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The Best Years of Our Lives

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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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Roman Holiday

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Roman Holiday (1953)

     I far less often rewatch movies as I do search out new ones, but I’m starting to realize that when I do revisit an old favorite, it tends to be much better than I remembered. So goes Roman Holiday for me. Who could count how often I watched it when at the start of my Audrey Hepburn obsession, yet it had been a few years since I’d reunited with the actress’ first starring role.

     Roman Holiday is sort of the full package in cinematic storytelling. It is adventurous, innocent, cleverly humorous and throws in a bit of romance and heartbreak for good measure. In truth, who would not want to live Princess Anne’s adventures through an exciting foreign city with a handsome stranger?

     Hepburn is this princess who stops in Italy as part of a goodwill tour of Europe. We learn from the opening scene where she greets and endless line of diplomats while dressed in a white ball gown complete with regal medals that she is not so different from any other young woman. Standing for what feels like hours, Anne pulls her foot out of her shoe to give it a break only to fail to get it back into the high heel. When Anne finally sits, the shoe is left lying in front of her while she maintains her poise.

     That night, Anne suffers a nervous breakdown after comparing the fun-loving Italians partying on the street beyond her window to the meticulously scheduled day ahead where she again must let her royal persona supersede her natural behaviors. A doctor is summoned to sedate the princess, but as soon as her caretakers leave the room, Anne sneaks out of the Colosseum and onto the Roman streets.

     Once the sedative catches up to her, Anne reclines on a street bench, which is where foreign correspondent Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) finds her. He has no idea who she is but realizes quickly she is well read. Not wanting her to be arrested, he tries to arrange a cab ride home but instead is stuck hosting the young woman in his apartment where the innocent sexual tension begins.

     The next morning, Joe heads to work after missing an appointment to interview Princess Anne, not knowing the press conference was cancelled because of her highness’ “illness”. When he spots a photo of the princess in the paper, he realizes she is asleep in his room. Arranging with his editor to score a hefty bonus for an exclusive interview, Joe dashes home to ensure he keeps the young woman with him.

     Anne, who has introduced herself as Anya Smith, wakes with all the surprise and reservation a princess should when finding herself in a strange bed and in men’s pajamas. She departs Joe after borrowing money and the man lets her go, but ensures he runs into her later. The two then start a day full of exploration and adventure that is joined by Joe’s photographer friend Irving (Eddie Albert), who discreetly snaps photos using a cigarette lighter camera.

     The adventures culminate in dancing by the river where royal secret service spot the young woman. The ensuing calamity results in a brawl and Anne hitting one of her pursuers over the head with a guitar. When Joe falls in the water, Anne dives in as well and the two swim to the opposite bank where they share an unexpected kiss. Both are in love, but both know Anne’s duty to her country will outweigh any feelings the two have. She returns to the Colosseum and her caretakers a new woman, more mature but more in control of her movements than ever before. The princess’ meeting with the press is rescheduled for the next day where she discovers Joe and Irving’s true identities and realizes they knew her’s all along.

     Perhaps the most emotional scene in Roman Holiday is this last one. Anne is still reeling from her romance and in any other setting would have run into Joe’s arms upon the joy of seeing him again. Instead, she must maintain the deliberate and restrained facade any princess must and takes questions without allowing her gaze to be fixed on her love. Breaking protocol, however, Anne announces she will meet a few members of the press and walks down the row of men and women shaking hands and offering calm greetings. She deliberately starts at the end opposite Joe and Irving so as to linger with them last. We are privy to all that passes between the couple during their slow handshake through the shots of their faces that to all else look perfectly normal. We can feel the tension and how difficult it must be for both parties to keep from embracing one another.

     Hepburn was perfectly cast as Anne, although her perpetually youthful look creates some question as to the age difference between the princess and the reporter. The young actress, however, naturally had the poise, accent and upbringing that easily painted her as royalty (her mother being an actual baroness). Her performance brings all the spontaneity we would want to see in a sheltered young woman living life on her own for the first time. The well-written dialogue rolls well off Hepburn’s tongue, such as in her sedated state when she instructs Joe to help her undress for bed.

     Peck, too, fills the role aptly. He lets the awkwardness of the original meeting with Anne play comically without having to be a funny actor himself. He also makes clear to us from the outset that Joe is not the sort of man who is really looking to exploit a girl for his own profit, so we can relax and know nothing sinister will befall Anne.

     William Wyler directs this high comedy. The master was given two options by the studio for shooting. He could either film it in color on a soundstage or in black and white on location. We can all be assured he made the correct choice. Rome itself becomes another character to the story as we experience some of her most famous sites and culture. The Italian extras also add another level of realism as they patter off half their dialogue in their native tongue.

