You're Never Too Young

(Norman Taurog, USA, 1955)


An obnoxious kid named Marty decked out in a sailor’s uniform – played by soon-to-be racing car driver Tommy Ivo, who was then about 10 years older (and taller) in reality, to make the consequent situation even slightly believable – is lured by Wilbur/Jerry Lewis into … a train station bathroom (identifiable from the swiftly glimpsed wall tiles as the odd saloon-type doors are swung open). Moments later in screen time (= ellipsis), Wilbur emerges dressed as that ‘little boy’. The central disguise premise of You’re Never Too Young is hereby launched – borrowed and gender-switched from Billy Wilder’s directorial debut in Hollywood, The Major and the Minor (1942).


But hold on! Quite apart from the unspoken outrageousness of the act shown – its perversity clinched by the sinister and lascivious look momentarily flickering over Jerry’s face (as is regularly the case in his movies, Mark Rappaport illustrates it well in The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender [1997]) as the bathroom door closes – there’s also the tiny matter of narrative consequence. The boy has been magically separated (we have no idea how) from his mother (Nancy Kulp from The Beverly Hillbillies!), seen only a few moments earlier in the sequence; we do not know what happens to her, or to him – is he naked or wearing Wilbur’s suit, unconscious or tied up in the toilet? Maybe he’s dead? No one asks, no one knows and no one cares – not in this kind of 1950s cartoonish movie. That kid will never reappear. It’s a taste of the offhand, bashed-together surrealism to follow.


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In 1991, Brian Henderson (1941-2017) published a brilliant article on “Cartoon and Narrative in the Films of Frank Tashlin and Preston Sturges” (in Comedy/Cinema/Theory edited by Andrew S. Horton for University of California Press). It builds upon the painstaking work he had done presenting Sturges’ screenplays in their published form. There are many radical insights in his essay, but I will engage just a couple of its tools, loosely, to inspire and inform my discontinuous commentary on You’re Never Too Young (a film that Henderson doesn’t mention, since Jerry Lewis, with or without Dean Martin, is never his chosen focus. His text is more about Jean-Luc Godard than Lewis).


What is cartoon narrative in live-action cinema? Does it exist, can it be specified? “It’s hard to say”, Henderson wisely ruminates, “because the question has not been posed before and the subject has not been studied”. Too true. Beyond the well-trodden realm of the gag and gagology (Raymond Durgnat’s term), Henderson (paying tribute to Gérard Genette) especially emphasises two time-elements in cinematic cartoon narration: ellipsis (jumping forward in the plot) and paralipsis (not showing and thereby compressing or skipping events that are off-screen, happening elsewhere, while concentrating on another, supposedly simultaneous, parallel event). He stresses in Frank Tashlin’s classic Artists and Models (same year as You’re Never Too Young, 1955) the mutually wayward path of these two ‘lipses’: the direct temporal gap between one thing to the next is often impossible to gauge, and whole tracts of plot disappear without comment in the camouflaged parts. Fuzziness – on several interlocking levels of logic, sense, continuity and consequence – rules.


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Norman Taurog, it must be said, is neither Tashlin nor Sturges, although he occasionally veers closer to the former than the latter. There are dead moments in You’re Never Too Young when the camera seems fixed in a wide shot, and whatever the performers manage to do while the filmstrip rolls on is all that gets done in the mise en scène. But then there are elaborate set-pieces that really pop, as in the “Face the Music” marching-girls number – immortally mimicked by a curious band of office-bound chaps in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) – which is no doubt kicked into high gear by the appropriately zany choreography of Nick Castle (1910-1968, father of Tap [1989] director also named Nick Castle).


Taurog’s trademark flatness-literalness has its own inadvertent pay-offs, though. Almost the entire film is an extended documentary on Lewis’ performance of eternal infantilism, arrested development and infinite regress, as he wails and contorts his body – it’s truly infectious. That’s why anyone would want to see the film in the first place, its raison d’être.


