Category Archives: 1940’s

19. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Director: William Wyler

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Alex – 8.4   Elliot – 8.2     IMDB 8.2      Rotten Tomatoes 8.6

Alex’s Commentary:

 I had never seen The Best Years of Our Lives and didn’t know what to expect. I assumed a film released post-World War II might have a war related theme and I was correct. The strength of the story and its subject matter is relevant not only for WWII veterans but also for returning veterans from every war or military conflict. The film traces the lives of three returning veterans from different branches of the service who meet for the first time on a flight home from Europe. We meet Fred Derry, an officer played by Dana Andrews, who returns to a job as a soda jerk; bestyears4Al Stephenson, a sergeant played by Fredric March who returns to his job as a bank executive; and Homer Parrish, an enlisted soldier who lost both of his hands in battle, played by disabled veteran, Harold Russell. Only after researching the history of the film did I learn that the entire film crew, including Academy Award winning director William Wyler, were all veterans. This film was undoubtedly a labor of love for the director and the importance of its message was powerfully presented.

The multitude of issues facing returning veterans from all conflicts is remarkably similar. In fact, this film was reissued following the Korean War to stir the conscience of our nation to provide much needed support and understanding to our returning troops. Fred Derry faces the emotional difficulties associated with men who garner respect as commanding officers in the military but are employed in menial capacities in civilian life. Derry was raised in the “poor” section of town and elevated his station in the military but was unsure how to translate this experience to a better life upon his return home. If life was not difficult enough for Derry, his wife Marie (played by Virginia Mayo) whom he met and married quickly before shipping out, expects a better life and is not supportive of her husband’s attempts to find a good job. Of course, America does not have a plan to assist Derry’s job search either (sound familiar?).

Al Stephenson’s issues are different from Derry’s. He lives in what I would consider an upper middle class neighborhood and is a well-respected banking executive. He has a wife and two children but is depressed that he missed the children’s formative years as he returns to find them young adults. Although Al’s wife is clearly in love with him, Al has difficulty reestablishing intimacy after his extended absence. His boss wants him to return immediately to work and Stephenson does not feel ready. He does return to work but only after a few drinking binges. Given a promotion at the bank to provide loans to returning GIs, Stephenson must decide whether to follow the bank’s strict credit policies or offer loans to servicemen based on their character and handshake. He follows his heart and intuition at the risk of dismissal.

Homer Parrish’s issues are both the most obvious and also the most complex. It is easy to understand the difficulty of a veteran who has lost limbs navigating in a world not designed for the disabled. Harold Russell displays amazing dexterity and great courage accepting this acting role and his main motivation was to demonstrate what can be accomplished through rehabilitation and determination. A little Oscar trivia – Harold Russell is the only actor to win two Academy Awards for the same role. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and also received an Honorary Award from the Academy “For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives”. The more complex issues focus on the emotional impact of people staring (or avoiding eye contact) based on his physical appearance. 80fb6c73ff870babb528ac3bb6a6a0dbWhether a veteran has two metal hooks attached to his arms or today’s advanced prosthetics, people’s instinctive reactions are similar. Homer must also deal with people going out of their way trying to help him with routine tasks when he really just wants to develop the personal agency to accomplish these tasks on his own. Further complicating Homer’s plight is his concern that his fiancée, Wilma Cameron (played by Cathy O’Donnell), will have her life irreparably harmed by having to tend to his physical needs, thus sacrificing her own happiness.

All of these issues are real and thought-provoking. The movie does provide hope that the issues facing returning veterans can be overcome, but it emphasizes that the road is not easy. I do not want to neglect mentioning fine performances by Virginia Mayo who plays Al Stephenson’s daughter and Hoagy Carmichael as Homer’s uncle, Butch Engle, who teaches him to play chopsticks on the piano. Although this review may make you believe that The Best Years of Our Lives is a depressing film, it is not – it is an Academy Award winning screenplay that is both thought-provoking and inspirational. If you have not seen the film you should.

