The Best Years of Our Lives

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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At the end of my long and movie-filled holiday break, I finally got around to seeing director William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie that had been on my “to watch” list for many years.  Talk about ending my vacation on a high note!  The film is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the story of three WWII veterans who return to their midwestern hometown after the war, and their difficulties readjusting to life with their families, friends and jobs after years away.

Myrna-Loy-and-Fredrich-March-in-The-Best-Years-of-Our-Lives-1946Fredric March plays a middle-aged banker who served as an infantry sergeant in the Pacific and returns to his lovely, understanding wife (Myrna Loy) and two children (Teresa Wright and Michael Hall) who’ve grown up in his absence. In spite of all he has, he struggles to acclimate to the life and career he knew before.  He feels he no longer knows his children, chafes against the rules and regulations of the bank at which he works, and copes with his post-war trauma and uncertainty by drinking a great deal more than he should.

Dana Andrews gives a charismatic and nuanced performance as a guy who was a soda jerk from the wrong side of the tracks prior to the war, but who in the service became a captain and a decorated bombardier. All he wants is to return dana andrews & virginia mayo - the best years of our lives 1946to his wife (Virgina Mayo), find a good job, and move to the suburbs. Unfortunately the shallow woman he married after a brief wartime romance is unimpressed with him now that he’s not a glamorous army flier, and jobs for men with the skills he gained in the service are hard to come by now that planes are being decommissioned and nobody’s dropping bombs.  That Dana Andrews wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award for this role is an absolute travesty.  To me his was the most fascinating character in the film – a man whose wartime opportunities allowed him to escape a poverty-stricken upbringing and become a success, however briefly.  Seeing him come crashing back to earth when post-war realities set in is heartbreaking.

harold russell & hoagy carmichael - the best years of our lives 1946Harold Russell, a disabled WWII veteran who’d never acted prior to this movie and turns in a memorable and touching performance, plays a sailor who lost both hands in an explosion and fire.  Although he’s learned how to cope with the physical side of his injuries quite well, lighting matches, dressing, and even shooting targets using his new prosthetic hooks, the emotional repercussions of his loss are harder to shake off.  He can’t stand to be pitied by those he loves, and pushes his family away in an effort not to be a burden.

Every performance and storyline in the movie is pitch-perfect and honest. It’s not melodramatic or emotionally manipulative, and it doesn’t particularly try to be a tearjerker. The emotion comes from seeing these decent if imperfect men deal with displacement, awkwardness, and post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of the war, and from seeing their loved ones also come to grips with their return and the fact that the men they’re welcoming home aren’t quite the ones they sent away years before.

There are many memorable scenes in the movie: the three vets flying home in the nose of an army plane, looking down at the country they fought for; Fredric March reuniting with Myrna Loy; Teresa Wright gently and matter-of-factteresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946ly calming Dana Andrews after a nightmare; Harold Russell letting his sweet, girl-next-door fiancee (Cathy O’Donnell) see just how helpless his disability has made him; Dana Andrews walking through a graveyard of decommissioned planes, climbing into one as he tries get the past out of his system. The movie is full of moments that are honest, warm, heartrending and hopeful, and the characters are such real people that you grow to love them.

In spite of The Best Years of Our Lives being on lists of the greatest movies ever made, a winner of multiple Oscars and starring actors I like, I’d put off watching it for years. For one thing, I knew it would make me cry, and for another it’s almost three hours long and these days my attention span isn’t what it used to be. I shouldn’t have avoided it for so long, though! The tears I shed were worth it, and the movie was so engrossing that three hours sped by in a flash. In fact, I watched it a second time later that week and felt I got even more out of it with a repeat viewing.  I can’t say enough good things about this film.

The Best Years of Our Lives is available on DVD and airs on TCM February 26th and March 19th.  I highly recommend checking out this very special movie if you haven’t seen it before.  Don’t wait years and years like I did!

September Affair

September Affair (1950)

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Last week I watched a movie that’s been on my to-watch list for a while now, September Affair starring Joan Fontaine and Joseph Cotten, directed by William Dieterle.  Fontaine plays a concert pianist on her way to New York from Florence, Italy to give her first big performance.  Cotten is a successful engineer who’s in an unhappy marriage and came to Florence alone to try and figure out where his life is going.  When the plane they’re on has to land in Naples for a repair, they spend a few hours exploring the city together.  Then when they miss the plane, they decide to be “unconventional” and stay on together for a few more days as tourists and friends, exploring Naples, Pompeii, and Capri.

During those days they fall in love.  When they read in the paper that the plane they missed crashed and they’re presumed dead, they decide to escape their pasts and make a new life together in Italy.  Of course that new life is based on deceit and selfishness, so how can their love last?  Image

It’s hard to ever feel good about the couple’s newfound happiness since it’s founded in the unhappiness of others, most particularly that of Cotten’s wife and teenaged son. The movie doesn’t shy away from the questionable nature of their choices or give the characters a free pass when it comes to their behavior, even though they’re both likeable people and you can’t help wishing they could be together.  The one person who knows the pair is still alive is Fontaine’s piano teacher in Florence, portrayed by Françoise Rosay.  Rosay says and feels all the things I felt as a viewer watching the film.  She’s sympathetic with the lovers to a point, but also deeply uncomfortable about the decision they’ve made and its effects on other people.

Joseph Cotten is one of my favorite actors and he’s really good in this.  We can sense how disconnected his character has become from his family and his work, allowing us to understand why he’d snatch at the first thing that’s made him feel alive in years, regardless of the consequences.

Joan Fontaine has grown on me a lot in the past few years too as I’ve seen more and more of her movies, like Letter to an Unknown Woman and The Constant Nymph.  She’s lovely in September Affair, showing us a woman of intelligence and talent who struggles between what her heart wants and what she knows is right.

Jessica Tandy has a supporting role as Cotten’s wife, a woman who comes across as a decent and understanding sort of person, making her husband abandoning his family even more disconcerting.

The movie’s music is wonderful.  Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto is featured, as is the 1930s version of “September Song” sung by Walter Huston.  You can hear it in this YouTube video, and it’s very touching.

ImageIt’s a nice film to look at.  There’s just something special about Italy in the ’50s.  Cotten and Fontaine wander through a country that’s romantic and beautiful, but with a certain post-war grittiness still apparent.  Florence, Naples, Pompeii and Capri all look great, though it would’ve been nice to see them in color instead of black and white — especially when they visit the Blue Grotto.

The costumes by Edith Head are pretty, with shades of what was to come in Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday wardrobe a few years later appearing in Joan Fontaine’s white blouses, full skirts with itty-bitty belted waists, and summery sandals.

It’s too bad the movie isn’t out on DVD, because it’s a good romantic tearjerker along the lines of Summertime, Now Voyager, and Brief Encounter.  However, it’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime and on Netflix and is well worth checking out if you have access to one of those.