But this is less expected: at one point, alone on stage, Martin sings a number very typical of his Italo-flavoured pop-ballad œuvre, “Simpatico” (all songs are by Arthur Schwartz & Sammy Cahn, and the cosmopolitan lyrics here seem the wrong-way-round: “Sympathetic means simpatico”). As he lurches forward from mid-frame into a closer-up stance, Martin seems bizarrely intense and contorted. As if often the case with him fronting up to a camera near or far, and especially when he is obliged to dance alongside Jerry, he seems caught between an inner, sarcastic, couldn’t-care-less mirth (part of the Brat Pack aura) – betrayed in the frequent insouciance of his physical moves and gestures – and acute discomfort. The weird rubbing-together of supposedly smooth macho and the many humiliations foisted on Dino by light musical comedy – just like Elvis, embarrassed to be filmed while doing this fluffy kids’ stuff. In the ‘60s, away from Jerry, he would get to be the James Bond-ish Matt Helm in what Wiki labels ‘spy comedies’ ­– and when I saw (probably) The Wrecking Crew (1969, dir: Phil Karlson! – and later referenced for its Sharon Tate factor in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood [2019]) as a little kid in the midst of a Catholic weekend church-hall 16mm screening, it was the local priest who was squirming at the louche decadence (I recall Dino sandwiched between a dozen nude women and some mink, or something like that) unfurling up there in Technicolor. What was Father expecting, I wonder?


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Another curious name in the credits here is Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007) – yes, the same guy who, during my teenage days of the 1970s, shot to mass-cult prominence as the best-selling author of The Other Side of Midnight in 1973, adapted to the screen in 1977. That fruity film melodrama starred Marie-France Pisier (formerly of Truffaut and Rivette) and underwent serious analysis by none less than Andrew Britton in Movie magazine (check his collected works volume). Sheldon had already tasted success with writing stage musicals in the 1930s and the Cary Grant vehicle The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer in 1947, and he created TV hits in the ‘60s and ‘70s (I Dream of Jeannie, The Patty Duke Show, Hart to Hart) before transiting to solitary fame in pop literature.


You’re Never Too Young – “suggested by a play by Edward Childs Carpenter from a story by Fannie Kilbourne” – sits among similar assignments Sheldon took on during the ‘50s (including another, subsequent Martin/Lewis special, Pardners [1956]), mostly light comedies and musicals of various stripes. (It was Durgnat, again, who pointed out that a certain generic strain of ‘comedies with occasional songs by star singers’ – there are plenty of them – should really be regarded as bona fide musicals, but are so rarely admitted into that sacrosanct pantheon. Wikipedia disparagingly catalogues them as ‘semi-musicals’.) Sheldon also directed the very weird The Buster Keaton Story, starring Donald O’Connor, in 1957.


The adaptation/transformation by Sheldon of The Major and the Minor – superbly constructed by Wilder and Charles Brackett, as I’ve detailed in my 2019 Blu-ray commentary for Arrow  – into You’re Never Too Young queasily rewards close study. I say queasy because, while some things port over with relative ease, other things are necessarily mangled for the sake of Martin & Lewis, and Paramount Pictures. Hence the surrealism.


Let’s start with Diana Lynn (1926-1971). Apart from appearing in several earlier Martin/Lewis films, she was teen confidante/accomplice of Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor – and it’s a wink to anyone in the know in 1955 that she’s back, older but actually less wise or sassy in the adult character of Nancy here. The Wilder-Brackett script is Paramount property, and so is Lynn – and so a recycling machine is at work.


Now, in the original, Susan (Rogers) is agonisingly hiding her true age and identity from military man Philip (Ray Milland) – and that’s the disguise-obstacle that has to be surpassed before true love can be authentically, openly allowed to blossom (although there is no shortage of sophisticated, I-know-but-all-the-same perversity in The Major and the Minor – even if it’s gingerly elevated above the madly vulgar level of Jerry’s homoerotic toilet abduction). Throughout You’re Never Too Young, Wilbur, with a likewise burning passion, longs to reveal his actual ID to Nancy (who keeps shoving a toy doggy into his arms instead). But Nancy cannot end up with Wilbur, in a direct switch-up of the original. As the romantic prize, she is destined, naturally, to go to Bob/Dean Martin (and that’s also why, like Dino’s usual screen ‘conquests’, she’s rather pallid as a character). It’s the given element of heroic bifurcation in the Lewis/Martin plot, which is not always easy for its tellers to manage or negotiate without proliferating the possible character-pairings – as in Artists and Models.