Elliot’s Commentary:

The Best Years of Our Lives was 1946’s best picture winner that had the difficult job of serving as a transition film between WWII and post-war America.  The film fits perfectly into the mindset of America, as the country came to terms with one of the most devastating periods of our country’s history.  The film follows the lives of three different men as they readjust to life in fictional Boone City.  It is clear that the fictional nature of the city allows for more of a universal appeal for the film and American audiences.  The film tackles multiple issues in the readjustment phase that are still applicable to today’s returning soldiers.  It addresses everything from socioeconomic classes to post-traumatic stress disorder, as the soldiers struggle to come to terms with life in a town that has changed drastically in the five years that the soldiers have been gone.

William Wyler, the director, also directed best picture winners Ben-Hur and Mrs. MiniverWhile not as heavily reported on in the 1940’s and 50’s, the film shows the severe post-traumatic stress that the war placed on the psyche of these three returning heroes.  It also shows the coping mechanism that the soldiers developed as they were attempting to dull their fever dreams of battle.  bestyearsThis was a huge step for Hollywood, as it showed the bleak reality that some of these decorated soldiers had to come home too.  Even with the assistance of the GI bill, many of the jobs previously occupied by soldiers had been taken when the soldiers returned.  Suddenly, stripped of rank and of profession, these soldiers had the country turn its back on the men who risked their lives to protect it.  William Wyler was a veteran as well, so he took a special interest in adapting this play to fit the tumultuous times of Post-WWII America.

One of the three soldiers profiled, Homer Parish (Harold Russell), was actually a real veteran and amputee who William Wyler saw in a documentary.  He received two Oscars for his performance, both for the best supporting actor as well as a special honor for his service to his country.  After his battleship was bombed in the Pacific, Homer lost both of his hands in the aftermath.  Watching him deal with the painful reality of greeting his high school sweetheart and family for the first time since his amputation is really a powerful moment in cinema.  Even though he wasn’t previously an actor, Harold Russell delivered the performance of the film and really carried the entire film.  The amount of dexterity he showed with his claws was really amazing as he lit cigarettes and poured drinks with seemingly blunt objects.  His abilities with his primitive prosthetics were truly an inspiration to an entire generation of physically and mentally maimed men.

Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) had a much different reaction to his homecoming.  Before the war, Fred was a lowly soda jerk at a pharmacy in town.  However, in the war Fred became a high ranking captain in the Air Force.  His return to a life of the mundane after his exciting and decorated exploits in the military proved to be quite a difficult transition.  While in the military Fred’s social status and position were temporarily ignored, in his return to civilian life his stripes earned in the line of duty were not enough to help improve his non-military job prospects.  Fred had also married cocktail waitress Marie (Virginia Mayo) while he was in flight training, however Fred’s return to the position of soda jerk in the tough postwar economy quickly soured their relationship.  Marie was not satisfied with her former pilot husband’s new occupation, and missed the wages that went along with his old position.  When Fred could no longer provide for her in the way that his war status formerly permitted, it became quite clear that their marriage in the passion of war could not withstand the economic hardships faced by the limited postwar job environment.

The third returning war veteran Al Stephenson (Fredric March) experienced the opposite transition of his counterpart Fred.  Al did not receive the type of accolades Fred did in the war, but instead he returned to his upper middle class existence as an executive in the bank in works in. hero_EB20071229REVIEWS08473062636AR Al is older than Fred, but quite frankly his return to family life after the excitement of war leaves him feeling a type of melancholy that has few outlets in civilian life.  Also, Al’s abuse of alcohol has been intensified in his time away and his new habits are having quite a negative impact on his family and personal life.  His wife Milly (Myrna Loy– Also appeared in The Great Ziegfeld) and his daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) are left trying to help him pick up the pieces of his now fragmented existence.   His professional life and his status as a veteran also quickly come into conflict, as the president of his bank becomes irate after he approves a loan to another young veteran who didn’t have the required collateral to back up the loan.

