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AN OLDER JAMES CAGNEY IN THESE WILDER YEARS

Year Released: 1957
While the Studio System may have been difficult for the talent, forced into project after project using whatever style that makes them shine again and again in various stories with similar plots and characterizations, it's great for anyone just turning on to a particular actor or actress...

James Cagney is a prime example. During the 1930's after accidentally hitting it big as the lead in PUBLIC ENEMY, a role that was supposed to go to the taller, more standard, typical Hollywood-looking guy and then wound up becoming Cagney's to own: the minute he smashed food on that dame's face a long journey had been ignited, and during that decade there are over ten programmers where his swagger, bravado, confidence, and dancing is in full form: From B-Pictures like PICTURE SNATCHER, WINNER TAKE ALL and our personal favorite, THE ST. LOUIS KID to crime flicks like G-MEN and EACH DAWN I DIE, con artist flicks like LADY KILLER and BLONDE CRAZY, patriotic but never too corny or cliche ventures like HERE COMES THE NAVY and eventually, Early Film Noir/Melodrama classics like CITY FOR CONQUEST and especially THE ROARING TWENTIES...

Poster and Warner DVD Cover Art
Then during the 1940's the good times were over. Even the splendidly entertaining musical YANKEE DOODLE DANDY was made for a purpose: to support the boys fighting overseas along with war pictures such as THE FIGHTING 69TH (just before Pearl Harbor), BLOOD ON THE SUN (Japan) and 13 RUE MADELEINE (Germany)... And thank God for Cagney's ROARING/CONQUEST director Raoul Walsh and whoever else talked him into doing one more gangster flick, something it seemed he'd grown out of. WHITE HEAT has become the most famous in the Cagney canon and, followed by his only low-budget b-movie Noir, KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE, and not including his cookie-cutter gangster in a Doris Day movie, the lethal guns were put away and it was time to grow up, for good...

Betty Lou Keim as Suzy
Sad but true, and yet there are a few decent pictures in the 1950's, although none really captured the essence and aura of James Cagney. The most famous during this time was MISTER ROBERTS where his character is such a complete jackass there's not a trace of the man who could have possibly given us a person we could "Love to Hate," being poked fun at and made a fool of by Henry Fonda's title character from beginning to end... For the casual viewer, Cagney's turn is excellent, but for yours truly, it's like watching your childhood hero pinned to a dart board...

Leading us to THESE WILDER YEARS, a chance for Cagney to really, truly and literally grow up and play a man who probably never shot a gun or threatened anyone's life; although in his past he wasn't an altogether perfect guy, and that comes through as the movie progresses – beginning with an establishing shot of a giant steel corporation, and the name of the joint happens to be the last name of Cagney's Steve... Steve Bradford... And like most of his characters, he has a brisk forward-stride like some determined, unstoppable little ox... He's a gentleman though, at least behind his particularly nice attire, and has one goal in mind...

Betty Lou Keim
The plot is explained within the ten time minutes as Bradford lands in a small town and, entering an orphanage run by an equally determined Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Dempster, he whole-heartedly yearns to find the son he had given up for adoption twenty years earlier. He'll do anything in the world and that includes buying his way, since he has the power and the money to get pretty much anything he wants. But this situation turns out a lot tougher than he'd imagined...

James Cagney
Stanwyck's Ann is both assertive and vulnerable, and won't give an inch to Bradford's polite manipulation to get what he's after. There's a decent amount of chemistry between both actors, and yet the pivotal character, binding them both, is genuinely sweet and lovely enough so that the entire picture works despite an obvious attempt at manipulating an audience through unapologetic melodramatic pathos...

For the 1950's, the subject of an underaged girl being pregnant was pushing the envelope, and WILDER YEARS has enough content within to remain entertaining even through pockets of cliche dialogue leading to an extremely predictable ending, visible for miles – it is, though, the only ending that would fit the sparse small town atmosphere during the postcard-perfect (on the surface) Eisenhower era.

James Cagney with Betty Lou Keim
In Betty Lou Keim's Suzy, the movie becomes much more than a platform for two famous and talented actors, Cagney and Stanwyck, sharing screentime together while flirting with a possible romance. Some of the best scenes, however, involve a courtroom battle where Walter Pidgeon's James Rayburn, Bradford's high-price attorney, finds a loophole to acquire information on where the twenty-year old adopted-son resides. Meanwhile, a slight break of comic relief is had with Edward Andrews as the pretentious small town lawyer who, especially compared to Rayburn, doesn't know much...

His "performance" in court is awkward and even somewhat endearing, making him more sympathetic than pathetic. If anyone remembers the more passive, older grandpa in SIXTEEN CANDLES (the one who talks about "Long Duck Dong" and not Max "Boobies!" Showalter), it's the same actor, younger and still seeming old. As for the film's message: While today it's typical and standard for parents to find their grown-up children and especially vice versa, this movie, if anything else, is propaganda for the privacy of the adopted child and his foster parents.

MGM Lion's Rock-Crop Hairdo SCORE: ***1/2
This moral dilemma is evenly (albeit somewhat obviously) juxtaposed with Suzy's plight of having to possibly lose her own child to adoption after its born, just like her new friend... and at a certain point, his only friend... had done twenty years earlier. Scenes shared between teen actress Keim and veteran icon Cagney are heartfelt and poignant. Another important scene with a... very special person is more realistic and grounded, but, like much of the exterior shots on what seems to be the actual small town streets, it's hindered by an extremely bad "looping" job... Cagney's his voice obviously dubbed and, at one point as he holds back tears, he sounds like a different person... A few times you might even expect him to say, "You dirty rat," often seeming like an imitation of his former self (in truth, he never actually spoke those words outright). In fact, in a lot of ways, our man seems out of his element here, and his age, nearing fifty, shows on a face that had once been able to contort to every emotion in a span of a few seconds. He's a bit stiff and thus, limited. But for a feel-good movie, it does the job, and gives Cagney's core-fans a break from his usual routine even if that routine is very much preferred, and a whole lot more natural and inviting. Thank God for Studio contracts because during his hey-day, as already noted, there are tons of movies to choose from when he had no choice but to act and keep on acting: typecasting be damned!
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