She was a movie star in her teens, an A-list leading lady in her twenties, an Oscar winner in her thirties, and a queen of television in her forties. Who else but Loretta Young? With her extraordinary beauty, boundless charm, and well-honed acting skills, it’s no wonder that she was a star for so many decades and for so many generations of fans. Young, who died at 87 in 2000, would have turned 100 on January 6, 2013.
My favorite Young movie, Rachel and the Stranger (1948), was released during the peak years of her movie career (1947-49), in which she also made the likable light comedy The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), which garnered her an unexpected Oscar, and Come to the Stable (1949), another pleasing and featherweight comedy (for which she received her other Oscar nomination). I devoted a chapter to Rachel and the Stranger in my book Screen Savers, calling it “one of the more satisfying—both funny and sexy—love triangles of the screen,” with Young fought over by William Holden and Robert Mitchum. Of Young’s performance, I said, “She is confidently understated here and fully in control of her ability to communicate with the camera lens.” It’s a wonderful movie that is still virtually unknown, nowhere near as popular as yet another Young winner from this period, The Bishop’s Wife (1947), which also had her being paid enviable attention by two attractive leading men, Cary Grant and David Niven. You never question why any of these men—Holden, Mitchum, Grant, Niven—would fall under her undeniably intoxicating spell.
There are other joys to be found in Young’s filmography, several of them from the 1930s, some of which I’ve written about in my book Screen Savers II—Man’s Castle (1933) with Spencer Tracy and Cafe Metropole (1937) with Tyrone Power—and another, Employees’ Entrance (1933), praised more recently by me on this blog. So, what other Young movies are out there waiting to be savored?
Platinum Blonde (1931) – It’s a charming, easygoing comedy that’s fascinating for several reasons. As a Frank Capra movie, it’s an obvious warm-up for his classics to come, a kind of early draft for his basic “poor people have marvelous taken-for-granted qualities while the rich are essentially useless” theme. It features a romance between a reporter and an heiress (a set-up later used in It Happened One Night), a scene of a newly rich guy and his servants echoing their voices in a large front hall (later used in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) and a main character named Mr. Smith! (Credit must be shared with Capra’s longtime screenwriter, Robert Riskin, who was more than a little responsible for the Capra touch.) Platinum Blonde is slight but buoyed by Capra’s fresh direction, the lovely black and white, the gorgeous clothes and production values (especially for a small comedy). Young’s co-stars, Robert Williams and Jean Harlow, would both soon be dead (Williams later that year, Harlow in 1937), adding an undertow of melancholy for contemporary audiences. Williams, a gifted comic actor and a prototype for the Capra male, looks a bit like Bing Crosby, a bit like Robert Mitchum. Because Young and Harlow were not yet fully formed as star personalities, they seem miscast here, with Young as the working girl and Harlow as the heiress. Young’s character, a female reporter, appears to be an outline for the Jean Arthur role in Mr. Deeds. Both Young and Harlow perform rather well, with Young particularly radiant and vulnerable. And, despite the title tilting Harlow’s way, it is Young who is top-billed.
Zoo in Budapest (1933) – Spend an enchanting day and night in a Central European zoo. It’s a dreamy little movie, with Young as an escaped orphan on the run from the authorities. Directed by Rowland V. Lee, this sleeper owes much of its magic to the fluid, shimmeringly pretty black-and-white photography of Lee Garmes. A very agile Gene Raymond, costumed as if he could be starring in Liliom (or Carousel), lives inside the zoo and has since childhood (when his late father was a zookeeper). An animal activist ahead of his time, Raymond gets his point across by stealing fur coats off the backs of zoo patrons. The ensuing romance between Raymond and Young is sweet and gentle, though their relationship could use more time to develop. Young is quite blond here, looking every inch the storybook ingenue. Director Lee wondrously makes it appear as though the animals are observing (and rooting for) the two stars as they struggle to find their way to happiness. There’s an overblown, overwrought climax with many of the wild animals out of their cages, which causes extended action of a kind that this fragile gem seems ill-equipped to handle. But it’s a consistently good film for kids, and a romantically transporting live-action fairy tale for the rest of us.
The Accused (1949) – Forty years before there was a Jodie Foster movie with the same title, Young starred in this intriguing film noir, another worthy entry from those peak years of hers. She plays a repressed college psychology professor who, in self-defense during an attempted rape, murders a handsome male student played by the uncomfortably named Douglas Dick. (With the issue of rape at its core, the film actually does share some similar ground with Foster’s movie.) Young conceals her crime, allowing director William Dieterle to show his flair for suspense. As a thriller, it’s neatly done, but it’s severely marred by the dated and self-important psychobabble which can be downright laughable. But Young has a field day, moving from spinster-ish plainness to Edith Head glamour as she tries to distance herself from her initial persona. She does a nice job, but the movie is stolen by Wendell Corey (how often can one say that?) as a homicide detective. His laid-back cool masks his smarts, and he’s also refreshingly sleazy, hitting on Loretta even after he arrests her. Robert Cummings is miscast as Loretta’s guy and the victim’s guardian, too much of a lightweight. As for Mr. Dick, if you’ll pardon the expression, he’s just right. The attempted rape is especially provocative for its time because he’s wearing only a bathing suit.