Stanwyck / Cagney in THESE WILDER YEARS

Steve Bradford, a successful, but lonely businessman returns to his home town in hopes of finding his son who was given up for adoption twenty years before.  Bradford’s search starts at the orphanage where the child was born and through which the adoption was processed.  The orphanage is run by Ann Dempster, a woman who has dedicated her life to ensuring the placement and safety of the children in her charge.

In the course of the exchanges between Bradford and Dempster, he asks her for details concerning the whereabouts of his illegitimate son but the woman refuses to divulge information she considers private.  The two end up in court, but past statements made by a young Bradford come back to haunt him and he loses the battle.  However, a twist of fate (perhaps) leads to a brief encounter between the middle-aged man and his long, lost son – a meeting, albeit brief, that they both needed.

At peace now, destiny serves the lonely Bradford unexpected joy.  In the end, he is able to forge a family in a place and with people who need him.  I’ll leave it at that so as not to divulge everything.


That’s the premise of Roy Rowland’s, These Wilder Years (1956) the only movie Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney would make together.  The pairing had almost occurred twenty-five years earlier when Cagney was set to co-star with Ms. Stanwyck in William Wellman’s, Night Nurse (1931).  Unfortunately for us, but very fortunately for Cagney, the production for Night Nurse was delayed and by the time it was ready to shoot, Cagney’s star had shot through the stratosphere as a result of his portrayal of Tom Powers in Wellman’s The Public Enemy.  The role of the chauffeur, Nick, that Cagney was to play in Night Nurse went to a young actor named Clark Gable instead.

What would have happened if two of the silver screen’s most talented and charismatic stars co-starred in the early 1930s is anybody’s guess, but we at least have These Wilder Years to enjoy.

TOGETHER and TERRIFIC! …in a story of unforgettable warmth and impact!

Well…they are together and they are terrific, in any case. These Wilder Years is a small and quiet film – a melodrama that lacks the bite of say a Douglas Sirk movie when Sirk excelled in the genre during the 1950s.  These Wilder Years “feels” typical 1950s.  The story depicted in the film has the potential for a lot of heart, but it moves along at a leisurely pace without a twist or a turn that build to a big moment. The dialogue lacks bite, something its stars excelled at.  Still, the big moments in the film are created by the sheer power – the confidence and purpose – of Stanwyck and Cagney.  They deliver sterling performances.


At times strong and at others vulnerable, it’s wonderful to see Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney together, their chemistry is not to be trifled with – energies that are very well matched.  Cagney, as Steve Bradford, is called upon for more introspection than is Stanwyck’s, Ann Dempster and he delivers a touching performance without ever losing that recognizable Cagney stubbornness and determination. As I watched the film, it occurred to me that his familiar, quick gait should have served the director as a guide to move the story along with more purpose.  But that doesn’t happen.  Meanwhile Stanwyck exhibits her great physicality and the confidence that exudes from her every word.  In one scene in particular, just after the two meet for the first time, she goes from cordial to authoritative and back again in a matter of seconds and one can see her actually grow in stature as her stance changes depending on the mood of what she is portraying.  It’s quite something to see and one of the things I love most about watching new-to-me classics, discovering nuances in performances by actors that I am familiar with.

The bottom line on These Wilder Years is it would not be worth seeing without Stanwyck and Cagney, which is too bad because it coulda been a contender.  But they are in it.  So, enough said..


I read somewhere, and I apologize for not remembering exactly where, that Barbara Stanwyck and James Cagney enjoyed working together tremendously and were known to treat the cast and crew to an impromptu dance number from their days as hoofers in New York in the 1920s.  Oh, what I would have done to be there!


Other notable actors in These Wilder Years:   Walter Pidgeon, who plays James Rayburn, Steve Bradford’s attorney. Betty Lou Keim who plays Suzie, a teenage girl who finds herself in trouble and living in the orphanage.  Keim gives a fine, affecting performance in the film.  Since my mind was on the 1950s as I watched the film, I expected one of those teenage angst-filled performances by Keim.  Instead she is subdued, which works well while she is pitted against the gravitas of the film’s stars.  Finally, I enjoyed seeing a young Dean Jones playing a small part in Years, his first credited role.


I’m going to leave details of Barbara Stanwyck’s legendary career to others who are contributing to The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, hosted by The Girl with the White Parasol for which this post is intended.  I’ll mention only that after decades of success and making her indelible mark on the silver screen playing her trademark strong, smart women, the 1950s brought fewer such roles Stanwyck’s way.  However, I enjoy two of the films she starred in during that decade a lot.  One is Fritz Lang’s, Clash by Night (1952), a juicy film noir in which she stars opposite Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas.  I posted a commentary on that film not long ago, which you can take a look at here, if interested.  And the other is Robert Wise’s, Executive Suite, which features an all-star cast.  I know Samuel Fuller’s, Forty Guns (1957) is highly praised and was Stanwyck’s last film of the decade, but I’ve yet to see it.

