The Play’s the Thing

Mr. Holden’s back…

By 1943 William Holden had been in films for five years, and his roles were steadily growing in size and importance. It’s ironic that one of his movies from that year was Young And Willing, about green-as-grass hopefuls trying to break into show business. The movie feels like something we’ve seen before, only kinda not.

Family War Letters

It’s not easy to make it on Broadway, and Tony Dennison (James Brown) and his friends are finding it out the hard way. Tony’s been trying to shop his play to producers with no luck. His friend, Norman (William Holden), got rejected from a part he thought he was a sure thing for, and as far as he’s concerned, he’s not the problem. Broadway doesn’t seem to appreciate what’s right under its shiny, sparkly nose.

Heck, just making ends meet is tough. Norman can’t afford more than one shirt and goes around with his coat tightly buttoned up to his neck. Tony’s secret wife, Marge (Barbara Britton) got fired from her job as a department store dummy. She, her sister, Kate (Susan Hayward), Tony, Norman, and George (Eddie Bracken), keep making up stories to their landlady, Mrs. Garnet (Mabel Paige) about why they can’t pay their rent. They refer her to their other roomates, Dottie Coburn (Martha O’Driscoll), who’s always out but will come back later. Or one of her relatives has had a terrible accident and she’s in deep distress. She’d be happy to pay the rent when she’s available, though. The story changes constantly and Mrs. Garnet doesn’t seem to notice. Until something breaks, the six of them hole up in their apartment living on ten-cent ground beef.

Still, things might be looking up. A fabulous producer, Mr. Arthur Kenny (Robert Benchley) is returning to his apartment downstairs in our group’s building, and no one knows what character George will be playing whenever they walk through the door. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems when George is tottering around as an aged Ulysses S. Grant or a tortured Othello.

Or when Norman is giving out acting tips: Don’t pretend to be an apple in a tree. Be the apple in a tree. When he hears this, George climbs into the window sill and puffs out his cheeks. Now he’s got to wait to ripen.

Then Tony gets a draft notice, but he decides to carry on with his play until zero hour. Into the fray ventures Dottie’s cousin, Muriel Foster (Florence MacMichael), who backs away slowly when she sees George on the window sill. Further into the fray comes Marge, who’s seen Mr. Kenny downstairs and even (gasp!) said hello to him. She, Norman, Tony, George, Dottie, and Kate (Susan Hayward) rush to a pipe in the floor with a hole chiseled around it. Yeah. They use it to spy on Mr. Kenny, and what with the way they stampede at it whenever he does anything, it’s a wonder he doesn’t notice.

Secrets have a way of coming out, though. Dottie’s father comes to visit from Illinois with the disgruntled Muriel in tow, so Marge, Dottie, and Kate have to convince him they aren’t living with three guys. It gets complicated when Tony comes home on leave from the Army and heads for the shower. Mr. Coburn is incensed even though it all looks innocent and promises to take Dottie back to Illinois on Monday.

Things get even more complicated when Marge tells Tony she’s pregnant, and naturally they have to break the news to the rest of the group, who are overjoyed once they get over their shock. Now they have a mission: Take Tony’s play to Mr. Kenny and convince him to produce it so Mr. Coburn will let Dottie stay. If only Kate hadn’t called Mr. Kenny a bagpipe in a fit of pique because it makes everything a bit awkward.

On the surface, Young And Willing seems like a Babes On Broadway ripoff, doesn’t it? Or maybe Stage Door. Young hopefuls looking to hit it big? Check. Lots of characters crammed into a tiny space? Check. Schtick? Check. Heartrending overacting? Big ol’ check. Algonquin Round Table alumnus offering sly, witty commentary? Check. Show-stopping musical numbers with tricky choreography? Errrrr…no, but our Mr. Holden briefly plays the violin, and not badly, either.

