The Paul Newman Collection: The Young Philadelphians Review

Anthony Judson “Tony” Lawrence (Paul Newman) tells us his story, which begins before he was even born. When her husband confesses that he cannot love her on their wedding night and rushes off to die in a car accident, Kate (Diane Brewster) seeks solace with her blue-collar real love, Mike Flanagan (Brian Keith). Kate and Anthony get to keep their prestigious married/family name of Lawrence, but the boy’s real origins are kept secret from him as he grows up to become a top-flight law student. He soon catches the eye of Joan (Barbara Rush), whose father Gilbert Dickinson (John Williams) runs a top law firm…

The Young Philadelphians is based on a novel (called, simply, The Philadelphian) by Richard Powell. A big bestseller in its day, I daresay it’s hardly read now – I certainly haven’t. Adapted by James Gunn, the film has a somewhat episodic structure, resolving each one before moving on to the next. So, in the first quarter hour we have the story of Tony’s origins. Then, amongst others we have the love story of Tony and Joan, which ends when her father intervenes. There’s an interlude in the Korean War, and another where Tony is tempted into an affair with a woman married to a much older man. Finally, the film becomes a courtroom drama as Tony (by now a top-flight tax specialist) is persuaded to defend a friend in a murder trial.

The film was made at a time when television was losing its previously captive audience to television. Literature was then pushing the boundaries of acceptability rather further than the movies could, which resulted in all types of code to get all kinds of lurid material past the Hays Office. You can look for secret gays in pre-60s Hollywood films, and Kate’s hapless husband is a prime example of one. Kate’s tryst with Mike interrupts his drunken bringing home of a prostitute. All of this is shown, for viewers to pick up, rather than spelled out in dialogue. Later in the film we are treated to alcoholism and extra-marital sex, not to mention one character losing an arm and the whole episode of the murder trial. All this is presented at a fast pace by director Vincent Sherman and the film as a whole is a high-gloss product of Warners, with Harry Stradling Sr’s black and white camerawork and Malcolm Bert’s art direction as standouts.

The film was designed partly as a Paul Newman star vehicle. Once again playing younger than his real age (33), he puts his charisma to good use, making sympathetic for a character who could have become opportunistic in others. He’s backed up by a very solid supporting cast. But the standout is Robert Vaughn as Tony’s friend Chet, an eye-catching performance that earned him an Oscar nomination.

The Young Philadelphians is out and out melodrama that’s kept this side of going completely over the top into camp by quality of craft on both sides of the camera. Catnip for audiences in 1959, it remains highly entertaining nearly fifty years later.

The Young Philadelphians forms part of the seven-film Paul Newman Collection box set. Along with Pocket Money, it is one of two titles not included in the UK version of the set. The disc itself is encoded for Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Presented in 1.78:1, slightly opened up from the intended 1.85:1, this is another high-quality black and white transfer from Warners, with strong blacks, clear whites and lots of shades of grey in between. The presence of some reel-change cue dots may annoy some, but I’d hardly call that a flaw.

The soundtrack is the original mono, for some reason 2.0 instead of the 1.0 of the other discs in the set. Also, this time there is no French dub included. Again, I have no complaints – it’s clear and well balanced, just as much a product of Hollywood craftsmanship as anything else in the film.

The main extra is a commentary, featuring film historian Drew Casper and director Vincent Sherman. The latter must have been very elderly when this was recorded (he died in June 2006 a month short of his hundredth birthday) but he’s clear enough. The two men are edited together, with Sherman mainly providing anecdotes and Casper being more theoretical, in particular placing the film in the genre of the “male melodrama” which flourished in the 1950s. This isn’t an especially scene-specific chat, but is a consistently interesting one. Also on the disc is the theatrical trailer, more of a TV spot really as it is in 4:3, brief (0:39) and appropriately lurid.

The Young Philadelphians is an enjoyable two and a quarter hours, and it’s a pity that it is excluded from the British version of this boxset. Unless they cannot play NTSC DVDs, there’s nothing to prevent a British buyer from importing this set, not even the region coding, and it may well be worth doing just that.

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