“TOGETHER and TERRIFIC…in a story of unforgettable warmth and impact.”
James Cagney, the consummate actor, who graced the screen with his perilous traits along with his tenacious and malicious demeanor, immersed audiences worldwide during the golden age of cinema. In the years that proceeded his passing in 1986, James Cagney has been remembered by many for the embedded image of him yelling “Made it Ma. Top of the world” in the 1949 perennial classic White Heat, while others remember him for his other tough gangster roles in, The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties.
While James Cagney instilled fond recollections in legions of fans for playing multifaceted tough roles, Cagney also proved time and time again that he was able to shed his bad guy image by portraying a character that inhabited a softer nature. Despite the rejections from certain fans who preferred to see their idol playing a villainous gangster, James Cagney was usually always lauded for his deliveries of a hero or a person that was noted for their amiability.
After the success of White Heat, James Cagney’s gangster portrayals began to diminish. He had been cast in a few roles that are linked to that genre, but none of these characters were highlighted as a ruthless racketeer like the predecessors. His most notable film from this period came in 1955, when he starred alongside Doris Day in Love Me Or Leave Me.
With the accolades that he attained for Love Me Or Leave Me, James Cagney was now planted in a reputable position in Hollywood. He had film offers pouring in everywhere, but he chose to replace Spencer Tracy in the western production titled, Tribute To A Bad Man. Cagney’s performance was highly received, and it led to him securing the part of Lon Chaney in the biographical picture, Man Of A Thousand Faces ( 1956 )
Considering the fact that Tribute To A Bad Man was panned on it’s release, MGM thought well enough of Cagney’s performance to offer him another assignment. This time he was to star for the first and last time alongside, Barbara Stanwyck in a film about a notable businessman who pleads with the adoption agency to help locate his son who he abandoned twenty years earlier.
On it’s release, These Wilder Years was denounced for being a less than effective starring vehicle for the two main leads. Audiences would have preferred to see Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney sparring off together as ruthless villains in a gangster production or a film that had plenty of bite, but instead they were greeted with something completely different.
Even though These Wilder Years was expected to flounder at the box office, James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck enjoyed the filming process, and later developed fond memories of their time on the set. They especially relished the fact that their pasts were closely mirrored, and saw this as the perfect opportunity to relive their Vaudeville years by entertaining the cast and crew with their dance improvisations.
The films disastrous status is largely due to the small scale crew that were hired for the production. Director, Roy Rowland had considerable success in Hollywood, and helmed a few critically acclaimed staples, such as, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes and Meet Me In Las Vegas, but compared to a lot of other directors of his caliber, Rowland was only second-rate. That being said, Rowland shouldn’t be solely blamed for the films flaws when certain aspects can be traced to the weakness of the script, which was written by, Ralph Wheelwright and Frank Fenton.
These Wilder Years tells the story of Steve Bradford ( James Cagney ), a wealthy businessman who returns to his home town with high hopes of locating his illegitimate son, who was put up for adoption twenty years earlier. On his arrival, he visits the orphanage, which is ran by Ann Dempster ( Barbara Stanwyck ) who announces that she’s in no position to help him trace the whereabouts of his son. Instead Steve discovers that he’s got a lot more on his hands than what he ever imagined when he meets, Suzie ( Betty Lou Keim ), a sixteen year old expectant orphan, who resides with Ann Dempster.
These Wilder Years may have lacked the ingredients to be a motion picture staple, but it’s premise is definitely promising. Steve Bradford is a millionaire who is eager to use his affluent wealth to locate his son, whom he has never met, and provide him with a new home full of luxuries. The fact that he wants to take away his grown son from a family who has loved him from the day they adopted him sounds ludicrous, but despite these foibles, the story is quite entertaining, and keeps the viewer wondering if Steve Bradford will ever meet his son?
Even for those people who find the film bland, you can’t deny the talents of Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney, who alone make this vehicle worth watching. Both stars are exceptional in their roles, and actually have great chemistry together. Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Dempster, the owner of the orphanage is dedicated to her work, and through sheer determination, she manages to find unwanted babies a home, but when it comes to Steve Bradford whose determination is unyielding, she’s a tenacious force to be reckoned with. She is reluctant to give out any information regarding the sons whereabouts, and decides to remain professional. Steve however, does not stop at that. He proves that money is no object by hiring James Rayburn ( Walter Pidgeon ) an expensive lawyer, who states that millions of dollars can go a long way.
Another redeeming feature is the relationship between Steve Bradford and sixteen year old Suzie. James Cagney as Steve Bradford, exudes warmth and plenty of understanding. Seeing as he eluded the chance to father a son, he realizes the obstacles that she is faced with, and knows the pain that she will feel when she is forced to give up her baby. It’s also interesting to note that for a film made in 1956, years after the Hays Code was enforced, These Wilder Years clearly depicts the subject of unwed and pregnant teens, a topic that was concealed in movies after the establishment of the Production Code in 1934.
All and all, These Wilder Years is an overlooked melodrama that deserves more recognition. It’s a shame that Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney never had the chance to work together in a film that had more bite, but at least we can witness their extreme versatility and adeptness in this great film.
The American Airlines plane Steve flies in at the beginning of the film is a Convair CV-240 – American’s replacement of the Douglas DC-3.
The film debut of Michael Landon, who played a small cameo role.
Upon James Cagney exiting lawyer Leland G. Spottsford’s office building, a theater marquee and film posters can be seen advertising Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), which was the previous film directed by _These Wilder Years (1956)_ director Roy Rowland.
Barbara Stanwyck: Born Ruby Catherine Stevens on July 16th, 1907 in Brooklyn, New York. Died: January 20th, 1990 in Santa Monica, California. Aged 82. Cause of death: Congestive heart failure and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
James Cagney: James Cagney: Born James Francis Cagney, Jr. on July 17th, 1899 in New York. Died: March 30th, 1986 in Stanfordville, New York. Aged 86. Cause of death: Heart attack.
Walter Pidgeon: Born Walter Davis Pidgeon on September 23rd, 1897 in Sain John, New Brunswick, Canada. Died: September 25th, 1984 in Santa Monica, California. Aged 87. Cause of death: Massive stroke.
Betty Lou Keim: Born Betty Lou Keim on September 27th, 1938 in Malden, Massachusetts. Died: January 27th, 2010 in Chatsworth, California. Aged 71. Cause of death: Lung Cancer.