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The Best Years of Our Lives

Wowza!

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the best movies I have ever seen. I thought it might be prudent to get that out front because this post will be nothing but praise for the masterpiece. But I’m not alone in my assertion as the flick won eight of the nine Oscars for which it was nominated.

The picture, which came out a year after World War II ended, was about just that: the end. It follows three soldiers who return to the same hometown and try to re-enter their past lives. The Best Actor award went to Dana Andrews who plays pilot Fred Derry and steals away the majority of our attention during the movie. The Best Supporting Actor Academy Award went to first-time actor and real-life soldier Harold Russell, who lost his hands and forearms in a training accident and had them replaced by hooks.

Joining both Fred and Homer (Russell) on a flight home to Boone City is Army Sgt. Al Stephenson, played by Fredric March. The three bond over their short trip home and share the same reluctance to leave their taxicab when it pulls up to each house. Al comes home to a surprised and overwhelmed wife in Myrna Loy, whose emotions overwhelm us as much as she in reuniting with her husband. The couple have a teenage son (Michael Hall)and a slightly older daughter who has been working as a nurse.

Homer, meanwhile, comes home to loving parents and a young sister. His mother cannot help but cry at the sight of his disability, frustrating the soldier who has become accustomed to it. He was set to marry the girl next door, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), before he left for the war. Although Wilma shows no hesitation around her beau, he is too self conscious about the hooks to believe in their future and so avoids contact with her.

Fred, lastly, stops at his parents run-down home to say hello and to reunite with the wife he married 80-some days before deployment. She no longer lives with the folks, however, and has taken a job at a night club and an apartment in town as well.

Unable to handle the home surroundings that are no longer familiar to him, Al takes his wife and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) out on the town, ending their late night at Butch’s Place. Homer too finds his way there after spilling a glass of lemonade he was unable to manage with his prosthetics. Fred, unsuccessful in locating his wife at any of the clubs, joins the gang. A very drunk Fred is forward but polite with Peggy and ultimately spends the night in her bed –although she is on the couch.

The next day, Fred finally reunites with his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), who is thrilled to see him. The couple soon spend down the $1,000 in cash the man has, and the revelation that nightly outings are nixed from their lives frustrates Marie. The two are growing distant as Fred and Peggy are falling in love, a love of which Al does not approve.

Director William Wellman sets up from Peggy and Fred’s first encounter their destiny together. Seating them beside one another in a crowded booth at Butch’s, we naturally pair them. We also see a great degree of interaction between the two before ever meeting Marie, so we make up our minds early about the winning woman.

The two able-bodied men are finding employment to be a challenge but in disparate ways. Al has not only been offered back his job at the bank, but has been promoted to a post where he will consider GI loans. His idea of a safe bet is different from that of the execs, however, stirring some tension. Fred, meanwhile, returns to a job at what used to be a drug store and works beneath the man he used to oversee. He had sworn never to return to such a low position, but has no skills outside of flying a plane. Poverty challenges his home life.

Both men illustrate for the audience the frustration of returning to the mundane experiences of regular employment. Work is not chief among soldiers’ thoughts when imagining their return home, but it nevertheless remains a requirement to maintain a livelihood. Fred, who was a captain in the Air Force and a pro flyer, is disheartened to be placed in such a menial position where he has no control.

My favorite scene in The Best Years of Our Lives is the last. Fred and Peggy are among the guests in a crowded house awaiting the bride’s appearance. Seeing that Al has arrived, Fred goes on the hunt for Peggy, whom he has weeks before romantially rejected as a way to keep her father happy. When he spots the woman, he stops, standing arms at his side facing her across the room, unmoving. The camera’s high-angle shot does not seem to be focusing on anything in particular, but our eyes are drawn to him. Peggy, who has been in conversation, seems to sense his gaze and turns towards him and approaches. They exchange pleasantries but make not gestures of love. Later, as the bride and groom read their vows, Fred is standing as best man but is looking across the room to Peggy, who seems to glow in her light-colored dress, who is also watching him. The cinematography is subtle as the bride and groom take up half the screen and their speaking can distract us from the shot’s true meaning. The recitation of the vows and pronouncement of man and wife seems as much meant for the bride and groom as for Peggy and Fred. When the ceremony is over, Fred walks directly to Peggy and kisses her as though they are alone in the room.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a masterpiece in its gentle conveyance of the harsh realities of returning soldiers who are damaged goods to certain degrees in physical and mental ways. The prolonged friendship among the men is also a testament to how they could feel more at home with each other than with their own families because of the semi-shared experiences they had overseas. Both the men and their loved ones suffer under the circumstances with Peggy being one neutral and healing figure for Fred. This movie is apt to make you cry, sigh and smile and is one of the most touching pictures I’ve ever seen.