In any case, in 1960 Barbara Stanwyck turned to the medium of television to host “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” winning an Emmy for her work – a well-deserved award in her new medium, while she’d been all but ignored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), receiving four Oscar nominations without a win.  Outrageous!  And don’t get me started!  Although AMPAS did honor the legend with an honorary Oscar in 1982, “For superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting.”  The American Film Institute (AFI) also recognized Stanwyck’s career with its lifetime achievement award in 1987.

As I invariably make mention of, in the long run who cares about awards.  Barbara Stanwyck remains one of the most revered and beloved of all the classic Hollywood greats.  The self-described tough dame and ultimate professional is still fascinating to watch after all these years.

“Egotism – usually just a case of mistaken nonentity.”



As I mentioned above, this post is my contribution to The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon hosted by The Girl with the White parasol.  Be sure to visit the host site to read many more posts dedicated to the legend of Barbara Stanwyck.


21 thoughts

  1. Aurora, I think you are spot on about this film – Cagney and Stanwyck are both excellent and the supporting cast are good too, but it isn’t up there with films like Sirk’s. I would love to have seen them dancing together! Enjoyed your posting a lot.

  2. Great review. I haven’t seen this film but must do now. And what a gorgeous picture of Barbara in that lovely blue dress.
    Barbara had some good films in the early 50s, though I felt her role in Executive Suite was disappointing – almost a bit part.
    Hope you see Forty Guns. It’s a doozy.

    Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

    1. Thanks, Vienna! I love that picture so just had to include it. I agree she should have played a bigger role in Executive Suite. Saddens me how quickly huge stars downgraded to supporting roles. A great cast in that film but I’ll be damned if she doesn’t remain one of the most popular of them all!

      Must catch Forty Guns somewhere.


  3. I only saw this one for the first time recently and enjoyed it more than I had expected. Love that these two old time bombs get to tick against one another over a mature topic.

    Jeeze, Cagney in Night Nurse? Stanwyck is tough, but I don’t know if I see her getting up if Cagney pops her one!

    1. I agree, Cliff. Only wish the script had had more bite to it. Or at the very least, a really heated scene between them. Oh well.

      LOL! Oh, c’mon! She’d have popped him back!


  4. Now that you mention it, it IS remarkable that they didn’t make movies together in the early 1930s. And they were both at Warner Bros. for a time, no? But, like you said, they did make this movie together and I will watch for it for that very reason.

    1. Yeah, woulda loved at least one other pairing. I chose this movie at random because I’d never seen it before preparing for this post and did so only because they are together in it. 🙂


  5. Like everyone else here, I really wish I could see all those movies Stanwyck and Cagney could have made together. They seem so perfectly matched: stronger than steel, fleet on their feet, energetic, cynical, and unpredictable. And both of them former New York vaudevillians! It is good that they did collaborate once (and enjoy the experience) but I’m greedy so I can’t help wanting more. You make a good case for These Wilder Years as a case for their talents. They were seasoned pros by that point and could enliven even rote material. Thanks for a memorable entry in the Stanwyck Blogathon!

    1. Thanks to you for hosting, Aubyn. (I love your name!)

      Yes! You say everything I tried to more succinctly. Whether as adversaries or cohorts, this is a well suited pair. I’ll be watching this one again just for them.


    1. I feel giddy just thinking about that. I imagine they’d be all serious during the shoot and the moment Rowland yelled “CUT!” the crew would scramble to get the stuff outta the way to clear the area for the hoofing!


  6. I completely agree with your review. I remember being so excited to see this film because of the stars and thinking that they deserved much better.

  7. I can’t believe I’ve never seen this. Shameful! Considering how much I adore BOTH of them. I have to find this. Thank you Aurora!

  8. Oh, Aurora, two of my favorites together! I NEED to find it! Too bad they didn’t pair in Night Nurse, a pre-Code with Cagney and Stanwyck would be even more thrilling.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Le! I’m still making the rounds to read posts from two blogathons ago! So many these days. But I will get to yours hopefully soon!


  9. Just saw These Wilder Years for first time and enjoyed it. A serious subject well handled by Cagney and Stanwyck. One scene in particular stands out – when Cagney is talking to Don Dubbins and one can see all too clearly the pain Cagney is going through. It really was his film. Barbara was fine but had little to stretch her and poor Walter Pidgeon had even less to do.
    A sign of the times how easily Barbara’s character seemed to accept that there was no alternative but to take the babies away from their young mothers and put them up for adoption.
    A thoughtful little film, maybe more suited to T V.

    1. Thanks, Vienna! I agree with all you say. If Stanwyck didn’t have the Stanwyck power the role/woman would have been even more inconsequential. Cagney’s part is the meaty one and he’s great in it. Wish the two had made more films together!!


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