Youngblood Hawke (1964) was the penultimate film directed by Delmer Daves, one of those melodramas he turned his attention to from 1960 onward. The critical response to these films has been mixed at best, although one could say that this characterizes the response to the director’s body of work as a whole. So far, I have only seen a smattering of these late career movies myself, but I fully intend to catch up with them all sooner or later. Youngblood Hawke is a classic rise and fall drama with a pleasing thread of self-discovery and renewal forming the backbone of the narrative.
Arthur Youngblood Hawke (James Franciscus) is an aspiring writer, driving coal trucks in Kentucky by day and spending his nights working on his novel. His break comes just before Christmas, a phone call from a New York publishing house confirming its desire to publish his book and inviting him to the city to sign contracts and so on. So it’s with a mix of awe and joy that Hawke arrives in the metropolis, dazzled by the scale of the place, the skyscrapers and monuments, and scarcely able to absorb the fact that someone is prepared to pay him good money to do what he loves, to write. Before the day is over he will have made the acquaintance of two beautiful women, both of whom will alter the course of his life. He is taken in hand by his editor Jeanne Green (Suzanne Pleshette) who finds him a small attic room to rent in the same building she occupies in Brooklyn. That same evening, Christmas Eve, at a literary party he’s been asked to attend he meets Frieda Winter (Genevieve Page), wealthy, sophisticated, provocative, and married. In these early stages, every step Hawke takes is an ascending one, his career path rises promisingly before him, the critics and socialites flatter and flirt respectively, and he, as any young man thrust suddenly into such a position would, basks and revels in the attention and allure of it all.
So Youngblood Hawke is a success; he’s been declared just that by the men and women who create reputations, but those same people can crush them just as easily and just as quickly. The thing is, for all his apparent charm and his ability to write award winning prose, Hawke is at heart a novice in the art of living. He craves success and thinks that the appetizer he has been served up will lead naturally to a grander and richer main course. For it’s riches in the real, monetary sense that draw Hawke, not for their own sake – he’s not so mercenary as that – but for their ability to set him free from financial worry, free to pursue his art in earnest. This leaves him walking something of an ethical tightrope, performing a precarious balancing act between artistic integrity on the one hand and the lure of the fast buck on the other. That someone so inexperienced should falter and lose his way is only to be expected, and that lack of artistic or professional surety extends to his personal affairs as well. This of course provides the real meat of the story, the tug-of-war for his heart with the excitement and illicit unpredictability of Frieda on one side and the reliability and patient devotion of Jeanne on the other.
Youngblood Hawke was Delmer Daves’ first movie shot in black and white since Kings Go Forth, and while I understand budgetary considerations played a part in that decision I also think it works well in this story, and the cinematography of Charles Lawton (a frequent collaborator with Daves) is luminous in places. In truth, I think the story lends itself to monochrome with some of the more powerful scenes, particularly those in Hawke’s apartment, benefiting from the starkness. Daves had a lot of creative control on the movie, not only directing but also producing and adapting Herman Wouk’s novel. As such, I think it’s fair to say it’s very much his film and his trademark theme of placing complex people in difficult positions where there are no easy choices is fully explored. The script ties it all up in a much more positive way than I understand to be the case with the source novel. Again, this positive thrust is characteristic of the director’s work, there’s always that path towards redemption, or renewal and rebirth as far as Youngblood Hawke is concerned, in his films. His characters are put to the test by life’s challenges, forced to confront harsh and perhaps unpleasant realities, both with regard to themselves and those most precious to them. Yet there is a reward to be attained, a victory which is frequently richer and more satisfying by virtue of being so hard won.
The movie begins and ends at Christmas and it’s surely significant that the main character experiences the dawn of new phases of his life at both points. Is the whole film to be viewed as a parable of sorts, or perhaps as an allegory? Daves’ films do have a strong sense of the spiritual to them after all, so perhaps that’s not such a stretch. Hawke sets out on his journey from humble beginnings and winds up being lauded and celebrated, drawn across the river to Manhattan to be tempted by its glitter and glamor. Yet it proves to be something of a creative desert for him, sapping his creativity and his spirit, and so he retreats back to Brooklyn, back from the brink and back to life itself, to be reborn as another Christmas comes around.
I’ve heard it said that the casting of James Franciscus is one of the weaknesses of the film, but I’m not sure about that. For the most part he acquits himself well, catching that wide-eyed wonder of Hawke in the early stages and that ever present ambition that blinds him to the pitfalls ahead of him. If there is a touch of awkwardness in some aspects of his performance, it feels appropriate for a character who at times shows an astonishing lack of perception. Genevieve Page’s worldly Frieda points out the paradoxical contrast between his artistic voice with all its depth of appreciation of the human soul and the tone deaf naivety of his interactions in his private life.
It is the women in Hawke’s life who understand him better than he does himself, laying the foundation for two very strong roles for the characters of Frieda and Jeanne and the two actresses playing those parts produce correspondingly fine performances – of course Daves typically presents women in a highly positive light. Both women are drawn to the writer right from their first meetings but then find themselves repelled by the selfishness, pettiness, and latent prudery he fails to control on various occasions, although never quite enough to make a clean break with him. Daves had already worked with Suzanne Pleshette on Rome Adventure a few years earlier and her role as Jeanne allowed her to explore a down to earth sexiness that feels very authentic. As the more passionate and the more conflicted Frieda, French actress Genevieve Page has the showier part and has more to work with. She gets to play two fine scenes with Franciscus, one in her own home and one in his studio apartment, both of which run the gamut from passionate desire to a cauterizing self-disgust. There is some real rawness on display, in a very human performance, and it is to Daves’s great credit that he never invites the viewer to make cheap or facile judgements about this character and affords her a marvelously classy exit. She is written as a person with flaws and failings as well as strengths and virtues, Page plays her in that way, Daves directs her so, and the movie as a whole benefits from that frankness.
Aside from the leads, the supporting cast is deep and constitutes a major draw in itself. Among the highlights are the seemingly ubiquitous John Dehner as Hawke’s chiseling uncle offering a masterclass in misplaced overconfidence, Mildred Dunnock as his prim mother, juggling defiance and reproval, Edward Andrews as the critic who mixes smarm with acid, and Kent Smith’s cool, calculating cuckold. All those alongside Mary Astor and John Emery, Lee Bowman and Eva Gabor, Berry Kroeger, Werner Klemperer, Don Porter, and so on.
Youngblood Hawke is available on DVD via the Warner Archive and it offers a fine, crisp and clean widescreen transfer of the movie. There are no supplements whatsoever, which I feel is a pity as the film does merit some attention. Frankly, I found much to enjoy and appreciate in this film – the appealing cast, Charles Lawton’s cinematography, Max Steiner’s buoyantly memorable score, and of course Delmer Daves’ hearteningly positive view of people.