When Nancy and Bob ultimately unite, Wilbur is left nowhere on the love plain. The sprightly teenager Skeets who chases him throughout, yelling “lover boy!”, literally disappears off-stage and off-screen just as the number “I Like to Hike” begins ( … but there are also male members of this girls’ school choir?). I was intrigued by this actor, Mitzi McCall (now 89), whose screwy energy here anticipates that of Molly Shannon as Mary Katherine Gallagher (see Superstar, 1999) or Rachel Bloom in the sublime Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019). McCall’s bio reveals that her shot at TV variety-show stardom in my birth country of Australia circa 1963 was usurped by, of all people, her pal Don Lane. Poor Mitzi! It’s no surprise that she won a slot on Laugh-In in the late ‘60s – or that she voiced Penny Pillar in several spin-offs of The Flintstones during the ‘70s.


Small but intriguing question: who’s the male equivalent of the masquerading hero’s ‘best teen pal’ in You’re Never Too Young (i.e., the Lynn part)? It’s a nerdy but sullen, pug-faced, vaguely rock’n’roll type (also, incidentally, in the plot, son of the nasty Nina Foch character): Mike, played by an uncredited Whitey Haupt (who enjoyed only a slight film & TV career). He starts out tough but goes completely squeamish when he intuits (incorrectly) that Wilbur is a thief and killer. Then Jerry starts putting-on a Humphrey Bogart impersonation, just for fun. (For whatever nostalgic reason, Lewis loved this proximity to 1930s gangster types like George Raft – part of his own ambivalent flirtation with screen macho.) Since Mike takes very seriously Wilbur’s mock-threat to keep his mouth shut (or else), he just literally vanishes from the rest of the movie (like, later on, Mitzi). A panning camera elides him from the frame, and he’s gone for good. Here, there’s none of that gather-everybody-for-the-finale-and-give-them-all-a-prize stuff typical of a different kind of romantic comedy.


Henderson noted two things in Tashlin’s cartoon narratives: that, on the one hand, various story threads are left uncompleted; and, on the other hand, that there tends to be an excess of flying-through endings in the final minutes. Never enough, and then too much. Beyond Tashlin and Sturges, this rule probably goes for many light musicals in the Hope/Crosby or Martin/Lewis mode.


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Some scenes are ingeniously expanded from passing details in The Major and the Minor (“Face the Music” in toto appears to have been suggested by the presence of a boy’s marching team that greets Susan); while others are more or less kept as is and re-run (like Wilder’s immortal vignette around the telephone switchboard – sans the cartoonish voice-substitution of Lewis miming to a playback of Foch!). Then there are new, major plot elements added holus-bolus to the light-genre stew: Raymond Burr (fresh from Rear Window, 1954) as the criminal heavy Noonan, forever chasing Jerry (having first pursued Dino) for a stolen jewel, and himself chased by a phalanx of cops who almost never appear anywhere or at any time … which is, at least, better form than all those laboured, contemporary action-comedies where, in a similar triangular chase structure, everybody has to be tiresomely ‘characterised’ and differentiated.


Realism, schmealism. You’re Never Too Young prefers to present itself, at the establishing-shot outset, via the surreal telegram delivered by an anonymous voice-over narrator who will never again be heard from: “This … is Los Angeles. Looks peaceful and quiet, doesn’t it? But don’t let it fool you! A jewel robbery – and a murder – are about to happen”. OK! Great way to introduce a comedy.


Note: A late 2021 audiovisual essay by Cristina Álvarez López and me addresses the marvellous “Face the Music” sequence from this film, putting it in relation to the re-enactment in In a Year of 13 Moons. See: https://filmkrant.nl/video/the-thinking-machine-54-english/

© Adrian Martin 13 & 14 December 2021

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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