Monday October 12, 2020
Movie Review: These Wilder Years (1956)
I couldn’t help but think of “Public Enemy.” And not because the movies are similar.
In an early scene, Steve Bradford (James Cagney), the CEO of a Detroit steel company, walks through his office and into a board meeting. The area is carpeted, bland, airless, sterile. There’s no life in it. There was always life and grit in the sets of early Warner Bros. movies, and this is the opposite of that. I actually thought of the offices of bosses in ’60s TV sitcoms. It was like Mr. Tate’s office on “Bewitched.” I think of the difference between Putty Nose’s backroom and Mr. Tate’s office and wonder how American went so wrong.
But that’s just the beginning. You really see the difference with the Cagney character.
Before he walks into the board meeting, Bradford asks his secretary who’s in there, and she tells him—to a man—and he compliments her on her great memory. The exchange is brief but irrelevant. You wonder why they kept it. It moves nothing forward.
Then he’s on an airplane, and an entire high school football team is on the same flight with him, which is odd in itself, and he’s seated next to the guy who, yes, lost the big game by dropping the ball in the end zone (Tom Laughlin, in his film debut). So he dispenses fatherly advice: “You ever hold onto any?” “Yeah. Plenty.” “Try to remember those.” And sure, you get why that’s in there. It’s a metaphor. It’s foreshadowing. Steve dropped a big one 20 years ago when he walked out on his pregnant girlfriend, and that’s why he’s traveling back to his hometown. He’s trying to rectify his mistake. But the airplane conversation is more than that. Because it keeps happening.
From the airport, he takes a cab and sits in the front seat like a regular joe, and he and the toothless cabbie talk, and Steve gives him a big tip so the guy can get himself some new chompers. At the orphanage, he throws a ball back to kids playing in the field, then dispenses advice to Suzie (Betty Lou Keim), the 16-year old pregnant girl: “Don’t cry about tomorrow, he says. “Wait til it’s yesterday.” She takes a shine to him, as does the head of the orphanage, Ann Dempster (Barbara Stanwyck), who should know better. I mean, she should really know better. It’s not just the boy he was, it’s the man he became. Because as determined as he was to leave his son back then, he’s now just as determined to find him. He all but threatens Ann.
Steve: I’ve got a lot of two things: time and money. And I’ll use either one or both. Whatever it takes. You know, I could’ve sent somebody to do this for me. And they’d have gone about it quite differently.
Steve: Bought it. Bought the records, the court, maybe even this place. Maybe even you.
Ann: What in the world would you do with me?
Steve: Take you to dinner. How about it?
That pivot is such bad writing. He mentions buying her, then segues into buying her dinner? Like it’s charming? But it works, of course. Because movies. At the least, she invites him to her place for dinner, but there’s an emergency so it’s just Steve and Suzie, and … Wait. So Ann Dempster, the head of this orphanage, leaves a 16-year-old pregnant girl alone with a strange man who abandoned his child 20 years ago? That doesn’t seem so smart. But I guess it’s OK because he’s a famous CEO? Suzie gives him a drink and the Evening Gazette but he’d rather hang with Suzie in the kitchen. They talk. He asks her about her, which leads to how she wound up 16 and pregnant, and she cries, and he dispenses more advice, and by the time Ann shows up he’s sent Suzie to the movies while he’s drying the dishes—“Paying for my supper,” he says. A regular joe. And that keeps happening. There’s all these little bits in there, nudging us, until it finally hits you: Ahhh. They want us to like him. And that’s where the real contrast with “Public Enemy” comes in.
In “Public Enemy,” Cagney plays a low-level gangster who shoves a grapefruit in a woman's face and chillingly kills his old mentor, Putty Nose, in cold blood, and yet Warner Bros. constantly has to remind us: You’re not supposed to like this guy. They put up disclaimers before and after. They called him a problem that “we, the public, must solve.” And all for naught. Because we still like him. Martin Scorsese calls Cagney in “Public Enemy” the birth of modern acting because he was so vibrant and real. He has an energy and an honesty. And yet here he is 25 years later, and now it’s MGM, not Warner Bros., but they’re doing everything they can to make us like this guy ... and it doesn’t work. It sets you back on your heels. They tried to get us to like Jimmy Cagney … and couldn’t do it.
What’s the difference?
Why did he make it? Cagney and his wife adopted two children so maybe that’s partly why this story appealed to him. His biographer, John McCabe, also mentions that Cagney liked his experience with MGM in “Tribute to a Bad Man” and quickly agreed to follow up with this one. He also gets to play white collar rather than blue, and rich rather than not, and contrite rather than sneering, so maybe all that appealed, too. But I doubt he thought much of it. It’s one of the few movies of his he doesn’t mention in his memoir. At all. Not a whisper.
