’s success, and very rapidly became a punchline. John Gregory Dunne lays the groundwork in the December 4th, 1964 issue of Life magazine. After admitting he has a “perverse predilection for the awful”, he declares Youngblood Hawke to be the, “hippiest and funniest motion picture in years, one which not only summons up the implausibility of the vintage Marx Brothers epics but also is sure to be discussed by the long-haired Cahiers du Cinema crowd for some time to come.” Truffaut was an avowed Daves fan, though I don’t know if Hawke ever got the full Cahiers treatment. Dunne closes by saying Dr. Strangelove was “made by the hipsters unwittingly for a mass audience”, while “Hawke was made by a mass filmmaker unwittingly for the hippies. See it now or see it later: in years to come it should be the highlight of Delmer Daves festivals at the Museum of Modern Art.”

He is calling it camp, a source of unintentional hilarity made for hipster guffaws that might yet be over-interpreted by cinephiles. His prediction has not yet come true, as it faded into obscurity instead of into Mystery Science Theater or Cinema Scope.  Released in a restored DVD by the Warner Archive last year, I think it’s worthy of reconsideration as both ridiculous and sublime, a narrative absurdity and an aesthetic marvel, a grim B&W vision of mid-century NYC, with the emptied out modern design reflects the hollowed out characters. Dunne’s final jab may yet come true, as new adjunct curator at MoMA, Dave Kehr called Youngblood Hawke the “sleeper” of the Anthology series.

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Warren Beatty was originally cast to play the title Hawke, and Hedy Lamarr was competing with Gene Tierney to land the role of Frieda Winter, the rich socialite who inducts Hawke into the ways of the city and her boudoir. None of this worked out. Jousting with WB management, Beatty quit the production, and Lamarr and Tierney were passed over for French actress Geneviève Page. After getting tossed off the studio lot for intransigence, Beatty eventually agreed to appear in Robert Rossen’s Lilith (1964). To replace him, Daves and the production team chose James Franciscus, the blonde-haired monolith who was starring in the NBC high school drama Mr. Novak. Instead of an alluring contrast of New and Old Hollywood,  Daves was left with incompatible parts. The bland functionality of Franciscus is a poor fit for the volcanic virility of Hawke, whom women “could feel across the room”, per the salacious tagline. He has rangy good looks but moves like a disgruntled mule, appearing as though he suffers from indigestion more than arousal or emotional turmoil. Geneviève Page was still adapting to Hollywood productions after years in Europe, and her English had not yet been perfected, yet hers is a more layered and affecting performance.

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As Frieda, Page has to convey a flightiness masking a bone-deep melancholy. As an aging beauty (she was 37 at filming), Frieda needs to convince herself she can still bed the latest hot young literary thing – despite her rich husband and two kids. In one of the many hauntingly composed shots, Daves frames Page in the dark foreground, her faced edged by an adjacent lamp, while Fransiscus is immobile with lust by the fireplace behind her. They are both looking forward, their desires in momentary abeyance, when a smile flashes across Page’s face, an acknowledgement of the utility of her own beauty. Their bodily distance will soon be closed, but her smile announces this encounter as a mutually selfish act, a union of vain bodies. The lady whom Daves and Wouk’s script position as Hawke’s true love is Jeanne Green (Suzanne Pleshette), the Ivy League grad who edits Hawke’s unwieldy tomes. She is the modern future of femininity, on the inside of a publishing business at which Frieda can only chip at with her sexuality.

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Art director Leo Kuter and DP Charles Lawton do quite a bit to contextualize Hawke’s emotional state through mise en scene. His first NYC apartment is a dingy attic in far out Brooklyn Heights, in which laundry lines run through his workspace. Then, after his second novel (Chain of Command) wins the Pulitzer, he starts his own publishing company complete with his personal skyscraper and posh penthouse pad. Even back in the halcyon days of publishing this gargantuan wealth was far-fetched for any writer – Hawke even has cash to invest in a Long Island shopping mall scam. Most of it is poured into his home,  but all the angled wood and Eames furniture can’t suppress Hawke’s low-class lineage, as clothes lines still criss-cross the space, cutting it up into cramped squares rather than the luxurious open concept it’s supposed to realize. Hawke is constrained by the space around him as well as his own outsized ego. While Youngblood Hawke is not one of Daves’ masterpieces, it at least proves his unerring visual knack. Even if it never ends up at MoMA, it deserves a place in your living room.

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