What’s most intriguing about The Young Philadelphians is how it manages to be a composite of several standalone genres. It’s a rags-to-riches tale. There’s romance. Stunning courtroom drama. But the sinew holding it together are sudsy soap opera tendencies.
Like most any life, our story begins before our main character, Tony Lawrence (Paul Newman), was ever born. Back in the old days, his mother (Diane Brewster) was to have a church wedding with William Lawrence III, a man who was desirable solely due to his family name. Being attentive to such things, Kate is happy to marry him — leaving behind a lifelong friend Mike Flannagan (Robert Keith) to drown his sorrows.
What unravels in a matter of seconds is the kind of juicy drama offering up Adam “Batman” West himself in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-it debut, though he does have a crucial role in the ensuing tale. There are implied sordid details that need not be parsed through now. Regardless, Kate is left as a widow and looks to raise up her infant son to bear the reputable name of Lawrence. He doesn’t know his protective mother is sitting on a stick of dynamite for the sake of her son.
Tony grows up to be a fine, strapping young man of substance. The instant magnetism of Paul Newman is on full display. Not animal magnetism but the kind of charisma that would keep him a beloved figure long after many of his peers from the Actors Studio had mostly dissolved and given way to younger talent. The intensity comes later.
For now, he’s a Princeton boy working in construction because it pays the bills, though his ambitions are to pursue law — all in due time. What follows at the worksite is a contrived meet-cute but no less delightful do to the instant charm of Paul Newman and Barbara Rush. Not only are they beautiful people, but they have a playful rapport to back it up.
Later, he attends a high society party — his mother hopes he can make some invaluable social contacts — but he consorts with Chester Gwyn (Robert Vaughan), a prodigal rich boy with greased back hair and a penchant for getting plastered. His relatives, who run his trust fund, heartily disapprove of his carrying on even as Tony impresses them.
The other person of interest is the same debutant, Joan Dickinson (Rush), who tells them all her classmates are married to very nice young fellows, cautious prudent young men with button-down families. All and all, they are representative of the idle and affluent segment of society looking to find a nice life for themselves complete with a fine salary, a gorgeous wife, and an equally gorgeous home to boot. For those who haven’t had to work like Tony, it sounds like utter drudgery. It’s a lifestyle that has eaten many people like Chet and Joan alive as it molds them into their assigned conventions.
In their own way, Tony and Joan look to pursue their own happiness which — although it fits within the confines of society — still has a hint of the reckless, impetuousness of youth. They still have enough fervor and passion in their chests to see the world as an idealistic space meant to be conquered. However, their parents have other plans for them…
In mere moments, the entire story careens in another direction with twists and turns worthy of a soap opera. Suddenly, the romance burning between them is snuffed out and sullied by insinuations. Tony learns the rules of the game the hard way. Society, as they know it, is built on the bedrock of backroom deals, saving face, and family reputations.
He resorts to making the connections, climbing the social ladder, and running into some old acquaintances. It’s in these crucial interludes where Newman channels his youthful intensity by ripping off the band-aid of a broken relationship and charging forward with a newfound tenacity. Under the circumstances, he foregoes the law firm of the reputable Mr. Dickinson (John Williams) and makes a name for himself in the service of someone else. He lands a big fish by swiping one of his largest clients (played by the perennially bubbly Billie Burke), who literally wanders into his office.
Even as he’s driven by his own private ambitions, Lawrence never completely sheds his conscience. He rebuffs the advances of his boss’s sex-crazed wife (Alexis Smith), stomping out an affair before it can begin.
With the passage of time, we are led to ponder how these lives could have ended differently if given the chance? Tony is still unmarried. Joan found a rich money bags, who unfortunately died fighting in Korea. The war also took Chet’s arm leaving him a crippled and degenerate drunk.
In fact, Vaughan gives the final act all he has, and he is one of the film’s unsung heroes; he provides some outward manifestation of the myriad of issues conveniently swept under the rug by the city’s foremost families. When he hits the papers with a murder rap pinned on him, it rattles all the skeletons buried in the closets. His patriarch, the esteemed Dr. Shippen Stearns even says, “individuals are less important than the whole.” What matters is coming out of the mess without a scandal.
I do adore Billie Burke particularly because we never saw enough of her in this later period of her career, and she still brings the same genial energy she always had in her golden years. She’s another outlier in the film’s stuffy landscape.
However, it’s also a test of Tony’s true character as he juggles his own reservations and allegiances to people like his mother and Chet. Joan reopens wounds, now a decade old, going to the core of who they are as human beings — their ambitions and the ways that they have been changed due to the hotbed of the surrounding society.
It’s the kind of scene I wanted to playback because it feels like it comes at us out of nowhere. She wants to hire another lawyer to take him out of the grinder — fearing he may have sold out again — and he proceeds to bristle knowing he never meant to sell out. At least not really. Their fight, if we can call it that, is what spurs him on in the courtroom. However, there is something else.
We remember where this story began. His mother is forced to tell him something about his untold life and what happened before he was born. Suddenly, this isn’t just a matter of someone else’s life — that would be enough — but this holds implications for his reputation and that of his mother’s. Everything hangs in the balance.
So when he gets to the courtroom the stakes are heady. But he comes at the case with a level of acumen and genuine discernment (although the judge does seem to be giving him far more favor than the prosecutor receives). This observation is mostly immaterial. He puts the key witness, George Archibald (Richard Deacon), up on the stand and does everything he’s been training his whole life to do.
Somehow he’s never spoken a truer word when he says, “I’m not as good as I hoped I could be, but I’m not as bad as I thought I was.” Let them sink in for a moment. As we look on, we see a man who has found his happy medium as he’s slowly learned to be contented with the life put before him without any regrets. He can walk out of that courtroom, his best girl in hand, confident that his reputation is intact, but most importantly his moral conscience is as well. And we are right there with him.