A wealthy businessman, Steve Bradford (James Cagney, The Public Enemy), visits an orphanage in hopes of finding out something about the illegitimate child he abandoned twenty years earlier. The head of the orphanage, Miss Dempster (Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity), refuses to give Bradford any information citing privacy laws. Unfazed by Dempster’s refusals, Bradford brings the case in front of a judge.
Reaction & Thoughts:
Directed by Roy Rowland (Our Vines Have Tender Grapes) from an original script by Frank Fenton based on a story by Ralph Wheelwright, MGM’s These Wilder Years is a good example of how films in the fifties started poking holes in the old moral code, exploring important social issues in a franker manner.
These Wilder Years examines an interesting moral (and legal) dilemma: the right of biological parents versus the right of the adopted to maintain anonymity. To this day it’s hard to balance the rights of all parties involved in the adoption process and that makes the film feel relevant to modern eyes. I also found very interesting to see how things like premarital sex, teen pregnancy and child support were viewed in the fifties.
I was very curious to see how the scenario would play out — after all, this is family-friendly MGM in the fifties — and I was pleasantly surprised that the ending was bittersweet, staying in tune with the rest of the film. The film gets extra brownie points for resisting the temptation of creating a romance between Cagney and Stawnwyck — they remain friendly adversaries throughout the entire film.
The two veterans of the silver screen underplay beautifully. Cagney, in particular, shows us he could project warmth and tenderness as well as toughness. The inimitable “gangster walk” is here, but this is Cagney at his most subdued and subtle — he does a terrific job playing a man consumed by guilt. He and Stawnwyck have some wonderful moments together — the movie benefits greatly from them working in total unison.
Walter Pidgeon (Mrs. Miniver) scores a few points as Cagney’s sardonic lawyer & friend. Betty Lou Keim (Some Came Running) plays a pregnant teenager. Edward Andrews (Elmer Gantry) plays a small town lawyer. Future stars Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack) and Dean Jones (The Love Bug) also have small roles. Blink and you will miss Michael Landon (TV’s Little House on the Prairie) making his film debut.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
These Wilder Years is a mature, well-acted drama. The movie avoids the pitfalls of melodrama. There is another reason to sit through it: it’s the only teaming of Cagney and Stanwyck — the dynamic duo doesn’t disappoint. If I have a complaint is that the film is too short. Some subplots could have used a bit more screen time. With that being said, there are many honest moments in this fine movie. B&W, 91 minutes, Not Rated.