The Young Philadelphians (1959): Paul Newman Takes on Family Skeletons

young phil

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.

3.5/5 Stars

Gentleman Jim (1942): Biopic by Marquess of Queensberry Rules

Gentleman_Jim_-_Poster.jpgBoxing movies and biopics are a mainstay of Hollywood. It’s an established fact so naming names is all but unnecessary. The affable brilliance of Gentleman Jim is its agile footwork allowing it to sidestep a myriad of tropes attached to biopics and the schmaltz that Old Hollywood was always capable of serving up.

Certainly, a great deal of credit must be heaped upon Errol Flynn who seems to relish the very opportunity to portray such a magnetic man as James J. Corbett — always perceptive and driven with a bevy of tricks at his disposal to get ahead. I can’t help but hear Butch Cassidy’s words in my ears, “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals. Corbett could live by that credo too.

Authenticity is to be trodden upon softly and so there is a sense Flynn has taken the “gentleman” moniker of his namesake and fashioned the role around his own roguish charm, good looks, and irrefutable charisma. Thus, it becomes almost second nature for him to play the part because there’s this sense that he’s playing what he knows best, and loving every minute of it.

He’s meant to come from hardy Irish stock with a jovial father (Alan Hale), two boisterous older brothers, an awestruck sister, and the ever maternal mother figure. Around all these types Flynn and Jim feel like outliers. They’re not meant to fit into this family and yet it somehow manages to work — Marty McFly anyone?

The script, co-written by Vincent Lawrence and Horace McCoy, begins by drawing up the story in a most agreeable fashion that takes into account our hero’s life but also considers any number of stray antecedents that led to his rise in the boxing world.

Boxing in its most barbaric forms is being outlawed across the nation. Jim and his hapless buddy Walter (Jack Carson) spy the prominent higher-up from their bank at a fight only to have the police raid the event. Soon they’re all in prison with their prominent friend and Jim sees it as the perfect opportunity to earn some favor. Soon Judge Geary has brought on his young protege as a new brand of fighter: one with class.

Being a fast worker, Jim gets himself into the elitist Olympic Club doing his best to look the part of a  well-to-do gentleman, despite hardly having a dollar to his name. Concurrently he begins annoying the gentleman around him with his constant stream of boys sent around paging him.

It becomes quickly apparent that Gentleman Jim exists in a world, not unlike that of Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde (1941), where America seemed to have acquired a newfound propriety. Nasty pugilism had been replaced with marquess Queensberry Rules and someone like Jim Corbett was able to become something.

He soon is acquainted with Ms. Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith) who along with her family are members of the social elite and patrons of the bank. I must admit that the Canadian actress has all but slunk under my radar aside from her part in Conflict opposite Bogart.

But I have rectified the oversight because she gives a lovely turn opposite Flynn allowing the sparks to fly in the most vehement way possible. High-class respectability can only get you so far. Sometimes you just want to see someone get wailed on for their own good.

She has just about enough of his conceited ways finding him utterly infuriating with his faux polished manners and overblown head. He has the gall to criticize her idol worshipping of such an eminent legend as John L. Sullivan. Corbett being an utter nobody himself. But he’s got ideas and the fancy feet to go someplace.

Upon leaving their little tiff, he dances his way back down the street zigzagging through oncoming passerby. He’s got John L. Sullivan (an impeccably cast Ward Bond) on the mind now. Because there was no bigger national hero, icon, and legend than John L. Sullivan. The film even evokes the famous phrase, “I just shook the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan!” He was that big of a celebrity.

Backed by William Frawley in his corner, Corbett is soon on the rise taking on anyone who will get him some visibility. In the ring, the suave-looking Irishman is a model of agility and impeccable footwork. Though Flynn, to his credit, stood in for most of the scenes his flying feet were spotted by world-class former welterweight Mushy Callahan.

Many of the sequences capture the immersive even suffocating atmosphere of a boxing match through fairly furious cutting, especially for an old film. Inserting shots of the ring, mincing feet, and a flurry of audience reactions throwing together a swirling experience.

The most frenzied is a back and forth river barge slugfest with haymaker after haymaker flying through the air. Corbett and his hulking opponent wind up decking each other flat again and again.  Flynn takes a plunge into the water only to lay out his competitor for good minutes later.

The victor is finally raised as the police arrive on the scene to crash the proceedings and all the spectators jump ship in the most tumultuous and mayhem-filled denouements to a fight you’ve ever witnessed. The beauty is we get an almost birdseye view of the madness from the cheap seats and we see on what a large scale everyone is frantically escaping. Jumping into the drink. Screaming and shouting. It’s the kind of bedlam that’s contagious and a real enjoyment from reel to reel for some inexplicable reason.

Surely the fight to top them all is Jim Corbett against John L. Sullivan. But just as important as the actual bout is the skirmish going on outside the ropes. As the telegraph lines are flooding the country with news round after round, Corbett’s clandestine backer watches expectantly for him to get clobbered.

Meanwhile, Ms. Ware’s father with a glint in his eye eggs her on very tenderly toward the most antagonistic man in her life and subsequently the most important. In the movies at least, the people who detest each other the most wind up making the most passionate romances.

Aside from love, Gentleman Jim is refreshingly light on heart-wrenching drama or needless sentiment for that matter. It slips up in one solitary moment where a gracious Sullivan looks back wistfully at an illustrious career and pays his respects to Gentleman Jim. If anything it shows that Flynn can play genuine just as he can slather on the charm.

For contemporary audiences, it no doubt carried a sardonic edge as the actor was simultaneously embroiled in a scurrilous court trial that all but ruined his reputation for months on end.

Regardless, standing on its own merit, Gentleman Jim might just be one of my new favorite boxing exhibitions and the key is that there’s seemingly no agenda. It ebbs and flows around a life and characters without concerted realism or a need for continual heightened drama. And yet we still find it compelling and jovial with all sorts of moments worth telling the folks at home about.

In fact, that might just be Raoul Walsh’s finest attributes making every scene, action, brawl, what-have-you, totally immersive, effectively involving the audience through his array of shots. While Flynn and Smith are finally in each other’s arms, Jack Carson makes one final call straight to the camera shouting that the Corbett boys are at it again, duking it out in the parlor. Some things never change and the beauty is that we’re in on the joke as much as anyone within the frame. What a delightful biopic. Shamelessly fun to the very last word.

4.5/5 Stars