What happens when a family of con artists decide to pretend to be honest in order to receive an inheritance from a kindly old woman they befriend? They get jobs, stop cheating at cards, etc, but when does pretending to be honest bleed over into actual honesty? At what point does playing a part that envelops one’s whole life become one’s life?
This is the dilemma for the dishonest Carleton family after they take up residence in the London home of kindly Miss Fortune (Minnie Dupree), an elderly wealthy woman eager for companionship who they met on a train in France. The Carleton’s, lead by George-Ann (Janet Gaynor), hatch a ploy to become models of respectability in order to stay in Miss Fortune’s heart and home and worm their way into her will. George-Ann’s father Sahib (Roland Young) lands a job selling Wombats, an obnoxiously super-fast car, while her brother Richard (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) abandons his usual pursuit of millionaires’ plain daughters for a job in an engineering firm.
George-Ann, meanwhile, prays that her family will come around, stop their cheating and scheming, to redeem themselves. She keeps the plan tightly in place, assured that as long as they are pretending to be respectable, they can’t get into any trouble and, hopefully, will realize how much more fulfilling and less exhausting an honest life is compared to a life of grifting. As the plan moves closer and closer to completion, George-Ann desperately hopes that someone will voice a concern, say it isn’t right to take advantage of such a gentle and kind old woman. She wants someone else in her family to second her secret scruples and redeem them all from their past sins by committing to a life of honesty.
What follows is a heartwarming and funny comedy as the family discovers there is more to life than the next mark and other ways to make money than theft. Each character goes through their own transformations, keeping their newfound scruples secret, including their wonderfully scatterbrained mother Marmy (Billie Burke). (“My children were born in India. They tell me it’s beautiful. I’ve never been.”), who glides through the picture in an apparent dingbat haze until a crucial moment. Sahib discovers the joy of salesmanship, where being an experienced con man is handy without breaking the law. And Richard realizes engineering is kinda interesting and the girl he wants (Paulette Godard) won’t put up with dishonesty. George-Ann, meanwhile, conducts a rocky on-again off-again romance with Duncan, a young man disgusted by what he has learned of her and her family’s past, but unable to say goodbye to her.
Each family member keeps their newfound legitimate industry to themselves, thinking they are alone with their strange new feelings of accomplishment and don’t want to disrupt their close-knit family dynamic based, they think, on deception and theft. A nice twist at the end tests their new resolve and suggests that their bond is deeper and more meaningful than they thought.
The Young in Heart is not a well remembered movie, but it should be. It has humor and romance and, not incidentally, Janet Gaynor’s last film appearance. If you love 1930s movie comedy with a heart, this should be added to your Netflix queue immediately.