  • The Best Years of Our Lives is set for 8 p.m. ET Aug. 2 and 2:15 a.m. ET Oct. 10 on TCM.
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The Pride of the Yankees

Ring a Ding Ding

Pride of the Yankees (1943)

     I think one of Gary Cooper’s greatest gifts is that although he seemed well suited for playing powerful, strong, intelligent men, he could just as easily play a naive, humble gent who is completely oblivious he is the almighty Gary Cooper. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is one such example as is The Pride of the Yankees.

 
     Like most classic-era biopics, The Pride of the Yankees takes some liberties in the telling of the life of baseball great Lou Gehrig. Although it maintains that the young man attended Columbia University to study engineering, how he got in is another story. In order to establish his mother as a loving, yet persistent force in shaping her son’s career, Gehrig is depicted as getting into school on his mother’s cooking there. Instead he attended on a football scholarship. Mother Gehrig (Elsa Janssen) in the movie pushes her boy to be an engineer like his uncle and is adamantly against a sports profession, so when Gehrig signs with the New York Yankees, the young athlete and his father conceal it from the mother, who is now ailing in the hospital and in need of money to support her stay. She learns the truth when the papers proclaim Gehrig’s call up to the major leagues where he (accurately) goes on to play 13 years without missing a game.
 
     In the movie, Gehrig meets his future wife Eleanor, played by Teresa Wright, when he goes up to bat for the Yankees the first time and slides across a row of bats on the ground. Sitting in the front row, this daughter of the hot dog king calls him “tanglefoot” and starts a barrage of laughter in the stands. Gehrig manages to see her off the field and the two hit it off, eventually marrying. When Gehrig becomes weak and is eventually handed an unfavorable diagnosis, the man forbids all in the know from telling his wife of his fate, but Eleanor knows it anyway. The film closes on a high note with Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, held in reality in 1939, two years before his death.
 
     Pride of the Yankees was released two years after the legend died and is an amiable tribute. Cooper does a tremendous job playing the simple, rather unremarkable personality Gehrig is said to have had. He is a very honest, unselfish character, which makes him easy to love and easy to miss for any moviegoer. The only drawback I saw to the movie is that Cooper, 42 at the time of the movie’s release (two years older than Gehrig would have been that year), is unable to hide his age in playing college-age and early ball-playing Gehrig. The crows feet that form with his smile belie his age, making a good portion of the movie unrealistic in appearance. Wright, on the other hand, was appropriate looking for the younger years of the couple, but the only aging she does is via slight modifications to her hair and clothing styles. The same can be said of Babe Ruth, who plays himself. Although his performance is fine, he looks beyond ball-playing age. If not for these complaints, the film would be near perfect.
 
Source: LouGehrig.com

Hill-Tillies & No. 5 Checked Out

Gasser

     With TCM committing a good portion of each week during January to Hal Roach Studios, I’ve managed to catch a couple of short subjects from the production company, all of which are new to me. Hal Roach, in fact, I had never heard of before this month.

Hal Roach Studios

     I mentioned catching a couple Laurel & Hardy shorts, with several more on my DVR, but last night I watched another comedic duo, Kelly and Roberti, in addition to a half-hour TV spot from the Screen Directors’ Playhouse. Lyda Roberti and Patsy Kelly are cute in Hill-Tillies which involves the two staging a “back-to-nature” stunt in the woods to gain fame that will hopefully qualify them for a job at a burlesque theater. The plan is to have their friends bring them the necessary camping supplies so they will not be relying on the land, as they’ve told the press. Immediately lost in the woods, however, the duo spend the first night on their own before the necessities finally reach them.

