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It was a pairing that should have happened much sooner: James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck, those firecrackers of the 1930s, he with his manic urban energy and explosive temper, she the tough Brooklyn babe you wouldn't want to cross, both quite often on the shadier side of the law. It's a mystery why they weren't teamed in their "wilder years." And when they finally made These Wilder Years (1956), their only appearance together, they were cast as, respectively, a stolid tycoon who has devoted his life to business and an adoption agency administrator steadfast to her professional ethics. These were the kind of roles that could have easily been handled by, say, Walter Pidgeon and Loretta Young (in fact, Pidgeon does show up, as Cagney's lawyer). But Cagney and Stanwyck were two solid pros, and many reviewers of the time noted their performances to be the one thing that made These Wilder Years worth seeing.
Actually, the two stars were slated to appear together during their Depression Era heyday, in her early vehicle Night Nurse (1931), but by the time production was to begin on that film, Cagney had shot to stardom with The Public Enemy (1931), and his relatively small role (as a brutal chauffeur) was given to another young actor, Clark Gable. More than 20 years later, the two finally got their chance, and enjoyed their time together tremendously, even treating the crew with an impromptu dance number from their days as hoofers in New York in the 1920s.
The story concerns Cagney's attempts, late in life, to locate the illegitimate son he fathered many years earlier and Stanwyck's determination to prevent the rich and powerful businessman from circumventing adoption laws and possibly ruining the life of his now grown son. Eventually, Cagney does meet his son, briefly, but turns his attention to helping a young woman who is about to become an unwed mother; Cagney and Stanwyck eventually reach a mutual respect and understanding that could possibly lead to love in the film's closing frames.
For its time, These Wilder Years was a standard soap opera and critics noted on its release that it was hampered by an uninspired script and direction. The latter was handled by Roy Rowland, who had directed Stanwyck earlier in the 3-D Western The Moonlighter (1953) and the thriller Witness to Murder (1954). Writer and occasional actor Frank Fenton also had a history with Stanwyck, scripting her period mystery The Man with a Cloak (1951) and appearing with her in the raucous murder mystery-comedy Lady of Burlesque (1943). Another veteran added his expertise behind the camera: 13-time Oscar®-nominated cinematographer George J. Folsey, who had previously photographed Stanwyck in The Man with a Cloak and Executive Suite (1954).
The younger generation was played by two relative newcomers whose promising work never led to major roles. As the "girl in trouble," Betty Lou Keim had previously appeared in television dramas and made her feature debut with These Wilder Years. She appeared in both films and TV for a brief period after this, including notable work in Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running (1958). Then she retired shortly after marrying fellow adolescent actor Warren Berlinger in 1959. Don Dubbins (he plays the son, Mark) got his start with uncredited roles in From Here to Eternity (1953) and The Caine Mutiny (1954), as well as a handful of TV roles. James Cagney took an instant liking to his young co-star in These Wilder Years and cast him in an important role in his Western Tribute to a Bad Man (1956). Dubbins went on to appear in various TV series and occasional features until his death in 1991.
Had These Wilder Years proceeded as originally planned, Cagney and Stanwyck might never have worked together. Variously titled "All Our Yesterdays" and "Somewhere I'll Find Him" in preproduction, the picture was originally to have featured either Helen Hayes or Myrna Loy in the part of the adoption agency head. Debbie Reynolds and Susan Strasberg were also initially announced for the role that eventually went to Keim.
Director: Roy Rowland
Producer: Jules Schermer
Screenplay: Frank Fenton, story by Ralph Wheelwright
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: E. Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Jeff Alexander
Cast: James Cagney (Steve Bradford), Barbara Stanwyck (Ann Dempster), Walter Pidgeon (James Rayburn), Betty Lou Keim (Suzie), Don Dubbins (Mark).
by Rob Nixon