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!

The eyes have it

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I am neither a young rebel nor an old rebel nor a tired rebel, but quite simply an actor who tries to do his job with the maximum of conviction and sincerity.”

–Montgomery Clift

I’ve neglected this blog for so many months that I can’t imagine there’s anyone around to read it, but nonetheless I’m back!  My interest in things tends to come in big, sweeping waves, and lately that’s meant reading everything I could get my hands on about FDR and obsessively watching Mad Men and Glee.

The classic movie wave is back again, though.  That one always comes back.  Right now my movie love is all for the actor who never fails to move me with the intelligence, sensitivity and realism of his performances, Montgomery Clift.

There are many actors I think are wonderful.  Cary Grant tops the list, of course, and Gregory Peck and Jack Lemmon are way up there, too.  None has ever affected me quite as deeply as Clift, however.  Both in his performances and in who he was as a person, with his pain and his demons, he just breaks my heart.  Those eyes!  It’s so corny and cliche to say they’re the windows to his soul, but watch his films and you see it’s really true.

The Search (1948)

The Search was released by the Warner Archive recently and I’m so happy about that.  It would’ve been nice to have it available some other way, where more people would have a chance to see it (I wish Netflix would stock movies from the Warner Archive), but at least it’s on DVD at all.

The film is set in post-WWII Germany and was directed by Fred Zinneman, who gave it an almost documentary style. You really see the terrible wartime destruction of lives and families in this story of a little boy who is thought to be orphaned, his mother who is desperately searching for him after her time in a concentration camp, and the G.I. (Clift) who takes the boy under his wing and grows to love him.  If you can make it through this movie without weeping, you’re much tougher than I am!

Clift is so good in this, giving a wonderfully real, warm, understated performance.  He was such a modern actor. Brando seems to get all the credit for bringing that kind of realism to movies but it was really Clift who did it first.

 

The Heiress (1949)

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Clift’s role as fortune hunting Morris Townsend in The Heiress could have been a straightforward villain, but as with everything else in this great film directed by William Wyler, things are more complex and indecipherable than that.  Clift gives Townsend charm, vulnerability, and maybe even an appreciation of the sweetness of his shy, mousy bride-to-be (Olivia de Havilland), who has been dominated by her father all her life.

If things had gone differently and they’d married, perhaps he’d have learned to really love her, and maybe they’d both have blossomed into better people – she more sure of herself, he less shallow.  Who knows?  In the end Catherine gains strength and self-possession, but at the expense of her trust in everyone around her, and Morris seems to gain nothing at all.  Neither wealth nor wisdom.  Such a sad and completely enthralling movie.

A Place in the Sun (1951)

Every time I see Montgomery Clift as George Eastman in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, I can’t help thinking how amazing it would have been if he could’ve portrayed Jay Gatsby at some point in his career.  He would have been brilliant in that role.

I love this scene.  Both Clift and Elizabeth Taylor are so physically beautiful you can’t even believe they’re real, and they have such chemistry together.  “Tell Mama.  Tell Mama all…”  Wow.  Paging Dr. Freud.  (Whom Clift portrayed in a 1962 film, by the way!)

I Confess (1951)

I have a confession of my own to make.  I had never seen I Confess until this week!  And I call myself a Montgomery Clift fan, not to mention an Alfred Hitchcock fan.  It’s quite a dark, serious film, and one that reminded me much more of a film noir than a typical Hitchcock thriller.  I enjoyed it a lot.

Clift’s Father Logan doesn’t say much in the movie, but  you never feel you don’t know exactly what he’s going through.  The emotions and thoughts play across his face and show in those expressive eyes from the moment we see him hear a murderer’s confession until the end, when the killer dies in his arms.  The struggle between Father Logan’s duty to God and his fear of being unjustly accused is all there on that beautiful face.

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Wonderful Monty (3)

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Oh Monty, Monty.  I love him so.  If you ever get a chance to read Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Clift, I highly recommend it.  It’s one of the best actor bios I’ve ever read.  He was a fascinating, tormented, and incredibly gifted man.  He didn’t make that many movies, but I’m so glad to have the ones he did.