Young Philadelphians, The (1959): Vincent Sherman’s Melodrama Starring Paul Newman, Barbara Rush and Robert Vaughn in Oscar-Nominated Role

Vincent Sherman’s melodrama, The Young Philadelphians, adapted to the screen by James Gunn from Richard Powell’s popular novel, deals with the social intrigues and power games among Philadelphia’s upper-middle class.

The Young Philadelphians
Young Philadelphians poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

In a follow-up to “The Long Hot Summer” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Paul Newman plays a role that fits his look and skills like a glove, a shrewd, enterprising, self-seeking man, aggressively pursuing professional success and women.

Newman’s Tony Lawrence is a handsome man with rather mysterious and dubious origins. We learn that in 1924, Tony’s mother Kate (Diane Brewster) had jilted contractor Mike Flanagan (Brian Keith) to marry socialite William Lawrence (Adam West). Unfortunately, Lawrence proved impotent on his honeymoon, and unable to accept his failure killed himself. That night, the shocked and devastated Kate had gone over to Mike and succumbed to his temptations, resulting in her giving birth to Tony.

Mike resents the fact that he must keep his parental role a secret so that the socially aspiring Kate can raise Tony as a Lawrence scion, albeit lacking the family’s money, as Lawrence’s mother, suspicious of Tony’s parentage, had decided to disinherit both.

Unaware of this lurid background and illegitimate status, Tony grows to manhood on the Main Line. He attends Princeton University, where he is admired for his looks and smarts. Instilled with his mother’s upward ambitions, he pursues a law career with ferocious intensity. In due time Tony falls for Joan Dickinson (Barbara Rush), the daughter of prominent lawyer Gilbert Dickinson (John Williams). Dickinson then slyly arranges for a post-law school position in his law office, provided that Tony postpones his marriage to his daughter, and Tony accepts his conditions. Disillusioned and deeply hurt by Tony’s conduct, Joan goes on to marry another man, Carter Henry (Fred Eisley), who is later killed in the Korean War.

Tony schemes Louis Donetti (Paul Picerni) out of a summer assistantship to big-shot lawyer John Wharton (Otto Kruger) by manipulating Wharton’s frustrated wife, who sows interest in him. Mrs. Wharton (Alexis Smith) lust after Tony while her elderly husband is down the hall, but he rebuffs her by pretending he wants to marry her.

Tony’s maneuverings in Philadelphia are interrupted by Korean War service, in which his classmate and buddy, Chester Gwynn (Robert Vaughn) loses an arm. After the war, is back to his old tricks, wheeling-and-dealing, this time in Wharton’s law firm. He also begins to romance the sad but still infatuated Joan, who’s now a widow. Among his schemes is manipulating the shrewd multi-millionairess Mrs. J. Arthur Allen (Billie Burke), pointing out ways she can save on corporate taxes.

As Ton’y success grows, he is urged by Mike Flanagan to enter into the political arena. Upon learning that Gwynn has been accused unjustly of murdering his conniving uncle Morton Stearnes (Robert Douglas), who has been withholding his inheritance for specious reasons, Tony decides to defend him in his murder trial. Doctor Stearnes (Frank Conroy) threatens to reveal the Tony’s real parentage, if Tony brings out the Stearnes’ family skeletons while defending Gwynn.

Pressured by Doctor Stearnes, Kate and Mike reveal to Tony his true ancestry. Joan and Tony quarrel again over his opportunism and part, but Tony, characteristically undeterred by these catastrophes, determines to free Gwynn at any cost. He brings the trial to a successful conclusion, getting Gwynn acquitted, based on the revelation that his supposedly murdered uncle had actually committed suicide because of ill-health. Joan’s faith in Tony’s integrity and honesty is restored, and the couple exits the courtroom together, facing a better future.

Vet director Vincent Sherman, who had helmed melodramas starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis (with both of whom he had affairs), gave the melodrama fast pacing and slick if impersonal look that somehow compensated for the melodrama’s indulgent running time (136 minutes). End result is a glossy, well acted, intermittently entertaining picture, which moved along swiftly from one subplot to another.

The movie was commercially successful at the box office, solidifying the star power of Paul Newman, who looks extremely handsome clad in white suits, as one of Hollywood’s most bankable players.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 3

Supporting Actor: Robert Vaughn
Cinematography (b/w): Harry Stradling
Costume Design (b/w): Howard Shoup

Oscar Awards: None

The winners in those categories were: Supporting Actor Hugh Griffith for “Ben-Hur,” cinematographer William C. Mellor for “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and Orry-Kelly for the costumes of Billy Wilder’s comedy “Some Like It Hot.”

Paul Newman as Anthony “Tony” Judson Lawrence / Narrator
Barbara Rush as Joan Dickinson
Alexis Smith as Carol Wharton
Brian Keith as Mike Flanagan
Diane Brewster as Kate Judson Lawrence
Billie Burke as Mrs. J. Arthur Allen, Owner Allen Oil Co.
John Williams as Gilbert Dickinson
Robert Vaughn as Chester A. “Chet” Gwynn
Otto Kruger as John Marshall Wharton, Partner at the law firm of Wharton Biddle Clayton
Paul Picerni as Louis Donetti
Robert Douglas as Morton Stearnes
Frank Conroy as Dr. Shippen Stearnes
Adam West as William Lawrence III
Anthony Eisley as Carter Henry
Richard Deacon as George Archibald


Directed by Vincent Sherman.
Screenplay by James Gunn.
From the novel The Philadelphian by Richard Powell.
Director of Photography, Harry Stradling, Sr., A.S.C.
Art Director, Malcolm Bert.
Film Editor, William Ziegler.
Music by Ernest Gold.
Musical Supervision by Ray Heindorf.
Sound by Stanley Jones.
Main Title designed by Maurice Binder.
Costumes designed by Howard Shoup.
Set decorations, John P. Austin.
Makeup Supervision, Borden Bau, S.M.A.
Assistant director, William Kissel

Running time: 136 Minutes.