As the film progresses, each of our three protagonists attempt to cope with the adjustment back into civilian life in their own individual way.  Fred’s marriage falls apart both due to the irreconcilable differences between himself and his wife and Fred’s blossoming infatuation with Al’s daughter, Peggy.  Homer struggles with intimacy towards his girlfriend and family while learning to love himself in spite of his amputation. Al has to rely on the help of both his family and Fred as he tries to quell his night terrors from the war.  This representation of post-traumatic stress disorder is very important because it highlighted an issue that wasn’t covered heavily by the media at the time.   When we imagine the post-war generation that gave rise to the baby boomers, we often see a glossed over representation that doesn’t emphasize the hardships that many veterans faced returning from WWII.  The Best Years of Our Lives was produced from a veteran perspective and thus was more in tune with the attitudes of returning soldiers.  While we have seen movies that focus on the actual war in our journey through the best picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives stands out because it was the first picture to accurately depict the after effects of extreme violence on the psyche of both returning soldiers and the families to which they came back.

 

18. The Lost Weekend (1945)

Director:   Billy Wilder

 

Alex – 7.8   Elliot – 7.6  IMDB 8.1   Rotten Tomatoes 8.2

Alex’s Commentary:

The Lost Weekend is certainly the darkest film we have viewed to date. The story follows a man’s tragic life ruined by alcoholism that reaches its apex, the lost weekend – a four day bender. The troubled character Don Birnam is portrayed by Best Actor winner Ray Milland, a far cry from the comedic roles he had previously starred in. Billy Wilder won the Best Director Oscar and shared the Best Writing Screenplay award. The stark black and white cinematography gives the Manhattan street scenes a gritty feel. Lost-Weekend-2Scenes filmed at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital detox ward add to the realism. The film’s edginess is created in part by the unexpected actions of an alcoholic and the audience’s instinct to wish this seemingly nice guy character not to indulge again (or steal that woman’s purse).

The film is backed by a very strong cast of supporting characters including Jane Wyman who plays Helen St. James, Don’s girlfriend.  Despite the strong performance, I do feel that Wyman’s character lacks the development necessary for me to understand why she would remain in such an obviously dismal relationship. Howard Da Silva plays Nat, the bartender, who struggles with the dilemma whether to provide his needy patron the rye whiskey he so desperately craves or whether he should cut Birnam off and allow Don to be subjected to intense withdrawal symptoms. Doris Dowling plays the prostitute, Gloria, who hangs around Nat’s bar and has a fondness for Don Birnam. She has quirky habit of truncating multi-syllabic words like “don’t be ridic”.

I had to wonder if the film’s 1945 release may have foreshadowed the unfortunate problems facing many returning World War II veterans. In the context of today’s society, Don’s alcoholism could easily be substituted for a myriad of additive habits that can ruin a person’s life and greatly impact family and friends. I’m glad I watched this film because it is the first of six Academy award wins for Billy Wilder, although I more thoroughly enjoyed Double Indemnity, his 1944 film that was a Best Picture nominee but lost to Going My Way. While I am a Billy Wilder fan, The Lost Weekend is not a film I would view multiple times due to its depressing subject matter.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Released just three months after V-J Day, The Lost Weekend is our first film since Gone with the Wind to be released outside of the context of WWII.  Rather than deal with any of the myriad of issues accompanying a nation robbed of a generation of young men, the film tackles a different blight upon society, Alcoholism. DISCLAIMER: I am not seeking to juxtapose any of my own personal opinions on the topic in this review, I am merely critiquing and recapping the events portrayed in this film.

In order to contextualize this film, it is important to describe a couple of important historical developments that had a large impact on alcohol use and abuse in America.  Spanning from 1919 to 1933, the Unites States were prohibited from imbibing alcohol due to the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution: Prohibition.  When we view Prohibition from a historical context, one often is presented with romanticized versions of bootleggers and gangsters evading authorities to deliver booze to speakeasy’s and other establishments of ill-repute.  natsbar_thelostweekendHowever, the side of the 20’s that is not seen is the huge spike in alcoholism and binge drinking. The film briefly mentions this phenomenon, as the main character is detained in the drunk ward of a hospital.  A ward which the film explains was founded to combat the drinking issues that stained Prohibition.  Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded two years after the repeal of Prohibition in 1935, to help people find relief and support in dealing with their addiction.   The book that the film was based on was a semi-autobiographical novel that Charles R. Jackson wrote, which chronicled the lowlights of his addiction as well as a cerebral look at the mindset of an addict.  Jackson would go on to speak to groups such as AA about his addiction, and to bring awareness to others.  Our 1945 Best Picture winner was adapted from his seminal tome of addiction.

