These Wilder Years (1956)


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 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:

“We all make our beds and have to lie in them.”

Directed by Roy Rowland (Our Vines Have Tender Grapes) from an original script by Frank Fenton based on a story by Ralph Wheelwright (Blossoms in the Dust), These Wilder Years is a good example of how films in the fifties started poking holes in the old moral code, boldly exploring urgent social issues.

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 it very interesting to see how things like premarital sex, teen pregnancy and child support were viewed in the fifties.

I was definitely interested in seeing how the scenario would play out and I was pleasantly surprised that the movie stayed grounded in reality — the finale was appropriately bittersweet. These Wilder Years also gets extra brownie points for resisting the temptation to create a romance between stars James Cagney and Barbara Stawnwyck — they remain friendly adversaries throughout the entire film.

Cagney and Stawnwyck underplay beautifully. Cagney, in particular, shows us that he was capable of projecting tenderness as well as toughness. The inimitable “gangster walk” is here, but this is Cagney at his most humane — 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 and 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) 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’s another reason to sit through it: This is the only pairing of Cagney and Stanwyck and the dynamic duo don’t disappoint. If I have a complaint is that the film is too short. Some subplots could have used a bit more screen time. That being said, there are many honest moments in this fine movie. B&W, 91 minutes, Not Rated.

15 responses to “These Wilder Years (1956)

  1. P.S. I haven’t seen you at my film blog lately…I noticed you’ve visited my “regular” blog, but i miss your input on my film articles!! I hope that’s not a reflection of anything negative. Please excuse the self-serving nature of this comment!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Eric. I’d never heard of this film before! I would watch it because it has Barbara in it. I like films from the fifties that deal with social taboos like premarital sex and ill-gotten pregnancies.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an interesting film review! This movie sounds fascinating. James Cagney is one of my favorite actors, and I can imagine him in this role. He had that pre-Code experience which made it easy for him to jump into these early Shurlock era films. Isn’t it fascinating that two famous pre-Code actors, Mr. Cagney and Miss Stanwyck, were never paired when they were young? You are a fine writer.

    By the way, I would like to thank you for following my column. I would like to invite you to participate in my first blogathon, “The Great Breening Blogathon:” We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

    Liked by 1 person

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