By 1959, Paul Newman's career was moving into high gear, with CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, THE LONG, HOT SUMMER, and SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME all critical and commercial successes. Even his harshest critics grudgingly admitted he was far more than just a "Brando look-alike" (as he had been labeled in his first films), but his contract to Warner Bros. forced him to also appear in potboilers (THE HELEN MORGAN STORY), and misguided comedies (RALLY 'ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS!), and Newman was chafing at the bit to be able to pick and choose his own projects.
Vincent Sherman's THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS, the last film under Newman's WB contract, proved to be one of the best, and he showed the dazzling sexuality and near-arrogant confidence that would mark many of his films of the next decade. As Anthony Judson Lawrence, illegitimate son of Brian Keith (performed with a brogue and a wink, as Keith was, actually, less than 4 years older than Newman), and social climbing mother Diane Brewster, he carried the name of an 'upper crust' father (Adam West, as wooden as he would be in "Batman"), whose homosexuality had been carefully hidden and whose inability to 'perform' and suicidal death on his wedding night would result in a 'deal' between mother and in-laws; the boy could keep the name, but would not have access to the family fortune.
Flashing ahead a few years, Lawrence is a strapping, 'blue collar' kind of guy, much to the chagrin of his mother, who hopes that his name will gain him inroads into Philadelphia 'society'. Working construction with his (yet unknown to him) birth father, between semesters at law school, he meets pretty socialite Joan Dickinson (Barbara Rush), who quickly falls for his sweaty, sexy charm. Lawrence's best friend, to his mother's relief, is alcoholic fellow student 'Chet' Gwynn (Robert Vaughn, in an Oscar-nominated role), heir of another elite family, who sees in Lawrence a personal courage he lacks. Vaughn's performance is a film highlight, quite similar to Lew Ayres' role in HOLIDAY, twenty years earlier, through the early part of the film.
Young Lawrence is fighting his mother's battle for acceptance, and, in the first of several 'upwardly mobile' decisions, he postpones a quick marriage to Joan, in return for help in his law career. While he is convinced the delay would help the two of them, it costs him her love. Bitterly, he decides to 'play the game', using whatever means necessary to get ahead. With a brief interruption by the Korean War, his career flourishes, aided by a willingness to use 'inside' information to obtain a choice clerking appointment, while toying with a near-affair with the 'younger' wife of the aged lawyer he is studying with (Alexis Smith, gloriously beautiful at 38). When he achieves a spot in a prestigious law firm, he 'woos' a major client (Billie Burke) over to him. With unscrupulous ease, he reaches a pinnacle his mother had only dreamed of.
But Lawrence's world is about to come crashing down, as Gwynn, his college friend, crippled in Korea, has been arrested for murder, and begs the lawyer to represent him. The trial promises to expose the seamy underbelly of Philadelphia society, revealing secrets that could destroy many lives, including his own.
Lawrence faces a moral dilemma, whether to save his friend, or preserve the fiction of his own life...
Entertaining and at times powerful, THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS is a fitting conclusion to the early stage of Paul Newman's career; ahead was EXODUS, and a decade of roles that would cement his position as a superstar!
42 out of 47 found this helpful