As for the actual movie, I found it hard to watch at points but that was the intended effect for the audience.  It is difficult to watch the main character forsake his loved ones and connections in order to fulfill his insatiable desire to drink.  We are presented at the beginning with the image of the main character dangling a bottle of rye out of the window by a string, in order to elude his brother.  1b6f297989e0a457ce215aef35727362As the two are about to go on a trip out to the country to escape Don Birnam’s drinking, Don (Ray Milland) disappears on a bender as the distraught brother decides to go on the trip alone.  Now the audience is left alone with two main characters, Don and his addiction.  The psychological aspects of the film make it difficult to watch, as we are subjected to the same train wreck his family and friends experience with each drinking binge.  Our ability to empathize with the main character slowly disappears as each interaction illustrates a new rock bottom for our struggling writer.

Ray Millard absolutely deserved his Best Actor win, for his ability to convincingly lead the audience on his self-destructive bender.  This was also the first time a film that we saw utilized the film technique of neon signs and sights from the city flashing by the main actor, as he roamed the streets in madness.  One of the most difficult scenes to watch involved Don Birnam stealing a woman’s purse at a bar in an attempt to pay his tab.  The resulting confrontation was so cringe-worthy it was almost unwatchable.  The Lost Weekend highlights the fact that a Best Picture winner can be extremely well done, but not enjoyable to watch.  However, it is most important to view the film as an awareness piece similar to modern day substance-abuse films like Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, Winter’s Bone, Leaving Las Vegas and Candy.  The Lost Weekend was really the first movie of its kind to raise awareness of a serious issue, without becoming a parody of itself like 1936’s Reefer Madnessray-milland-jane-wyman Also I can’t conclude this review without mentioning the fantastic acting of Jane Wyman in the role of Helen St. James, Don Birnam’s overly sympathetic girlfriend.   It was hard to watch her unrelenting support of her beau, regardless of the damage he caused to her and the people around him.

I would not suggest watching this film unless the viewer is prepared for a heart-wrenching psychological thrill ride through the inner-demons of an alcoholic.  I must admit though, this film was very important for advocacy and heightened awareness of this serious issue of the time that still rings true today.

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17. Going My Way (1944)

Director:   Leo McCarey

Alex – 7.4   Elliot – 7.6    IMDB 7.3   Rotten Tomatoes 6.8

Alex’s Commentary:

Going My Way is a film the public needed in 1944. With World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific and hardships and sorrow impacting virtually every American, Going My Way was a feel good movie that depicted the generosity and caring of the American people. Throw in a number of classic renditions by superstar Bing Crosby and moviegoers could leave the theater a little happier and optimistic.

The film focuses on a young priest, Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby), assigned to a New York parish that was experiencing financial difficulty. For the past 44 years, the church had been run by Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) who was nearing retirement and was clearly set in his ways. 284d828c202b7ac4f04c38567ecccf56The dialogues between the two priests as they express their differing approaches and philosophies to both the church’s and parishioners’ problems create some of the film’s most memorable moments.

The film is entertaining but certainly dated – was American life really ever as like this? The portrayal of Irish Americans is so stereotypical that by today’s mores it is amusing – not a condescending portrayal but complete with Irish brogue, Irish whiskey, Irish priests and Irish policemen. The role in women in society, that of wife and mother and not “working girl”, is also evident; an interesting view given the number of women in the workforce in 1944 doing their part for the war effort.

