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The Best Years of Our Lives (Nov. 21, 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Directed by William Wyler
RKO Radio Pictures

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives premiered in New York City on November 21, 1946, and in Los Angeles a month later, on Christmas day. It was a hit with both audiences and critics, and was the biggest financial success since Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The film swept the 19th Academy Awards, winning in all but one category in which it was nominated. The film won best picture, Wyler won best director, Fredric March won best actor, Harold Russell won best supporting actor, Robert E. Sherwood won for best screenplay, Daniel Mandell won for best editing, and Hugo Friedhofer won for best score. (The only category in which it was nominated and did not win was best sound recording. The Jolson Story took home that award.)

There are several reasons for the film’s financial and critical success. It perfectly captured the mood of the times. In 1946, returning servicemen faced an enormous housing shortage, an uncertain job market, food shortages, and a turbulent economy (price controls were finally lifted by the O.P.A. around the time the film premiered). Combat veterans also faced their own personal demons in an atmosphere in which discussing feelings was seen as a sign of weakness. By telling the stories of three World War II veterans returning to life in their hometown, The Best Years of Our Lives held a mirror up to American society.

The biggest reason for the film’s success, however, is that it’s a great movie. Plenty of films made in 1945 and 1946 featured characters who were returning veterans, but none before had shown them in such a realistic, unvarnished way. The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t try to wring tragedy out of its characters’ personal situations. It’s an overwhelming emotional experience precisely because it doesn’t strain for high emotions. The film earns every one of its quietly powerful moments. Hugo Friedhofer’s score is occasionally overbearing, and a little high in the mix, but at its best it’s moving, and a fair approximation of Aaron Copland’s fanfares for common men. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography is phenomenal. Every image in the film — the hustle and bustle of life in a small American city, the quietly expressive faces of its characters, and the interiors of homes, drugstores, bars, banks, and nightclubs — is fascinating to look at. (Toland was Orson Welles’s cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and he was an absolute wizard.)

Russell Andrews March

The actors in this film are, without exception, outstanding. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, an infantry platoon sergeant who fought in the Pacific, and who returns to his job as a bank manager. Myrna Loy plays his wife, Milly, Teresa Wright plays their daughter, Peggy, and Michael Hall plays their son, Rob. Dana Andrews plays the shell-shocked Fred Derry, a decorated bombardier and captain in the Army Air Forces in Europe, who returns home to his beautiful wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married immediately before leaving to serve. Now that the war is over and they are living together, they realize they have very little in common. Harold Russell plays Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both his hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk.

Russell was a non-professional actor who lost his hands in 1944 while serving with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division. He was an Army instructor, and a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling while making a training film. Russell’s performance is key to the success of the film. An actor who didn’t actually use two hook prostheses in his everyday life wouldn’t have been able to realistically mimic all the little things that Russell does; lighting cigarettes, handling a rifle, playing a tune on the piano. More importantly, Russell’s performance is amazing. From the very first scene that the camera lingers on his face as he shares a plane ride home with March and Andrews, I felt as if I knew the man.

Russell is so convincing as a man who has quickly adapted to his handicap that it’s gut-wrenching to watch as his exterior slowly breaks down, and we’re drawn deeper into his world. Homer Parrish has a darkness inside him, and he carries with him the constant threat of violence; bayonets adorn the walls of his childhood bedroom and he spends his time alone in the garage, firing his rifle at the woodpile. His next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) keeps trying to get close to him, but he pushes her away. In a lesser film, this all might have led to a violent and melodramatic finale, but it merely simmers below the surface, informing his character. Instead, the most emotional scenes with Homer take place in smaller ways, such as when we see that he is not as self-sufficient as he seems, and needs his father’s help every night to remove his prostheses before he goes to sleep.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a great film, and should be seen by everyone who loves movies and is interested in the post-war era. It’s long — just short of three hours — but it didn’t feel long to me. The running time allows its story to develop naturally as the characters enter and re-enter one another’s lives. It also felt more real than any other movie I’ve seen this year. (I can’t think of another movie that wasn’t about alcoholism that featured so many scenes of its characters getting realistically drunk.) And despite all the personal difficulties its characters face, it’s ultimately an uplifting film, full of quiet hope for the future.