It’s his only movie with Barbara Stanwyck. It’s kind of funny watching Public Enemy and Baby Face being the upstanding adults in postwar America. The ’50s were the era when Hollywood discovered teenagers—parents were staying home with the TV—and here they pair stars from the previous generation with the up-and-comers. The movie is the debut of not only Laughlin but Michael Landon, as well as the first credited role for Dean Jones. Most of these guys have bit parts, though. I didn’t even catch Landon, to be honest. The up-and-comers are Keim and Don Dubbins as Mark, Steve’s 20-yeaar-old son, who’d also been in “Tribute to a Bad Man,” and wound up with a good journeyman career: 123 credits until his death in 1991. Keim, though, didn’t make it out of the ’50s. She nabbed a few more roles, than nabbed a husband—Warren Berlinger, who also had a good journeyman career—and she called it quits. Her last role was in the TV series “The Deputy” in 1960.
So, dilemma: Cagney wants to see the son he abandoned, Stanwyck is polite but reminds him, “The adoption laws are very strict”; and that’s the battle for most of the movie. And for all the effort of director Roy Rowland and screenwriters Ralph Wheelwright and Frank Fenton to show us Cagney’s a regular guy, they never give him reason enough for abandoning the boy or seeking him out now. The opposite:
Ann: Why did it take you so long?
Steve: Because it took a long time to get what I wanted.
Ann: And now you’ve got what you wanted.
Steve: Yeah. I got it. And something else. I got older. And I got lonely.
That’s it? Good god, Tom Powers is a picture of responsibility in comparison. Steve is even worse when explaining to the high-powered SCOTUS lawyer he brings in. James Rayburn (Walter Pidgeon) asks the same question, “What took you so long?” and at first Steve simply replies “What’s the difference?” before adding, impatiently, “Shall we say, I was busy? That enough?” The lawyer then finds a loophole, they take Ann to court, and Steve plays the victim. For a scene or two. This forces Ann to produce the original 1936 adoption papers in which the younger Steve turns out to be a major asshole:
Mr. Bradford said he would not assume any responsibility toward Emily Haver or the baby. That he would not marry the girl. He said he would not pay anything toward the expense of her confinement and that it was none of his business how she got along. He said to the welfare representative and before the witnesses, “Why do you say I’m the father of the child? It could be any one of 16 other guys.”
Classy. Pidgeon in his last MGM role is even-toned and well-cast. I like what he says to Steve after the judge dismisses the case: “You gambled that there are people who wouldn’t do unto you what you would do unto them.” But it’s Stanwyck who gets the best lines: “We all make our beds and have to lie in them, whether we sleep or not. Isn't that all there is to it?” And when Steve seems to dismiss her as an idealist dreamer who has sacrificed her life, she responds, “No, I didn’t. This is my life.”
After Steve is foiled in court, the rest of the movie tumbles into place. Outside the courtroom, Ann tells him that Suzie had an accident and is in the hospital asking for him. Because he’s such a great guy, I guess. So he goes, helps out, she has the baby, and in the afterglow of all that he does what any man would do: He goes bowling. And that’s when Mark shows up; and in the bowling alley, then the adjacent café, then out on the street, the two have several long, pained conversations, in which Mark admits to hating him at times and admiring him at times, and Steve looks variously uncomfortable and tortured and apologizes without apologizing. He says: “Look, what does a man say? What do I say? I’m sorry? Forgive me?” Sure. But try it without the question mark, dick.
It’s not just that he’s not a good person; Cagney’s acting isn’t good, either. Or it’s not interesting. You used to never be able to say that about him. In the end, Steve asks if there’s anything Mark needs, and Mark, the calm, responsible one, says “I needed this tonight. Just this,” and sticks out his hand. I like that Steve looks pained here, as if thinking: “Goodbye? So soon?” Or that he wanted to hug him but has to settle for a handshake. And then Mark walks away, while Steve paces, head down, and finally looks up to see his biological boy walking away in the distance and says quietly, “So long, son.” And the camera pulls back so we see a lone man on a lonely street corner.
And we have six minutes left in this thing.
What happens? Why he adopts Suzie, of course. Or I think that’s what happens. Seems odd, since I don’t think her parents have cut her off or anything. But he goes home with her and the baby—a man who’s suddenly both father and grandfather all at once.
It’s definitely a movie of its time: a weepy ’50s melodrama—Douglas Serk without the artistry, and without a person in color in sight. Among its working titles were “Somewhere I’ll Find Him,” “All Our Yesterdays” and “All Our Tomorrows.” All bad. They went with “These Wilder Years,” says John McCabe, “for no discernible reason.”