Young And Willing was based on a play, Out Of the Frying Pan by Francis Swann, about three men and three women living in one apartment until they can make it as actors. The play had a fair amount of success, running from February to May of 1941, with one-hundred four performances in all.

Paramount made the film under the Cinema Guild banner and then sold the distribution rights to United Artists, who needed content for their brand. It was one of a bundle of films (including The Crystal Ball, by the way). While that was nice of Paramount, the film may have done better had they kept it, because few seemed to want to touch it. It ranked one-hundred sixty-one of the two-hundred twenty-seven top movies released in 1943, bringing in $1.4 million dollars in box office receipts.

The critics weren’t kind, either. Harrison’s Reports began by calling Young and Willing “mildly amusing,” and wound up with “Morally suitable for all.” Film Bulletin said the film was “a wacky farce directed in amateurish fashion,” not to mention “boring and silly,” and oh yes, “mildly amusing.” On the other hand, it also said William Holden and Susan Hayward were way too rational for what the movie thrusted upon them.

I’m inclined to agree, although Eddie Bracken, for one, is more than mildly amusing in my opinion. His George is a ham, but he’s a hilarious ham. In fact, he’s one of the best parts of the film. Susan Hayward and William Holden also seem way too good for Young And Willing, although that might be hindsight talking.

Young And Willing does have problems, though. It lost quite a bit in translation; a lot of the best lines were cut out to appease the Hays Office, who were probably already dubious about the principal cast members’ co-ed living situation. The movie’s pacing and tone are all over the place. It has a few plot issues, not the least of which is the question of when and where Tony and Marge found the time and place to procreate, seeing as the apartment is never really empty. We can only assume they got creative.

Then there’s Muriel. Nothing against Florence MacMichael, but…Her. Character. Is. Annoying. She spends the entire movie talking in a grating Baby Snooks voice and it’s uber cringe-y. Why is the character like this? She’s already persona non grata for ratting out Dottie, but did she have to be, well, annoying? I almost felt bad for her.

Cast photo for Young and Willing, presumably taken after Holden left for the Army. (Internet Archive)

In the end, Young And Willing wasn’t a career-killer for William Holden, who went into the Army right after the film wrapped. He wouldn’t make another feature until 1947’s Blaze of Noon. Also in the end, fans might have fun with Young And Willing, if only because it shows Holden as a rising star.

For more of the great William Holden, please see Emily at The Flapper Dame. (Day One), Virginie at The Wonderful World of Classic Cinema (Day Two), and Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood (Day Three).  Thanks for hosting, ladies–this was fun! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you on Tuesday for another installment of “During World War Two.” Happy Easter…

Young and Willing is available on DVD or to rent on Amazon Prime.

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Capua, Michaelangelo. William Holden: A Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2016.

9 thoughts on “The Play’s the Thing

  1. I must admit I had completely forgotten what film was about but the apple in the three part helped me remember haha. I guess it didn’t make much of an impression on me the first time I saw it, but I now that I’m reading your article I believe it could have had a good potential, maybe with a better script or better direction. You point out clearly what works and doesn’t in that film but still leaves a bit for the viewer to discover. A truly enjoyable read! Thanks so much for taking part in our blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This movie is wacky and haphazardly put together. But I like it because it shows off William Holden’s comedic talent…………………….which is too often neglected. Two scenes are priceless. When he pretends to be a swaggering Irish janitor.
    And when he and Bracken pretend to be Bellevue Hospital attendants retrieving their runaway mental patient. Absolutely hilarious and worth watching just for those scenes.
    Thank you very much, Rebecca, for your lively, witty, and thoughtful comments on a movie that is often maligned and not often appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Overall, I agree with your assessment. It has the makings of an effective farce, but it doesn’t keep up the pacing. Holden and Hayward just don’t seem to have much to do. The one place where I disagree is your assessment of Florence MacMichael. For me, she walked away with the film. Her line where she recounts all the things they do to Muriel always has me in stitches. I can see how the character could grate, however.

    Liked by 1 person

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