As a culture, we tend to think of young people as kids until age 25 and put older people out to pasture at 65, cutting a person’s useful lifespan down to 40 years. So much wisdom, knowledge, and experience could be shared across generations if people were judged by their aptitude and ability, not their years on the earth. A wonderful classic movie which deals with this subject is “As Young as You Feel” from 1951.
The title aptly describes the subject matter, since this story is about a mature man’s quest to prove that companies are doing themselves a disservice by forcing experienced workers into retirement at a fixed age.
This movie is a supporting actors’ picture, in the sense that it features character actors in all its leading roles. Monty Woolley is top-billed and plays the main character. The other prominent actors include Thelma Ritter, David Wayne, Jean Peters, and Allyn Joslyn.
The only cast members who were real stars are Constance Bennett and Marilyn Monroe. However, both were supporting actors at this point, since Miss Bennett was a leading lady in the 1930s, while Miss Monroe would achieve stardom later in the 1950s.
John Hodges (Woolley) is a lively grandfather who loves his job working the handpress at Acme Printing Company; he also enjoys playing the piccolo in the community orchestra. His son, George (Joslyn), is a sign painter whose wife, Della (Ritter), used to be a singer in Brooklyn.
They have a grown daughter, Alice (Peters), who is engaged to a practical young man who works in Acme Printing’s personnel department, Joe Elliott (Wayne). They love each other very much, but Joe refuses to consider marriage until he is an assistant manager and thus can offer Alice financial security. The family lives together in a modest house in a small town, and they have a happy life.
One day, Grandpa is suddenly laid off because he has turned 65. When his arguments with the management prove fruitless, he decides to take matters into his own hands. Hodges pretends to be Harold P. Cleveland, president of Acme’s parent company, Consolidated Motors. Coming to town for a routine inspection, he tells worried Acme president Louis McKinley (Albert Dekker) to hire experienced men for the printing business. Then, he gives an inspiring speech about America’s economic future at a chamber of commerce luncheon.
Finally, he has dinner at the McKinley home, where he meets the beautiful but neglected Lucille McKinley (Bennett). The charming stranger’s admiration makes Mrs. McKinley realize what she has been missing from her husband, who has a roving eye for his secretary, Harriet (Monroe).
Mr. Hodges only spends one day as Harold P. Cleveland, but he manages to make a huge impact on the whole nation during his brief masquerade. The next day, he is back at his printing press, which is all he really wanted. However, his speech, which was printed in newspapers across the country, is rocking the business world. Will John get away with his plan, or will he face jail for his actions?
When pretending to be Mr. Cleveland, Hodges makes a speech at the chamber of commerce at the insistence of Mr. McKinley. It wasn’t part of Hodges’s original plan, but it gives him an excellent opportunity to publicly declare some of his ideas:
Today I hear a great deal of talk in this country about the dangers of inflation, which may lead to another economic depression. In a society as complicated and delicate as ours, we must leave no stone unturned in our search for stability. And in these old and expert men of 65 and over, there is a great fund of stability. I confess there are moments, gentlemen, when I regard mass production and its subsequent benefits of our higher standard of living as a two-edged sword. What are we sacrificing in this frantic chase for comfort? Well, for one thing, we’re sacrificing those simple dignities of life, which have helped make ours the greatest productive nation on earth. Now, mind you, I think that security and comforts are wonderful things. I’m all for social security. But in all our quest for this security, let us not lose sight of those things which have made this a great nation.
Let us not forget that our economic strength depends basically on one thing, individual initiative. We here in America have a great tradition to uphold. A tradition of hard work. A tradition of opportunity. A tradition that every man may go just as far up the ladder of success as he individually is capable of going. A tradition that no one, in government, in industry, anywhere, can tell him what he can do and what he can’t do. When he can work and when he can’t. In all earnestness, I tell you, gentlemen, that just so long as our workers can go to their jobs with the same fervor and self-respect that they go to their wives will we be able to fight off the threats of inflation and avoid the pitfalls of depression.
Hodges’s is an excellent example of someone who enjoys what he does He wants to do something useful with his time, since it gives him a sense of personal dignity.
Hodges agrees with the philosophy of making money so you can have fun in your free time, saying, “I like a man who works, and works hard, but that’s not enough. A man ought to play, and play hard, too.” However, he feels that one of the biggest problems with the younger generation is that they are more concerned with how much money they make than how they make it.
As Grandpa tells Joe, “There’s more in life than mere success, young man. Or rather, you should make up your mind what you mean by success. Remember, it’s not just having a job. It’s not just making money. In fact, it has nothing to do with those things. It’s what a man gets out of his work that matters. Are you doing something you like? Are you aware of the essential dignity of what you’re doing with your hands, with your mind?”
Seventy years after this film was made, this message still rings true. If workers of all ages pursued jobs they enjoyed and did them with dignity as long as they were able to, perhaps our nation would thrive.