Movie Project #27: The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]
Director: William Wyler
Writer: Robert E. Sherwood (screen play), MacKinlay Kantor (from a novel by)
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Romance/War
Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell
Running Time: 172 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is on a whopping 24 lists at icheckmovies.com.

Accolades: Won 7 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Best Writing) + one more nomination (Best Sound), won BAFTA Film Award, Golden Globe Best Picture, National Film Registry, #179 on IMDB Top 250

At the time of its release, The Best Years of Our Lives was a monster hit. It won an impressive seven Oscars (plus an additional honorary award) and raked in the cash at the box office, second in revenue only to Gone With the Wind (which I will be reviewing later this year). The film was also released just one year after the conclusion of World War II, offering a fresh view of what life was like for returning veterans.

Perhaps most amazingly, it is still incredibly relevant over 60 years later.

The film focuses on three servicemen who form a friendship on their flight home to the fictional Midwestern town of Boone City. Each man is coming back to a completely different scenario, and all three struggle to come to terms with an America that is vastly different than they remembered.

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a respected Army Air Forces captain in Europe, and he returns to a beautiful young wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). He attempts to get his former job back as a drugstore soda jerk, but the pharmacy is now under new ownership, forcing Fred to earn his way to a better position. His wife, apparently now interested in the luxuries of life, is not thrilled with Fred’s low-paying job, causing significant problems for their marriage.

Homer Parrish (the real life veteran, Harold Russell) lost both hands in the war and now has metal hooks in place of them. He tries to make the best of his disability, but struggles when confronted with tasks that he can no longer perform. It doesn’t help that his parents are now treating him differently either. At least he still has his fiancee, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), who eagerly loves him even though Homer continually tries to distance himself in order to not be a “burden.”

Al Stephenson (Fredric March) might have it best out of the three veterans, though he still has his own issues. Al has a nice family, including wife Milly (Myrna Loy), older daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and a college freshman son, and he even gets his old job back as a bank loan officer. Better yet, the bank is pleased with his military background and offers him a promotion. However, Al is a bit too lenient in granting loans for other veterans, at least in the eyes of his superiors, and this presents a moral dilemma for him.

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

All three men have to deal with people treating them differently, and it sometimes seems that their only real sanctuary is gathering together at the local watering hole, Butch’s saloon. There they get good and drunk in the company of each other, the only people who can truly understand what they went through.

Nowadays, it’s discouraging to hear of veterans treated poorly by those who don’t believe in the wars they are fighting in. Shockingly, there is even an example of this in The Best Years of Our Lives. I couldn’t believe it when I heard a customer at Fred’s pharmacy ranting about how Hitler and the communists were actually the ones doing good in the war. Apparently Fred couldn’t either — he beat the living tar out of the man!

The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]

Perhaps most impressive about the film is that it doesn’t really have an agenda. I was worried that it would be a bit too heavy-handed, but thankfully that’s not the case. These veterans and their stories feel exceptionally authentic, aside from a love story that perhaps wraps things up too nicely. The performances from the three men are terrific, including the non-actor Harold Russell. He was so good that the Academy felt it necessary to grant him *two* Oscars — one for Best Supporting Actor, and one honory award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.”

The Best Years of Our Lives runs a bit long, and the conclusion may be a little too optimistic, but it’s still a damn fine piece of cinema. Given the story behind it and its year of release, it’s easy to see why it was such a hit back then. It’s just a shame that so many of the difficulties it presents are still relevant today.

8/10

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Movie Project #39: Notorious [1946]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Notorious [1946]

Notorious [1946]
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Genre: Film Noir/Romance/Thriller
Starring: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains
Runtime: 101 minutes

Seeing an Alfred Hitchcock film for the first time is always an exciting experience. Last year, I witnessed a handful with fresh eyes, including the fantastic Vertigo and Psycho (both for this project). For this year’s project, I included another of his most highly-regarded films: Notorious.

Released in Hitchcock’s first decade in America, Notorious is a post-war thriller with film noir elements that also happens to provide one of cinema’s most intriguing love stories. Cary Grant stars as T.R. Devlin, a secret agent who is an important figure in a plan to infiltrate a Nazi organization that has relocated to Rio de Janeiro. In order to do so, the government enlists the help of Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. While privately against the Nazi beliefs, she still has ties to those in Brazil, and she is sent to seduce their leader, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Her commitment to the job is unparalleled, but there is a wrench in their plans: Devlin and Alicia fall madly in love with each other.