     Kelly reminds me of Oliver Hardy in her approach to comedy. She even has a masculine air about her and acts as the boss of the operation. Roberti, on the other hand, gives off more of a Chico Marx feel –she has the accent and physical goofiness that Marx brother offers. Whether it be a Polish or fake Italian accent, somehow I find the abuse of the English language highly entertaining. There is a certain amount of creativity in finding alternate ways to convey the same meaning using an unconventional assemblage of words.

     No. 5 Checked Out, which was among the many short movies produced for TV with high-end budgets and major stars through the Screen Directors’ Playhouse, was directed and based on a story conceived by Ida Lupino. The actress directed a limited number of feature films but found a home directing television. This short stars Teresa Wright, Peter Lorre, and William Talman with a gritty crime-based plot familiar to Lupino.

     Wright plays a deaf girl who has retreated to a campground her father runs after a harsh breakup from a man who did not care for her disability. When her father dashes off somewhere leaving her to run the place alone, she is surprised to have two guests who insist on staying in a cabin even though the season does not start for two weeks. Lorre is some hardened criminal/murderer who is on the lamb with his partner played by Talman. The latter makes friends with Wright, going fishing with her, etc., with the intention of stealing her car so he can continue to run from his crime (It is unclear whether he is also running from Lorre or if the two just need to switch vehicles.). It takes Talman a while to realize Wright is deaf and when he does he likes her even more. When Lorre thinks the woman has overheard him callously say the men “are wanted for murder” he has ill plans, but Talman stops his partner, who intern stops him.

     No. 5 Checked Out is a really great, slimmed down story that easily could have been broadened into a longer script. The quality on the show was also great. I felt like I was watching a full-length feature and was not sure how the story was going to wrap itself up so quickly. This story does a fine job of keeping things short without leaving the audience feeling as those the ending comes to soon or just cuts off the story.

     I am not sure any of the Screen Directors’ Playhouse episodes are available for purchase and most did not air more than once on TV. With TCM’s showing this week, it is the first time the episodes have been seen since the ’50s.

The Little Foxes

Wowza!

The Little Foxes (1941)

     To say The Little Foxes is a triumph for Bette Davis is an understatement. The story of conniving southern siblings seeking to further their riches to the detriment of their workers and customers was seemingly designed for the evil qualities Davis brings to her role. Davis begins the picture looking absolutely stunning in very complimentary Orry-Kelly gowns and favorable makeup but somehow as the film progresses, what I first viewed as a gorgeous face turns into a horror-inducing facade. Late in the film she sits slouching in an armchair as her husband succumbs before her with an unmoving expression of surprise and evil that I might never shake.

Regina sits as a statue as her husband stumbles to his death.

     The Little Foxes also marks the screen debut of Teresa Wright. The 22 year old had stage experience but really shows her talent by giving an Oscar-nominated performance as the sheltered daughter who becomes wise to her family’s infamy and develops a spine by film’s end. I have always found Wright to play consistently nice-girl roles, and this spot is no different, yet she really comes off as a master. The star also set a precedent by being nominated for an Oscar for her first three performances, winning one for her second, Mrs. Miniver. In total, The Little Foxes was nominated for nine Academy Awards but won none of them. Davis was given a Best Actress nod and another Supporting Actress nomination went to Patricia Collinge, who plays the air-headed sister-in-law to Davis’ Regina. Collinge is absolutely magnificent and at times reminded me of Katharine Hepburn‘s performance in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

     Given the overabundance of fine performances, The Little Foxes has a lasting impact on the viewer. What begins as a normal southern family tale slowly transforms into a grotesque story of greed and manipulation. It is certainly among Davis’ finest work and a must see for any film fan.

  • The Little Foxes is set for 8:45 a.m. ET Feb. 2 on TCM.
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