Thursday 18 March 2021

Movie Review: The Young Philadelphians (1959)

An epic family drama, The Young Philadelphians is a sprawling story of romance and ambition. Undoubtedly sudsy, it is also undeniably engrossing.

On her wedding night, Kate Judson (Diane Brewster) is abandoned by her new husband William (Adam West) of the highly respected Lawrence family. She seeks comfort with her other lover, construction company owner Mike Flanagan (Brian Keith), and conceives a son. Kate ensures her newborn carries the Lawrence name to improve his societal standing. 

Tony Lawrence (Paul Newman) grows up under the watchful eyes of Kate and Mike. As a young man studying law he befriends playboy Chet Gwynn (Robert Vaughn), who is in line to inherit a large trust fund but is having difficulties with his stodgy guardians. Tony's first love is Joan Dickinson (Barbara Rush), but her father Gilbert (John Williams), a respected lawyer, delays their impetuous marriage plans by promising to mentor Tony after he graduates. A distraught Joan marries Carter Henry (Anthony Eisley) instead.

Tony adopts a more ruthless streak and secures a position with John Marshall Wharton (Otto Kruger), who runs the most prestigious law firm in Philadelphia. He navigates the passionate advances of Wharton's younger wife Carol (Alexis Smith). After serving in the Korean War and helping a severely wounded Chet, Tony makes a name for himself as a tax lawyer. Still to come is a difficult reunion with Joan, and a court case involving Chet that threatens everything Tony has achieved.

An adaptation of the Richard P. Powell book, The Young Philadelphians is two hours and twenty minutes of captivating storytelling. Producer James Gunn also the wrote the screenplay, and embraces the chapter-like structure with brisk pacing, trusting the audience to keep up with the many ups and downs experienced by Tony Lawrence. Director Vincent Sherman is more functional than flamboyant, but does infuse the narrative with a sense of elegant quality. 

The episodes are held together by several overarching themes. Mom Kate and secret dad Mike nurture their son from a distance, trying to influence and help Tony without revealing his true lineage. The passion between Tony and Joan sparks early, and after she marries someone else they have various encounters over the years, two individuals who understand each other best to the point of inflicting both pain and joy.

But the narrative's most persistent thread is Tony's perfect imperfection, his pursuit of prestige and career glory sometimes causing him to trample on others, but also creating opportunities to help and exert expanded influence. Tony learns early a certain ruthlessness is required to climb the ladder, then has to modulate in accordance with his moral code.

The final chapter is a court case gathering up all the accumulated complexities of Tony's life. Gunn and Sherman demonstrate courage to present the complicated trial in sufficient detail to heighten the drama, although the ability of a tax lawyer to shine in a high profile criminal case begins to stretch credibility.

Paul Newman is a mixture of easy intensity and marginal over-emoting, but carries the load lightly. Robert Vaughn earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for a pivotal role full of churning anguish. Alexis Smith, in a small role, leaves an indelible mark as a younger wife looking for adventure, and Barbara Rush adds a sparkle as Joan, although she is less prominent after the opening third.

The Young Philadelphians enjoy lives and loves full of twists and turns, most of them delivered with aplomb.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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