These Wilder Years (1954): Roy Rowland’s Adoption Melodrama, Starring James Cagney and Stanwyck in their Only Film Together

Roy Rowland directed These Wilder Years, a minor adoption melodrama, starring James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

It is the story of a businessman who tries to find the illegitimate son he gave up to an orphanage many years ago.

The film marked the first and only onscreen pairing of Hollywood stars Cagney and Stanwyck.

A Detroit business tycoon, Steve Bradford, tells his board of directors that he is taking a leave of absence. He travels to his small hometown, aiming to find a son he had put up for adoption 20 years before.

Steve turns to Ann Dempster, who runs an orphanage, explaining how he has achieved success in life, but feels a void left by his absent and unknown son. Ann explains that she is required to conceal the identity of foster children and parents. Steve tries charming her, even bribing, but to no avail.

He then brings in his lawyer, James Rayburn, to seek other ways of finding the boy.

Although he has befriended Ann, he betrays her with charge of fraud, resulting in courtroom hearing. A furious Ann digs up records that prove how Steve specifically expressed no wish to ever see his child.

At the orphanage, he strikes up an acquaintance with Suzie, a girl of 16 expecting a baby, abandoned by the child’s father. Steve takes personal interest in the girl, particularly after she is involved in accident and needs surgery that might endanger the baby.

With the case dismissed and overcome with guilt, Steve goes bowling. He is approached by a young man named Mark Nelson, who turns out to be his missing son. Nelson claimed he had been following the progress of the trial.

They have a heart to heart talk and part with no plans to be in each other’s lives. Steve believes that the seemingly coincidental meeting was arranged by Ann out of goodness.

In the happy ending, Steve adopts Suzie so she doesn’t have to give up her child and she names her son after him.

A minor work in the respective careers of both Cagney and Stanwyck, These Wilder Years was a commercial flop.

James Cagney as Steve Bradford
Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Dempster
Walter Pidgeon as James Rayburn
Betty Lou Keim as Suzie
Don Dubbins as Mark
Edward Andrews as Mr. Spottsford
Basil Ruysdael as Judge
Grandon Rhodes as Roy Oliphant
Will Wright as Old Cab Driver
Lewis Martin as Dr. Miller
Dorothy Adams as Aunt Martha
Dean Jones as Hardware Clerk
Mary Lawrence as Mrs. Callahan
Herb Vigran as Traffic Cop
Michael Landon as Boy in pool hall
Tom Laughlin as Football player on airplane

Box office
The film earned $572,000 in the US and $305,000 elsewhere, resulting in a loss of $600,000.


TCM showed the movie on August 30, 2021.