The theme of The Young Philadelphians is that of choosing to marry for social position, which we all know is wrong, rather than marrying for love, which is what we are supposed to do.
When the movie opens, Mike Flanagan (Brian Keith) watches forlornly from across the street where the woman he loves, and who presumably loves him, is getting married to William “Bill” Lawrence III (Adam West), scion of a notable family that is part of Main Line society in Philadelphia.
That woman is Kate, whose mother encouraged her to make that choice. She has a son, Tony (Paul Newman), and she is just as concerned as her mother was that Tony marry into a socially prominent family.
Tony has a friend, Chet Gwynn (Robert Vaughn), who we find out was married to the woman he loved for about two days before his family bought off his wife and had the marriage annulled.
Tony is in love with Joan Dickinson (Barbara Rush), who comes from a socially prominent family. However, though Tony has the name “Lawrence,” he is not really accepted as part of Main Line society, for reasons to be explained later. Therefore, when her father Gilbert Dickinson (John Williams) finds out that Tony and Joan are about to elope, he persuades Tony to “postpone” the marriage for a few months by offering him advancement in his prestigious law firm. Although Joan is all that Tony’s mother could want in the way of social advancement through marriage, she sees even more social advancement through his inclusion in the law firm, and so she conspires with Gilbert in his effort to prevent the marriage.
Joan doesn’t buy the postponement excuse, so she ends up marrying Carter Henry, not because she loves him, but being disillusioned about love, she decided that she might as well marry a man her family approves of.
When Tony finds out about Joan’s marriage, he doesn’t understand why she didn’t accept the fact that their marriage was only postponed. He becomes disillusioned about love and everything else. Success is the only thing that matters.
When Carol Wharton (Alexis Smith), wife of a senior partner of a law firm even more prestigious than the one Gilbert is a partner of, offers herself one night to Tony, who is a guest in the Wharton home, he knows he will have to finesse this one. Having sex with her might spoil his chance for advancement, so he tells her that he doesn’t just want a fling, that he loves her and wants her to divorce her husband John Wharton (Otto Krüger) and marry him. Though Carol is in love with Tony, she says she cannot do what he asks and so returns to her room. Tony was pretty sure she would choose social position over love, and why not? That’s what everyone else in the movie seems to be doing.
Even if free will is a fiction, it is an indispensable one. And so, just as in real life, we usually assume that the characters in a movie make choices of their own free will. But this movie is at pains to say otherwise. When it begins, we hear Tony’s voice acting as narrator: “A man’s life, they say, is the sum of all his actions. But his actions are sometimes the result of the hopes, dreams, and desires of those who came before him. In that sense, my life began even before I was born.” Well, that certainly has a deterministic flavor to it.
He is referring to the choice his mother made in marrying William “Bill” Lawrence III, and his choice in marrying her. No sooner are they married than Bill tells Kate, in an over-the-top melodramatic scene, that he cannot love her, that he was forced into this marriage by his mother. Either he is impotent, or he is a homosexual. It would make more sense if he were impotent, because it is not uncommon for a homosexual to marry a woman and have sex with her for the sake of appearances, especially when this movie was made. Whatever the reason, he leaves her alone on her wedding night. She goes to see Mike, has sex with him, and gets pregnant. Only later does she find out that Bill killed himself in an accident by driving too fast.
Bill’s mother comes to see Kate in the hospital when she gives birth to Tony. Mrs. Lawrence says that she knows, as a result of an investigation, that the baby is not her son’s. (What kind of investigation could that have been?) She tells Kate that if she gives up the “Lawrence” name, she will give her a lot of money. But Kate chooses to keep the name. Apparently, Kate believes that having a prestigious name is not only more important than love, but money as well.
All these choices are likely to make one drift back into the notion that these characters are all acting of their own free will, so it will take more than the opening lines of the movie to dispel that notion. And so it is than when Tony, as an adult, is invited to a party, he is introduced to Dr. Shippen Stearnes, who is renowned for his research on the question as to which has the greater influence, heredity or environment. The implication of that debate is that whatever the respective roles these two influences have, they are both deterministic. They leave no room for free will.
Later in the movie, after Carter is killed in the Korean War, making Joan a widow, she and Tony begin seeing each other again. For a while, it seems that they have gotten over the question as to who was to blame for breaking off their engagement, but eventually they start having an argument about it, during which Joan tells Tony that she knows that he can’t help what he has become, another deterministic comment. It’s also an insult, for two reasons: First, she implies that there is something wrong with what he has become, for which she condescends to forgive; and second, because no one likes being told that his success was not his own doing. Only if a man is a failure does he want to hear that it couldn’t be helped.
Of course, it is not only the necessity of determinism that is inimical to free will. Chance also works against this notion. And much that happens in the movie is the result of coincidence and accident. By chance, Tony finds out about an opportunity with Wharton. By chance, he acquires a rich client for Wharton’s firm. Carter is killed in the war. Chet loses his arm during that same war. One circumstance and happenstance after another leads to Chet’s being accused of the murder of his uncle, Morton Stearnes (Robert Douglas).
Faced with the loss of Joan, and threatened with the exposure of his mother’s adultery and the loss of his position in the law firm, Tony chooses to defend Chet even though his family would rather let him go to prison than endure a scandal. This choice to act out of loyalty to his friend rather than out of self-interest may not be an act of free will, for in the end, who can say about such things? But it sure looks like it.
Of course, in true Hollywood fashion, Tony’s decision to do the right thing comes with no cost: He gets Chet acquitted, his ability as a lawyer in winning that case guarantees his future success, his mother’s sin is not exposed, and he and Joan are reconciled and will live happily ever after.
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