TOGETHER and TERRIFIC! …in a story of unforgettable warmth and impact!
Together at last so they were, but perhaps not in the roles most of their fans would have liked. While a pairing twenty years earlier might well have been more explosively dramatic don’t let the respective maturity of James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck be off-putting. Rather, their only pairing in 1956’s These Wilder Years is a surprisingly effective and enjoyable picture and a rare example of a film that perhaps has actually gotten better with age.
Cagney is middle-aged steel tycoon Steve Bradford. After sacrificing most everything in his life for “what he wanted,” (read here material things like titles and wealth) he finds himself in a mid-life crisis. He decides to find the son he gave up for adoption two decades prior. He heads across country to the orphanage where the child was left to find the same woman in charge – Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Dempster. There’s a wonderful battle throughout the picture as Bradford, who is used to getting what he wants one way or another, duels with the cagey Dempster, who has decades of experience and the law (mostly) on her side.
Foiled at each early turn, including a side trip to his old girlfriend’s home, Bradford finally resorts to calling in a high priced corporate lawyer (Walter Pidgeon as James Rayburn). All the while, Bradford is using his charms to butter up Dempster and befriending Suzie in the process. Suzie (played by newcomer Betty Lou Keim) is a current resident of the home who was unceremoniously disowned and dumped there by her parents on learning that she’s in a ‘delicate way.’
Of course, Bradford ultimately gets the family he came after and it’s pretty clear all along how the picture will play out. In spite of this, These Wilder Years is a film that almost seems too short.
The highlight of the picture is clearly the fine acting of both Cagney and Stanwyck in oddly restrained roles. Both are clearly at the top of their games, but if there was a contest (thankfully there isn’t) the edge has to go to Cagney because he’s almost cast against type.
The opening scene where Cagney announces to his board of directors that he is taking an open ended leave of absence is the Cagney we know. He’s gruff, abrupt and commanding. For the balance of the picture he never quite regains that level of urgency and confidence. He’s many times on the cusp- sometimes even lashing out with characteristic Cagney angst- only to have to immediately back down and recant in the face of Stanwyck’s stoic steadfastness. He’s extremely believable here without any of his occasional over the tops antics.
Stanwyck is great as well here, bobbing and weaving expertly with Cagney’s jabs. She, too, isn’t going full throttle and keeps her characteristic toughness lurking below the surface. You can tell she wants to help Bradford but is deeply conflicted about her obligations to the children who are or have been under her stead. Through her stalwart stance she slowly educates Bradford as to some of the challenging issues she deals with daily- with some surprising results.
Often These Wilder Years, which wasn’t a commercially successful film, is likened to a soap opera; it does have some key characteristics in common but to label it as such would not only be inaccurate but it would also sell the picture short. It’s a poignant drama verging for the last two reels as close to a holiday picture as Cagney ever made.
Walter Pidgeon and Betty Lou Keim are nice additions to the cast, with Pidgeon nearly stealing a few scenes from Cagney, though Cagney’s sincerity win out. Not a tearjerker by any means but an enjoyable film nonetheless.