Young Philadelphians The (1959) – full review!
This outstanding drama which was directed by Vincent Sherman and written by James Gunn who adapted Richard Powell’s intricate novel The Philadelphians features (supporting actor) Robert Vaughn’s only Academy Award nominated performance; Harry Stradling Sr.’s B&W Cinematography also received a nomination as did the film’s Costume Design (Howard Shoup’s first Oscar nod). Paul Newman headlines a terrific cast that includes Barbara Rush Alexis Smith Brian Keith Diane Brewster Billie Burke John Williams Otto Kruger Paul Picerni Robert Douglas Frank Conroy and Anthony (as Fred) Eisley. Adam West appears briefly in the prologue as does Isobel Elsom (uncredited). The story begins with wedding night jitters (a vague reference to homosexuality?) followed by an illegitimate birth but its focus is on class distinctions lawyering and sex; it ends with Vaughn’s character on trial for murder and a serviceable courtroom drama. The plot is compelling enough and its pace and intricacy belie the fact that this movie runs more than 2 hours and 15 minutes (you won’t even feel it).
Newman briefly narrates the opening scene of his character’s beginning. Kate (Diane Brewster) marries William Lawrence III (West) for his money in lieu of the working class ‘stiff’ she really loves construction worker Mike Flanagan (Keith). But after a brief disillusioning moment on her wedding night – her newlywed husband seems ill equipped to consummate their marriage says he’s been living a lie and runs out on her after a brief forced kiss – she returns to Mike who apparently has no problem finishing the job. When Kate wonders home to her mother (and grandmother?) at 4 AM she learns that she’s a young widow – her husband had been killed when his too-fast-traveling car crashed. (Presumably) nine months later when Kate is recovering from childbirth Mrs. Lawrence (Elsom) visits her knowing all too well that the baby can’t be her son’s child. But instead of taking a payoff Kate informs her ex-mother-in-law that she’ll be keeping the family name and calling her son Anthony Judson Lawrence. Later when Mike arrives to propose to her class conscious Kate won’t have him and insists that he not return; over the years she uses the Lawrence name to serve on high society committees and sacrifices to provide the best for her son.
When Anthony (Newman) is in his early twenties he’s a scholar at Princeton who’s about to graduate and enter law school though he works summers for construction business owner Mike who pays well and calls the lad Tony. On the job one day he meets and helps Joan Dickinson (Rush) who’d just been in an automobile accident (a fender bender). Later attending a society party with his best friend (the frequently inebriated) Chester A. ‘Chet’ Gwynn (Vaughn) he bumps into her again. She’s dating Carter Henry (Eisley) who’s worth $20 million but has yet to propose to her. Joan and Anthony hit it off and begin dating while Carter’s away for the summer – on his budget he takes her to hamburger joints (she’s a “chili” gal). They fall in love and at the end of the summer when Anthony’s about to return to college Jane meets with Chet to ask him how she could keep him. He advises her to use the old fashioned way (e.g. get pregnant). Jane then succeeds in getting Anthony interested enough to propose but on their way to eloping they’re stopped by her father one of the city’s most celebrated lawyers Gilbert Dickinson (Williams). Dickinson manipulates the situation by volunteering to be Anthony’s preceptor and then offering him a to-die-for future that includes a position with his firm that should eventually lead to a partnership if he’ll only wait until June (the end of the next school year) to marry his daughter. Anthony jumps at the offer but allows Mr. Dickinson to explain the arrangement to Jane which of course he presents in a different light making her feel like she’d been being used by Anthony.
By Christmastime Anthony meets with Dickinson and learns that Jane who’d stopped writing him has married Carter after all. Naturally he then goes to get drunk with his pal Chet. Later however he decides to get even. He hears from a fellow student Louis Donetti (Picerni) that John Marshall Wharton (Kruger) a partner in the prestigious law firm of Wharton Biddle & Clayton is working on a Sherman Anti-Trust brief so he schemes to get the internship in part by charming the old lawyer’s much younger wife Carol (Smith). But an affair between Anthony and Carol never really develops and realizing his pupil’s restraint Wharton offers the young graduate a position which proves to be fairly boring for him until Mrs. J. Arthur Allen (Burke) walks in one day with her small dog the following Christmas. Burke is a delight playing a wealthy widow who’s still managing her husband’s oil company fortune the way she played so many dizzy but “wise” roles in those screwball classics of the 1930’s. Mrs. Allen had been a client of Dickinson’s firm but Anthony coyly wins her business by saving her money on taxes (a relatively new field!) impressing (her) and ultimately reconciling & reuniting with Dickinson’s daughter Jane now the widowed Mrs. Henry. Ten years had passed and Anthony had served in the war with Chet who’d lost an arm and Carter had been killed in the conflict in which he’d volunteered to serve per problems at home.
Now Chet who’d always been a problem – a spoiled (and probably otherwise neglected) youth of affluent but now deceased parents whose estate is controlled by his disapproving uncle Morton Stearnes (Douglas) and Doctor Stearnes (Conroy) a purveyor of the “genes vs. environment” theory – is accused of murdering his uncle. Of course he wants his ill-suited corporate lawyer friend Anthony to represent him against District Attorney Donetti who doesn’t really hold a grudge against him for winning the Wharton assignment all those years before instead of whomever the Stearnes want to hire. Even though trying the case may hurt his reputation and position in society like running for the city council which had been proposed by Mike (and Donetti) some time earlier Anthony is loyal to a fault and decides to do so against everyone but Jane’s wishes. But Doctor Stearnes who’d been privy to certain information from Mrs. Lawrence visits Kate and more or less threatens to reveal her son’s questionable past if Anthony stains their family’s name in court. Still Anthony is able to deftly discredit (by tricking) the state’s star witness on which their case was based Morton’s confident alcohol discriminating nosed butler George Archibald (Richard Deacon best known as Mel on TV’s Dick Van Dyke Show) during cross examination. He then introduces the possibility of suicide with Doctor Stearnes on the stand to ultimately win the day saving his friend while living up to Jane’s high expectations bringing (her to tears and the melodrama to) a satisfactory conclusion.