As part of Holden100, bloggers are guest posting on Flickin’ Out to give their take on Holden’s career. Karen Burroughs Hannsberry of Shadows and Satin is this week’s guest blogger and she’s looking at an underseen gem of Holden’s early career, Young and Willing.
If you’re a William Holden fan (and, really, how can you NOT be?), you’ve likely enjoyed this handsome and talented actor in such first-rate features as Sunset Boulevard (1950), Stalag 17 (1953) and Picnic (1955), but you haven’t lived until you’ve seen him in a little-known gem called Young and Willing. Released in 1943, this low-budget comedy focuses on the lives of six struggling, would-be actors and actresses who live in the same New York apartment while hoping for their collective big break on the stage. The screenplay was written by Virginia Van Upp who, just a few years later, would be named Executive Producer of Columbia Pictures, becoming one of only three female producers at the time. But I digress.
Holden is top-billed as Norman Reese, the unspoken leader of the motley crew. The group also consists of Tony Dennison (James Brown) and Marge Benson (Barbara Britton), who are secretly married – an act that’s in direct violation of Norman’s house rule forbidding romantic entanglements; Marge’s sexy and worldly wise sister Kate (Susan Hayward); George Bodell (Eddie Bracken), who’s completely obsessed with Stanislavsky’s Method acting; and Dottie Coburn (Martha O’Driscoll), a lovable airhead with an unutterable crush on Norman and a wealthy dad whose monthly check pays the apartment’s rent.
Young and Willing is a screwball comedy of the highest order, featuring a variety of wacky characters and zany situations. George, for instance, is usually fully immersed in one character or another, from Othello, to an apple ripening in a “tree,” to Napoleon Bonaparte, complete with an accent that sounds like Charles Boyer. “It certainly never gets tiresome with George around here,” Marge remarks. “You never know when you come home who he’s going to be.”
The basic plot involves the six thespians and their efforts to perform a play for Arthur Kenny (Robert Benchley), a famous Broadway producer (Robert Benchley) who keeps an apartment in the building and occasionally pops in for a visit. Their apartment is located directly above Kenny’s, and they’re known to spontaneously crowd around a hole in the floor to spy on his comings and goings.
Holden’s Norman enters about three minutes into the picture. He’s clad in a buttoned-up overcoat with a cravat – very classy, very English-upper-crusty. It’s not until later that we learn he’s only wearing an undershirt beneath the coat because the week’s laundry delivery hasn’t yet arrived. When we meet him, Norman is bemoaning the outcome of his recent audition, for a role that was given to a man who was plainly too old for it.
“You should have seen that ‘juvenile’ that got the part,” he complains. “Ye gods – they had to carry him up on the stage. He must have been 40 years old!”
Norman – who dropped out of dental school to pursue his acting career – is quick-thinking and crafty, with a take-charge personality and an unflappable demeanor. These characteristics come in handy when he’s trying to fend off the apartment’s ditzy landlady, Mrs. Garnett (played to the hilt by Mabel Paige), or keep Dottie’s father from learning about his daughter’s co-ed living situation. When Mrs. Garnett questions Norman about the late rent, he coolly conjures a tall tale, telling her that the money was used to bail Dottie’s father out of jail, where he’d been taken following a car accident he caused while rushing to the bedside of his dying brother. In another scene, when Norman answers the apartment telephone and learns that Dottie’s father is the caller, he adopts an Irish brogue, convincing Mr. Coburn that he’s the building’s janitor. (“It’s after fixin’ a little leak in the radiator that I came up about,” he improvises. “I imagine you’ll like to be speakin’ to your little chickadee. Well, Erin go Bragh, shamrock and shillelaghs.”)
Throughout the film, Holden displays a natural acting style and a flawless sense of comedic timing, totally holding his own with the showier Eddie Bracken. With his flashing dimples and his hair frequently falling over his forehead, he’s also incredibly easy on the eyes. If you only know Holden from his better-known features, do yourself a favor and check him out in this one. It’s accessible on YouTube – in English and Spanish! – and can also be found for sale on sites like iOffer and Loving the Classics.
You won’t be sorry.
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