William Beedle and Edythe Marrener in Young and Willing (1943)
And it’s not noir. Too zany.
But Young and Willing, a Paramount production that no one seems ever to have heard of except me, is two things: it’s one of my favorite guilty pleasures and it’s a showcase for two future veterans of the film noir era: William Holden and Susan Hayward.
William Holden was born William Franklin Beedle on April 17, 1918, in O’Fallon, Illinois, a small town about 20 miles east of St. Louis. His parents moved to Monrovia, California, in 1922, where young William became notorious for his daredevil stunts; one of his favorite antics was walking on his hands on the outer ledge of a structure known as Suicide Bridge.
While a student at South Pasadena Junior College, William performed in a play at the Pasadena Workshop Theatre, where he caught the eye of a Paramount Studios talent scout. Before long, William had signed a contract with Paramount and the head of the studio’s publicity department changed his last name to Holden. In one of his first movies, Million Dollar Legs (1939), Holden only said two words: “Thank you.” He got his big break a short time later when he landed the role of Joe Bonaparte, a violinist-turned-boxer, in Golden Boy (1939), co-starring Barbara Stanwyck. After Holden’s performance in this film, producer Harry Cohn struck a unique deal with Paramount to purchase half of the actor’s contract; the agreement would last for the next 14 years.
Holden spent the next several years in a series of mostly forgettable features, but he was catapulted into stardom after his performance in Dear Ruth (1947), co-starring Joan Caulfield. This engaging comedy caught the attention of the public and critics alike, with the reviewer for the New York Times noting his “easy naturalness.
In the late 1940s, Holden stepped into the film noir era with The Dark Past (1948), in which he played a psychologically damaged criminal. His other noir features over the next several years were Sunset Boulevard (1950) – for which he was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award (he lost to Jose Ferrer in Cyrano deBergerac); Union Station (1950), where he portrayed a police lieutenant working against time to save a kidnapped blind girl; and The Turning Point (1952), which was inspired on the Kefauver hearings on organized crime. Other highlights of Holden’s cinematic career – and among my favorite movies – were Stalag 17 (1953), The Country Girl (1954), Picnic (1955), and Network (1976).
Susan Hayward entered this world as Edythe Marrenner on June 30, 1918; she grew up in a tenement in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where her father worked as a barker at Coney Island. She once stated that she couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be an actress, but at the tender age of seven, it looked like her dreams of a career on the stage would be dashed before they could begin. Edythe was hit by a car and fractured her hip – doctors predicted that she would never walk again, but she refused to give up or give in.
As a teen, Edythe appeared in numerous plays at Girls Commercial High School, and later pursued a full-time modeling career. Her big break came when she appeared in an eight-page spread in the Saturday Evening Post – a short time later, she inked a test contract with Selznick Studios and was asked to audition for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Although she didn’t get the part, she did get an agent, signed a six-month contract with Warner Bros., and assumed the persona of Susan Hayward. Her film debut was in Beau Geste (1939), where she played one of the few women in the cast.
Two years later, Hayward was seen in her first noir, Among the Living (1941), which told the story of a millionaire accused of murders that were committed by his insane twin brother. Hayward’s other noir outings were Deadline at Dawn (1946), the first film where she received top billing; They Won’t Believe Me (1947), about a philandering husband charged with murder; and House of Strangers (1949), which told the story of an Italian family torn apart after a banking scandal.
During her career, Hayward was nominated for a total of five Academy Awards – she finally won in the late 1950s for I Want to Live! (1958), the true-life tale of a 32-year-old woman condemned to the gas chamber for a crime that she may not have committed.
These two gifted performers were barely starting out on the big screen when they met in Young and Willing in 1943. It was based on a play called Out of the Frying Pan that opened on Broadway in 1941 and played for 104 performances. (The play starred Barbara Bel Geddes and featured two actresses that would reprise their roles in the film – the hilarious Mabel Paige and the helium-voiced Florence MacMichael.) The story focuses on six young would-be actors and actresses who all live together in a New York apartment as they try valiantly to get their careers off the ground.
The group consists of Dottie Coburn (Martha O’Driscoll), a spacey blonde from Hoopsville, Illinois, whose clueless father is footing the bill for the apartment; Norman Reese (Holden), the object of Dottie’s barely-concealed affection; George Bodell (Eddie Bracken), who is the walking embodiment of the Stanislavsky method of acting; Kate Benson (Hayward), the most outspoken member of the group and the “healthiest girl in Creed County”; and Kate’s sweet-as-sugar sister, Marge (Barbara Britton), who’s secretly married to Tony Dennison (James Brown). A variety of screwball circumstances impact the sextet as they pin their career hopes on the arrival of producer Arthur Kenny (Robert Benchley) – including constantly trying to dodge their dotty, rent-seeking landlady, and hide their co-ed living arrangement from Dottie’s gossipy hometown visitor – but everything turns out all right at the end.
This is one of those films that I like to watch whenever I feel like smiling – it’s just a joy. It’s no epic, goodness knows, but it’s so much fun! Even the performers look like they’re having a ball – I can imagine them having to repeatedly halt filming because they kept cracking up. In addition to the wacky circumstances in which the characters find themselves, the film’s dialogue is a positive hoot. I don’t know if the true hilarity of the lines can come through by typing them here, but here’s just one example, when Mr. Kenny arrives at his secret getaway apartment and encounters the building’s scatterbrained landlady, Mrs. Garnet (Mabel Paige).
Mr. Kenny: Listen my birdbrained beauty, you’re not to tell anybody that I’m here tonight, do you understand?
Mrs. Garnet: Why, it’s Mr. Kenny! Isn’t it?
Mr. Kenny: Shhhh. When I’m here, I’m strictly incognito. Please remember that.
Mrs. Garnet: You’re what, Mr. Kenny?
Mr. Kenny: Incognito.
Mrs. Garnet: This is a respectable house, Mr. Kenny. I’ll have you remember that. Don’t think you can come here and do as you please, you know.
Mr. Kenny (shaking his head): You’d think after 15 years of conversation with you that I’d have learned better, wouldn’t you?
Mrs. Garnet: Yes! You really would!
(You just have to hear Mabel Paige’s delivery – she’s a positive scream!)
I taped my copy of Young and Willing more than 25 years ago, off of an episode of “Insomniac Theater” on a local Chicago TV station – it’s not on DVD, but I’ll bet you can find it online if you look for it. It’s certainly worth a try.
You only owe it to yourself. (Not to mention William Beedle and Edythe Marrener.)