A note from Lindsey: This film was viewed as a part of TMP’s Barbara Stanwyck filmography project.
Steve Bradford (James Cagney) is a well-known business man who has made a success of himself.
Alerting his company that he’ll be out of the office for a while to deal with personal business, Steve has decided to return to the town where he went to college twenty years ago.
But this is no nostalgic trip back to his alma mater. Steve is plauged by guilt over the illegitimate son he had in college. The child was given to a local orphanage by its mother, and Steve has never met his son.
Upon returning to the town, Steve heads straight to the orphanage and meets Ann Dempster (Barbara Stanwyck), who runs the place. He hopes that she can help him find his son, but she’s reluctant to get involved.
As Steve continues to search for his son, he learns important lessons about himself and about life.
Roy Rowland directs These Wilder Years. This 1956 drama was written for the screen by Frank Fenton, based on the story by Ralph Wheelwright.
Like many of the films I’ve viewed for the Barbara Stanwyck Filmography Project, the cast of this film is stellar. Performing alongside Cagney and Stanwyck are Walter Pidgeon, Edward Andrews and the lesser-known Betty Lou Kiem and Don Dubbins.
Cagney’s performance here is particularly interesting. From the beginning he has a quite gentle demeanor. Though we don’t know much about him yet, he just gives off an air of kindness.
At some points during the film Steve becomes pushy and frustrated as he struggles to find his son, but his intentions and heart remain good. Cagney does a great job of bringing the character to life and portraying him in a believable way despite the film’s soapy-ness.
The rest of the performances are great as well, and they serve as the heart of the film. Cagney and Stanwyck were total pros in the ’30s, and by the mid-50s when this film was released their craft was even more seasoned. Both are wonderful, as are the supports, especially Betty Lou Kiem (appearing as a pregnant teen who lives/works at the orphanage).
Oddly enough, this is the only film in which Cagney and Stanwyck – undoubtedly two of the biggest and greatest stars of the ’30s – were paired. I would have loved to have seen them together in one of Cagney’s gangster films, but this isn’t a bad film for them to have made together.
The pace of These Wilder Years isn’t terribly fast, but the question of whether or not Steve will find his son keeps things moving well enough, holding the viewer’s attention and creating some great push-and-pull drama between Steve and Ann.
The level of drama picks up in the second half and that steam is kept up for most of the remainder of the film’s running time.
Overall, These Wilder Years is a bit of a slow watch and is somewhat low on rewatchability, but the performances are very good and the story gets better as it moves along. The score: 3/5