It seemed a bit of a stretch that Father O’Malley could reform a group of neighborhood delinquents into a choir after a single discussion. It did provide a great vehicle for Bing Crosby to deliver some wonderful songs. I had forgotten what a beautiful voice Crosby possessed. It may have been the remastered DVD we watched but I couldn’t believe the clarity and warm tone of Bing’s voice. Although “Swinging on a Star” won the Oscar for Best Song, I actually preferred some of the traditional Irish and Church hymns.

I would be surprised if applications to the priesthood didn’t skyrocket based on the popularity of Going My Way. It is obvious the respect the whole community had for Fathers O’Malley and Fitzgibbon. going-my-way-movie-bing-crosby-choir-st-louis-browns-uniform-reviewIn addition to being the neighborhood spiritual leaders, they also served the roles of community organizer, family therapist, youth counselor, financial advisor and musical director. Oh the good old days!

An interesting Oscar trivia question – who was nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same movie role? – Answer: Barry Fitzgerald. He won for Best Supporting Actor losing at to Bing Crosby for Best Actor. The Academy changed the rules after the 1944 Oscars so Barry Fitzgerald was the first and last double nominee.   Leo McCarey was a double winner capturing both Best Director and Best Screenwriting honors.

Going My Way is an entertaining film that embodies the classic 1940’s Hollywood genre. The final scene of the unexpected visit of Father Fitzgibbon’s mother after a 44 year absence is a clever heartwarming surprise. Going My Way won’t make my favorite film list but was a worthwhile screening.

Elliot’s Commentary:

1944’s Going My Way can be summed up in two words, Bing. Crosby.  He was one of the most famous actor’s in the history of Hollywood, and Going My Way can be considered the pinnacle of his acting achievements because it resulted in his Best Actor award.  Not to diminish his role in Irving Berlin’s wildly successful White Christmas, but Going My Way was a better showcase of his acting talents.  Going My Way was also one of the first times that a successful A-List movie spawned a sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s.  In both films, Bing plays Father O’Malley, the likable, scrupulous priest sent on a mission to help revitalize a struggling New York parish.  Bing was also nominated for best actor for The Bells of St. Mary’s, but lost to Ray Milland for his portrayal of Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend.  For more information on The Lost Weekend, read our next blog post on 1945’s Best Picture winner.

Released just a month prior to the D-Day Invasion, Going My Way was different than the last few best picture winners because it had much less to do with the concurrent war.  However, with the tolls of war mounting on the home front, Going My Way provided escapism at its finest.  Bing Crosby’s voice, cut through the tension of the time, to remind America what it was even fighting for.  80ae42e7560ce8656aa6970f056c5fef---film-bing-crosbyThe onscreen chemistry of Crosby and Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) was palpable, as the duo’s relationship evolved from terse to familial.  Father Fitzgibbon has become an old curmudgeon in his 44 years of service to St. Dominic’s church, and is originally put off by Father O’Malley’s antics like playing golf and tennis.  It is later discovered in the film that Father O’Malley was actually sent to revitalize the troubled parish, and help prevent an impending foreclosure at the hands of the mortgage company run by Ted Haines Sr. (Gene Lockhart).

One of the best developed plots in the movie comes from Father O’Malley’s relationship with a group of neighborhood children (not in that way!!!! Get your mind out of the gutter.)  He takes a group of troubled mischievous hoodlums who were more interested in shenanigans than actually being productive members of society, and turns them into an angelic singing boy’s choir.  The choir is put to the test as it performs signature songs of the film like “Swinging on a Star” and “Going My Way” in order to attempt to save the financially impoverished church from foreclosure.

Finally, I can’t review this film without mentioning the most moving scene of the film.  Father Fitzgibbon disappears on a rainy night, and Father O’Malley and his police contacts go out looking for the missing priest.  After he is found, he returns to the parish very weak and sickly.  Bing sings the song an Irish Lullaby (Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra) to Father Fitzgibbon to help ease his pain and longing for his homeland of Ireland.  Overall this film is a great and heart-warming family classic that uses morality and beautiful song to tell its story.  I can definitely see the impact this film had on a country at war that needed a distraction from its strained day-to-day life.  It’s worth viewing, for Bing Crosby’s voice alone not to mention his fantastic acting.

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