Notorious [1946]

This love triangle leads to some tense moments, as Alicia is asked to do things that were not part of the original plan. She is also tasked with riding that delicate balance between acting in love with Sebastian while still attempting to discover intel about the Nazi operations. Devlin does his best to remain detached, trying not to mix love and his work, and never flat out saying “I love you.” But when your love interest is Ingrid f’n Bergman, it’s hard to stay in check.

There are several noteworthy scenes in Notorious, including many that rank amongst Hitchcock’s most suspenseful. One unforgettable sequence happens at a huge party at the Nazi headquarters. Alicia has stolen a key to the wine cellar, where she is to lead Devlin in hopes of uncovering a secret to the organization’s operations. Everything is going well until the hosts begin running low on alcohol upstairs. Sebastian and an associate start heading downstairs at the same time Devlin and Alicia are investigating the cellar. The suspense builds as the chances of a successful escape grow very slim.

The film’s conclusion is also thrilling, including one of the slowest descents down a staircase that I have ever seen.

Notorious [1946]

Despite being nearly 70 years old, Notorious holds up remarkably well today. The story, while taking place shortly after World War II, is a timeless tale of espionage and romance. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are a fantastic pairing, two gorgeous Hollywood A-listers with strong chemistry. Claude Rains adds a great deal to the film as well, delivering a performance that somehow makes the audience sympathize with the plights of a Nazi.

It’s a bit shocking that Notorious only received two Oscar nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains) and Best Original Screenplay (Ben Hecht). Then again, Hitchcock’s lack of support from the Academy is well-known (he never won for Best Director). Regardless of these oversights, Notorious ranks among his best work, and it is easily one of my favorites from this year’s project. This deserves to be mentioned when others talk about the director’s more popular and critically-acclaimed work (i.e. Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, etc.).

9/10

Movie Project #34: Gilda [1946]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Gilda [1946]

Gilda [1946]
Director: Charles Vidor
Genre: Drama/Film Noir/Romance
Starring: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford and George Macready
Runtime: 110 minutes

Rita Hayworth. Having never seen a film with this red-haired dame, she has become something of a mythical goddess to me over the years. Between Jack White’s constant fawning over her, and references from film writers, I had heard so much about the actress without ever actually seeing her perform. It was with this in mind that I added Gilda to the project, arguably her most popular film.

Gilda is a Film Noir with an especially thick layer of sexual tension. Hayworth plays the titular character, an undeniable femme fatale who is caught between two men. Her husband, Ballin (George Macready), is the boss of a South American casino. His righthand man is Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford, also the narrator), who once had a past with Gilda. She spends her time flaunting about and staying out late with strange men, much to the chagrin of Johnny, who is trying to keep her in check. Gilda is something of a wild stallion, however — impossible to tame.

Gilda [1946]

There’s also an air of homoeroticism between Ballin and Johnny, though it is never overtly mentioned in the script. This bizarre love triangle spins a dangerous web, especially once the truth comes out about Johnny and Gilda’s past. Their relationship borders that fine line between “love” and “hate”, and it’s especially intriguing to see this play out.

At its core, this is a Rita Hayworth film. She glows in every scene she is in, especially in the famous “Put the Blame on Mame” striptease. Just by merely removing her long, black glove, she oozes a kind of sex appeal rarely seen on screen. This rivals Marilyn Monroe’s legendary “I Wanna Be Loved By You” number in Some Like It Hot, as both show two classic beauties in their prime.

Rita Hayworth in Gilda [1946]

The problem with Gilda is exactly what makes it so great — Rita Hayworth. Take her out of the picture and there’s nothing left but a middling noir. Sure, Glenn Ford and George Macready round out a strong main cast, but she is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the film. Using a different actress would have been a grave mistake, and the film would have suffered greatly without her.

As it stands, Gilda is worth seeing, but only because of Miss Hayworth. The sexual tension she creates between both men is a work of art, and I have never seen a film with such a strong love-hate relationship as found with her and Johnny. There is no mistaking her legacy.

7/10