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William Wellman (aka "Wild Bill") was a director with a larger-than-life, hell-raising personality best known for movies set in the hyper-masculine world of war, adventure and the fast-talking milieu of urban dramas. Among these are the Oscar®-winning aviation film Wings , the definitive Cagney gangster film The Public Enemy , and the World War II pictures Story of G.I. Joe  and Battleground . But he also often displayed a sure-hand at crackling comedy (Nothing Sacred , Roxie Hart , the source material for the hit 2002 musical Chicago). His pictures often included a nostalgic, autobiographical point of view (for instance, his experience as a combat pilot figured in many of his movies). In The Happy Years , one of his lesser-known works but often praised as a lost gem, he combines all these talents to create a nostalgic but amusing portrait of a school full of rough-and-tumble boys, not unlike himself in the early 20th century when his wild behavior alarmed his parents and teachers.
The screenplay by Harry Ruskin, whose work on a number of Andy Hardy pictures helped prepare him for this project, is based on the "Lawrenceville School stories" by Owen Johnson, a New Yorker and former war correspondent. A great deal of Johnson's output (primarily magazine stories published between 1901 and 1931) was focused on the misadventures and coming-of-age of several characters attending the famous prep school, which was one of the oldest in the U.S. and located near Princeton, New Jersey. In particular, it follows the exploits of "bad boy" Dink Stover, played by then popular child actor Dean Stockwell.
In movies from the age of nine, Stockwell was just entering his teen years when he made The Happy Years, one of his last (and one of his favorites because of its emphasis on comedy over drama) before his youthful popularity waned. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Stockwell bounced around in various TV roles, unable to recapture his earlier stardom, before emerging later as a noted character actor in such films as Blue Velvet (1986) and The Rainmaker (1997) and a long run on the hit TV sci-fi show Quantum Leap.
Stockwell's fellow child stars in the cast of The Happy Years didn't all fare as well as he did, and their life stories add a bitterly ironic twist to the film's title. Scotty Beckett was a veteran of more than 80 movies by the time he appeared in The Happy Years (still playing a teen past the age of 20). He worked constantly, making as many as ten pictures a year at the sacrifice of his own childhood; his best known movies are Marie Antoinette (1938), as the doomed Dauphin, and several in which he played the adult hero as a boy: Kings Row (1942), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), and The Jolson Story (1946), as the young Al Jolson. He also appeared as an inexperienced soldier in Wellman's Battleground (1949). But as he approached adulthood and was no longer in demand as a child actor, Beckett's life grew increasingly troubled. His life became a sad chronicle of drugs, violent incidents, arrests and broken marriages. He died of an apparent suicide in 1968, not yet 40 years old.
Unfortunately, Beckett's story was an all-too-familiar tale of children destroyed by very early Hollywood fame. Another cast member in this picture, Darryl Hickman (brother of Dwayne who was the star of the TV series, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis [1959-1963]), had a more happy outcome, eventually overcoming his difficulties to become a respected acting teacher and TV executive. But in his later years he spoke openly about the damage inflicted on him and his young colleagues growing up in the unreality of motion pictures. "We didn't have the normal opportunities to be with other kids and form relationships," he said. "And we lived in a world of fantasy...I hear it in our voices. They're not fully developed, resonant voices. They haven't been brought forward in time." Being a child actor, Hickman noted, "is an abnormal thing to have to struggle with. I don't see how it can be healthy."
If Wellman identified with his youthful heroes, it didn't help curb his impatience during production. The young cast irritated him more often than not with their rowdy and immature behavior. "I get home at night and I snap at my own kids," he said. "What kind of life is that? Besides, I'm getting too old for this stuff." There's no telling how much of that feeling carried over both at home and on the set for Wellman's son, Tim, who played a small bit in The Happy Years.
Director: William A. Wellman
Producer: Carey Wilson
Screenplay: Harry Ruskin, based on "The Lawrenceville School Stories" by Owen Johnson
Cinematography: Paul Vogel
Editing: John Dunning
Art Direction: Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Dean Stockwell (Dink Stover), Darryl Hickman (Tough McCarty), Scotty Beckett (Tennessee Shad), Leon Ames (Samuel Stover Sr.), Margalo Gillmore (Maude Stover).
by Rob Nixon