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Thursday, July 13, 2017

THESE WILDER YEARS (1956)

After a rough patch in the early ‘50s, James Cagney returned to form with four films in ‘55, including top-grosser MISTER ROBERTS & an Oscar® nom. for LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME. Still able to set you back on your heels when needed (see SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL/’59; ONE, TWO, THREE/’61), he also worked a gentler side, as here in this sentimental stroll to find the boy he fathered, then deserted, before becoming one of America’s top industrialists, back in his college days. (Supposedly twenty years ago, though he looks, and it feels, more like 30.) Barbara Stanwyck, softer than her norm at the time, is doyen at a ‘fallen women’ home, placing the illegitimate offspring with upstanding married couples, and obstacle to Cagney’s quest. Pulled into court by slick company lawyer Walter Pidgeon, the attitudes on single/teenage moms & adoptee rights have changed enough to add some interest to the proceedings . . . just not enough. Roy Rowland, a drab director with a positive horror of style, pace or rhythm, goes along with the prevailing flattened look of the day: compressed grey scale, even lighting across the frame, the tv-ready look. Fortunately, all three leads take care of themselves and manage to create a semblance of dramatic motion until the mawkish subplot takes over. (Fresh-faced pregnant kid with health crisis. Yikes!) The film lines up three bathetic minefields in a row for a finish, and even Cagney can only take the stink off two of them.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: Dean Jones earned his debut credit with a nice little bit that has you thinking he might be Cagney’s boy. Turns out, it’s Don Dubbins, whom Cagney does wonders for in a surprisingly touching, only slightly forced, scene.

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