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A Walk in the Sun (Dec. 25, 1945)

A Walk in the Sun
A Walk in the Sun (1945)
Directed by Lewis Milestone
20th Century-Fox

A Walk in the Sun had its premiere on Monday, December 3, 1945, and went into wide release on Christmas day. Produced and directed by Lewis Milestone, the director of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), A Walk in the Sun tells the story of the ordinary men who serve in the infantry. Long stretches of the film are filled with the men’s meandering thoughts (both in voiceover and spoken aloud) and their circuitous conversations. When violence occurs, it comes suddenly, and its larger significance is unknown. The film’s exploration of the infantryman’s P.O.V. is similar to William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe, released earlier the same year. (Burgess Meredith, who played Ernie Pyle in that film, narrates A Walk in the Sun, although he is not listed in the film’s credits. When I first watched this film I was sure it was Henry Fonda’s voice I was hearing. I was surprised when I looked it up and found out it was Meredith.) Unlike The Story of G.I. Joe, however, A Walk in the Sun covers a much briefer period of time (from a pre-dawn landing to noon the same day), and its ending is more heroic, with little sense of loss or tragedy.

Based on the novel by Harry Brown, A Walk in the Sun takes place in 1943, and tells the story of the lead platoon of the Texas division, and their landing on the beach in Salerno, Italy. Square-jawed Dana Andrews plays Staff Sgt. Bill Tyne, a simple man who never had much desire to travel outside of his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Richard Conte plays the Italian-American Pvt. Rivera, a tough soldier who loves opera and wants a wife and lots of children some day. George Tyne plays Pvt. Jake Friedman, a born-and-bred New Yorker. John Ireland plays PFC Windy Craven, a minister’s son from Canton, Ohio, who writes letters to his sister in his head, speaking the words aloud. Lloyd Bridges plays Staff Sgt. Ward, a baby-faced, pipe-smoking farmer. Sterling Holloway plays McWilliams, the platoon’s medic, who is Southern, speaks very slowly, and just might be a little touched. Norman Lloyd plays Pvt. Archimbeau, “platoon scout and prophet,” as Meredith describes him in the opening narration; Archimbeau talks incessantly of the war in Tibet he theorizes will occur in the ’50s. Herbert Rudley plays Staff Sgt. Eddie Porter, an opinionated guy who’s always looking for an argument (Normal Rockwell’s wasting his time painting photo-realistic covers for the Saturday Evening Post, Porter says. He should use a camera. Some day magazine covers will have moving pictures on them anyway.) Richard Benedict plays Pvt. Tranella, who “speaks two languages, Italian and Brooklyn,” and whose fluency in the former will prove useful when the platoon runs across two Italian deserters.

All of these “types” seem clichéd now, but they’re probably not unrealistic characters for the time. The only really dated thing about A Walk in the Sun is the song that appears throughout the film, and helps to narrate the action. “It Was Just a Little Walk in the Sun,” with music by Earl Robinson and lyrics by Millard Lampell, is sung by Kenneth Spencer in the deep, mournful style of a spiritual. I didn’t dislike the song, but its frequent appearance as a kind of Greek chorus felt intrusive.

One thing that really impressed me about A Walk in the Sun was the cinematography by Russell Harlan. While A Walk in the Sun is clearly filmed in California, Harlan makes the most of starkly contrasted black and white shots that could have been shot anywhere. One of the film’s motifs is black figures against a white sky. There are a couple of scenes that reminded me of the famous final scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) in which death leads a procession of people down a hill. Several times in A Walk in the Sun, the platoon is depicted as groups of indistinguishable black figures walking down a black hillside, silhouetted against a completely white sky. And in keeping with the infantryman’s P.O.V., when the platoon lies down to rest there are a couple of shots from the ground, looking up at the sky, while arms reach up across the frame and exchange cigarettes.

A Walk in the Sun is one of the better World War II films I’ve seen, and it’s generally well-regarded, but not everyone liked it. Samuel Fuller, who saw combat in World War II as a rifleman in the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and would go on to direct many cult favorites, wrote a letter to Milestone complaining about the film. “Why a man of your calibre should resort to a colonel’s technical advice on what happens in a platoon is something I’ll never figure out,” he wrote. “When colonels are back in their garrison hutments where they belong I’ll come out with a yarn that won’t make any doggie that was ever on the line retch with disgust.”