Cinematic Shorts: The Letter

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The Letter (1940)

     For anyone who has ever seen Bette Davis in The Letter, I am sure there is one scene that we all retain as the most memorable: the opening one. We hear a shot fired and the camera brings us to a man stumbling out the front door of a house followed by Davis who continues to fire as the man collapses at the base of the porch steps. She pulls the trigger with a cold expression on her face, continuing to squeeze the trigger even after all bullets have been buried in the man’s body. This take has been featured in many movie montages about great films or Davis herself and is utterly unforgettable because of the woman’s carriage and emotionless delivery.

     In these opening few minutes we know that Davis’ character of Leslie Crosbie wanted her prey dead and that he was no stranger to her. We also easily surmise from her later account to authorities that not only is she lying about the moments leading up to the shots, but that this man Jeff Hammond was more than a casual friend.

     When I watched The Letter recently with my mother, I prepped her for the film by describing it as being about a woman who shoots her lover. Although it takes a while before that exact conclusion is laid out explicitly for the audience, it is difficult to draw any other explanation from the outset. Although Leslie acts stressed in telling the police and her husband (Herbert Marshall) about Hammond’s alleged rape attempt, she sort of laughs it off with the words flowing so effortlessly. As sweet as she behaves now, we cannot forget the woman we met in the opening moments whose gaze suggested a cold-blooded killer.

Davis is shot in multiple occasions with the prison-like shadows of window blinds.

     The plot is a well-convoluted story of what happens as Leslie is arrested and put on trial and the one piece of evidence that suggests a different relationship between Hammond and Leslie than the woman has been providing. This letter will take our anti-hero to dark places physically and emotionally, and the surmounting lies will eventually lead to her downfall.

     Davis gives an overwhelming performance as the woman we’re not sure we should be rooting for. She shows us a two-sided personality and draws us in so that we feel as miserable for her deluded husband as her in-the-know lawyer must.

     Director William Wyler paints a beautiful black and white scene for this flick set in the tropical locale of Malay. I cannot imagine this picture in color as it would lose so much of the intensity that the strong shadowing provides. Much of the film occurs at night making us feel as though Leslie has drawn us into the darkness of her world. Wyler also uses the moon’s light as clouds roll over it to both dim and brighten various scenes and capture Davis’ wide-eyed gaze. The Letter is truly a masterpiece in terms of acting and filmmaking.

  • The Letter is set for 11 p.m. ET Feb. 23 on TCM.

What to Watch: Friday

The royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton holds no great appeal for me unlike many in America, however, the grand event, set for Friday, brings with it a cinematic celebration of sorts on Turner Classic Movies. That evening, the channel will air a number of royal-themed films, all of which happen to be good flicks.

Royal Wedding (1951)

First up at 8 p.m. ET is Royal Wedding starring Fred Astaire, Jane Powell and Peter Lawford. I have never been in love with Astaire but usually watch his films anyway. This one, however, is among my favorites. Astaire and Powell are a brother and sister musical duo on tour in London for Elizabeth II’s wedding. Powell meets Lawford and the two have an adorable romance. Meanwhile, Astaire tries to court a dancer. The musical contains the famous “Dancing on the Ceiling” number whereby a trick of simultaneously rotating camera and set make it seem as though Astaire is actually walking on the walls and ceiling (the same effect was used in certain scenes of 2010’s Inception). This is also the first solo directing credit for Stanley Donen.

Roman Holiday (1953)

 
Next on the schedule is Roman Holiday airing at 10 p.m. Given that Audrey Hepburn is my favorite actress, I naturally love this flick directed by William Wyler. It was her first major role and she won her only Best Actress Oscar. Hepburn plays Princess Ann who runs away while visiting Rome and is rescued by American reporter Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, after sleeping pills have her adopting a street-side bench as a bed. The young princess explores the city anonymously, although Bradley has figured out who she is. No one could have played the free-spirited Ann like Audrey.

The Glass Slipper (1955)

A new take on a classic princess story, Cinderella, is the subject of the 12:15 a.m. airing of The Glass Slipper. Leslie Caron plays the pauper who is lucky enough to attend the prince’s ball. This flick is not as great as the previous two, but it is a nice live-action musical with one of the greatest musical stars of France: Caron. It also offers a realistic take on the fairy godmother character, who is a crazy old lady that fell from a prominent position in society after “reading too many books”.

The Swan (1956)

Finally, if you can make it to 2 a.m. you will be entreated to a romantic Grace Kelly flick that predicts her eventual royalty. The Swan casts Kelly as a princess whose family has fallen out of the good graces of a greater sect of the family that includes the queen. To save the family, Kelly’s Alexandra must win over a distant cousin (Alec Guinness) and marry him. The trouble is, she is in love with her tutor (Louis Jourdan). It is one of the less memorable of Kelly’s roles but a great one anyway.

 

The Little Foxes

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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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