These Wilder Years (1956) is a film trying to make a point, and it does a good job of it. In 1956, once a child was given up for adoption, the natural parents had no rights - after all, most adoptions were results of unwed relationships, and the mother was considered morally suspect (see The Adoption History Project for more information on the topic). Children of adoption were discouraged from seeking out their natural parents; records were closed, ostensibly to protect the child. It wasn't until the 1970s that a movement began to open adoption records, and allow birth parents and their offspring to connect. (Not that this was the first film about adoption - Our Very Own in 1950 had already tread the ground, though the marital status of Gail's parents is underplayed. And Blossoms in the Dust (1941) had looked at adoption through the lens of the illegitimate child.). Thus, the idea of a parent - an illegitimate parent - wanting to contact his child was fairly new and perhaps dicey.
Let's get it on the table that there isn't ANYTHING that James Cagney cannot do. Naturally, he is excellent in this film - he is able to make you both like and loathe Steve Bradford simultaneously. As the facts about Steve's past actions are revealed, a lesser actor would lose his audience. Cagney, however, keeps the viewer engaged - his eyes reveal the disgust that he feels for himself; thus, you root for him to find some semblance of peace.
That Stanwyck and Cagney only appeared in the same film this one time is a shame, as they are wonderful together. Stanwyck has the capacity to go toe-to-toe with this tough guy and not blink, yet at the same time retain her dignity and femininity. Ann's integrity shines from Stanwyck; at the same time, she portrays a sympathy for him that is genuine. However, you never worry that she will pull the routine of sacrificing her integrity for the man she loves. If Ann does start to love Steve (though the real "romance" here is Steve and Suzie), it is not something that gets in the way of her ability to perform her job. Stanwyck, however, was not the first choice for the role - both Myrna Loy and Helen Hayes were considered. In fact, it appeared Ms. Hayes would do the part until she abruptly withdrew due to "scheduling conflicts." (AFI catalog)
This is a film that is very much about counterpoints. We have Steve and his unseen lover, compared to Suzie and her unseen lover. We have the two lawyers, the scrupulous James Rayburn (Walter Pidgeon) and the slimy Leland G. Spottsford (Edward Andrews). Finally, we have the two sons that are the results of the affairs - one an adult, the other just born, whose lives are impacted by the actions of their parents. But (without spoilers), the ending for all are satisfactory, if not necessarily the ending each person wanted.
According to the AFI catalog, Debbie Reynolds was offered the role of Suzie, but turned it down because she was uncomfortable with playing an unwed mother (perhaps she was afraid of being typecast. That same year, she played an unwed mother of sorts in Bundle of Joy - a musical remake of Bachelor Mother). Susan Strasberg was also considered, but ultimately the part went to the relative unknown Betty Lou Keim. Ms. Keim had already done some television, but this was her first feature film, and the trailer to the film (below) advertised a new star in the making. But that stardom never came. After a few more films and television performances, Ms. Keim married actor Warren Berlinger and retired from acting in 1960. The marriage produced four children and lasted until her death in 2010, at the age of 71.
The New York Times' Bosley Crowther gave the film a negative review calling it "hackneyed and slushy," but we disagree wholeheartedly. We suggest you give it a try, and leave you with a scene featuring Ms. Stanwyck and Mr. Cagney: