Category Archives: 1946

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)

If it weren’t for the first half of the film, The Best Years of Our Lives would be a series of vingettes. The film runs almost three hours. Almost exactly the first half is set over two days. The remainder is set over a couple months. Director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood don’t really do much summary in the second half. Subplots run through a series of the vingettes, never all of them–the film’s unequally but definitely split between its three male leads. Wyler and Sherwood reveal develops through attitude and dialogue. Time passes through Dana Andrews’s gradual resignation. Through Harold Russell’s depression. Alternately, I suppose, it also passes through Fredric March and Myrna Loy’s re-familiarization.

The film opens with Andrews, Russell, and March returning from World War II. Dashing Andrews was an Air Force captain, sailor Russell has lost his hands, older guy March was just an Army sergeant. The first ten minutes sets up the characters, their hometown (the fictional, vaguely midwestern Boone City), and the people waiting for them.

The first ten minutes establishes how much of the film is going to be on the actors’ faces. Watching real-life amputee Russell contend with the polite and not polite–among fellow servicemen–dominates. Whatever nervousness Andrews and March are experiencing, they’re always aware of what’s going on with Russell. And they aren’t comfortable. The bond between the three builds with that comfort, which Russell (and Sherwood and Wyler) determinedly demand. Much of the first half of the film is spent examining the three men; both for character development and just plain characters looking at each other. The men are strangers when the film begins, polite ones, but strangers.

Once they arrive home, it gets more complicated. Sure, the trio aren’t looking at each other, but they’re discovering the ground situation. Wyler and Sherwood lay it out for the audience and the characters. All the characters. Best Years focuses on the three men’s return home, but their supporting cast gets a lot of establishing and developing. March’s homecoming to wife Loy and children Teresa Wright and Michael Hall sets up two big subplots and sort of Loy’s character arc. Russell’s return suggests something similiar–he’s got a literal girl next door fiancée (Cathy O’Donnell) waiting for him–but it doesn’t end up being as big. Russell gets less screentime in the second half. The film always returns to him at just the right moment, when he’s been away too long.

He’s got the “simpliest” subplot–his depression and how it affects his relationship with O’Donnell. Andrews has got PTSD a rocky wartime marriage (to Virginia Mayo), and a flirtation with someone he shouldn’t be flirting with. March has got a drinking problem, a work problem (back banking for chickenhawk Ray Collins), as well as feeling uncomfortable at home.

Most of these details get introduced in the first half. Mayo shows up just at the end with some foreshadowing for turmoil, but nothing onscreen. Same goes for March’s work problems. Andrews and March get these subplots second half; Russell doesn’t.

It’s unfortunate but the film’s so good, it gets a pass on that one.

The first half also brings the characters back together. March drags Loy and Wright out on the town, running into Andrews and then Russell. They’re all at Hoagy Carmichael’s bar. Carmichael is great as Russell’s wise, piano-playing uncle. He defuses situations, which Andrews, March, and Russell frequently need.

Even if it’s just making Loy and Wright less annoyed. They–and the audience–don’t really understand the extent of March’s drinking at the start. Because Best Years is slow to reveal its subplots, slow to foreshadow. One of the reasons it can get away with giving Russell so much less (though his eighth billing isn’t okay) is because what it does give him is so good. Because Russell’s so good. Best Years of Our Lives is, spared down, about a bunch of people who really want to cry and never let themselves. Russell’s the only one who gets to go through that on screen.

Meanwhile, Andrews has to combat his stoicism. His arc is this complicated ego one, with the PTSD an undercurrent; along with the romantic troubles.

So Andrews and Russell have the toxic masculinity arcs. March doesn’t. His resignation and rediscovery arc is much quieter, far less dramatic, and awesome.

Because the film’s so long and goes into vignette, the actor giving the best performance isn’t always consistent. Overall, it’s probably March. But Russell. But Andrews. Supporting it’s easily Loy… though Wright and O’Donnell are both outstanding. Loy’s just got the least screentime for her own arc. She’s always supporting someone else’s. So watching her character develop, rarely in close-up, is special.

Because Sherwood and Wyler are great at maintaining and building on details through the subplots. Andrews and Russell, independently and then together, deal with some real homecoming nastiness (as well as general disinterest), but it’s in the March subplot where it dramatically culminates.

Such a good script. Sherwood’s pacing is phenomenal. Even when, for example, Russell’s subplot is almost overdue, the film hasn’t been dragging. Best Years of Our Lives never drags.

Wyler’s direction is precise, deliberate, patient. He’ll have silences–either filled with mundanely urban background or Hugo Friedhofer’s excellent score. He’ll have noisy–almost anywhere outside Carmichael’s bar and March’s apartment is packed with people. He’s nimble too. He’s got this over the shoulder shot he repeats a few times in the third act, with the divine Gregg Toland photography (there’s no other word). He doesn’t use the shot earlier. He does some similar things, at least with how he places the actors, but it’s this distinct stylistic thing he’s moving towards throughout.

The Toland photography is perfect.

It’d be the most jaw-dropping technical feature–and I suppose, really, it is because it’s the photography–but Daniel Mandell’s editing is a masterpiece of smooth, fluid, and emotively considerate cutting. The editing is exquisite, simultaneously bold and subtle.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a remarkable motion picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor; director of photography, Gregg Toland; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Hugo Friedhofer; produced by Samuel Goldwyn; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O’Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle), Marlene Aames (Luella Parrish), Gladys George (Hortense), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Parrish), Walter Baldwin (Mr. Parrish), Michael Hall (Rob Stephenson), and Ray Collins (Mr. Milton).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FREE FOR ALL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THERESA OF CINEMAVEN'S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH.


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Undercurrent (1946, Vincente Minnelli)

Undercurrent is the story of newlyweds Katharine Hepburn and Robert Taylor. She’s recovering from being in danger of old maidhood–despite being raised by two scientists, she’s content just cleaning up after widower father Edmund Gwenn’s home laboratory. Taylor is a captain of industry; he created some invention to help win the war. It’s love at first sight, followed by a whirlwind courtship, with marriage then taking Hepburn (and the viewer) from undefined, but quaint and snowy small town life to Washington D.C.

There she meets Taylor’s powerful friends, gets a new wardrobe, and starts hearing about Taylor’s former business partner and now missing brother. Taylor can’t talk about him without flying into a rage. Everyone else seems to think he was a miracle over for sainthood. Hepburn finds herself with an invisible third in the marriage and decides to save her new marriage, she has to help Taylor resolve the internal conflict.

Only it just keeps getting more and more mysterious and Hepburn finds herself overwhelmed.

Director Minnelli handles the film without sensationalism. It’s good direction, with a lot of attention paid to composition for Hepburn and Taylor’s relationship as it progresses through the film, but it’s not sensational. Hepburn’s not obsessed with her investigation; obsession would give her too much personality. After the setup with Gwenn and Marjorie Mann (in a fun little part), Hepburn’s character is about her reactions to Taylor. And the film is all about the viewer’s reactions to Taylor (as Hepburn observes his behavior).

Edward Chodorov’s script could be a lot better. Long portions of the film skate by just on Hepburn and the supporting cast. Chodorov wants to tease, Minnelli wants to interest. It’s like Minnelli’s too patient, too confident in being earnest; Undercurrent needs a little zest to it. Hepburn’s obsession is never an obsession, for example. A lot of big reveals just come off too thin, like if Minnelli had done straight melodrama, it could be a big moment, except the script is thriller–and shallow thriller. It’s not like Taylor’s got a better part than Hepburn. Sure, he gets more dramatic moments, but they’re dramatically and narratively acceptable, not outstanding.

After a lackluster finish to the second act, the third one starts out like it’s going to bring Undercurrent up higher than one might think it could get. Then the finale fumbles; the film can’t deliver on its promises. Chodorov’s script just gives the actors nothing. It seems like Jayne Meadows is going to have a good scene, but then it fizzles out quickly, Hepburn literally rushing from the room. Because Chodorov.

Same goes for Robert Mitchum, who plays a caretaker who reluctantly gets involved. He’s got three scenes, with the film building him up more and more, then kind of fizzling out on him too.

Taylor gets through the film mostly clean. He’s mostly either being charming, suspicious, or charming and suspicious. And he and Hepburn are quite good together.

Hepburn makes it through the film, carrying it on her shoulders. She doesn’t even stumble when Chodorov’s script throws her a third act curve and no time to recover; she, Taylor, and Minnelli get Undercurrent done.

Oh, and Johannes Brahms. Brahms is essential in getting Undercurrent to the finish. The film uses a Brahms symphony as a plot point and Herbert Stothart uses it as a theme in his score to wonderful effect.

Karl Freund’s photography is fine. Though not foreboding at all. His best moments are actually the exterior sets; he shoots those beautifully. The interiors are fine, but kind of dull. And Ferris Webster’s editing is fine too. Though he chokes a bit on the action editing. He can cut the conversations, the romance, the suspecting, but he’s lost in the action scenes.

Solid support from Leigh Whipper and Clinton Sundberg in sort of too small parts. Undercurrent is overlong, but it has too small parts for its cast. Chodorov’s plotting is goofy.

Thank goodness for Hepburn, Taylor, and Minnelli.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Vincente Minnelli; screenplay by Edward Chodorov, based on a story by Thelma Strabel; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Pandro S. Berman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Katharine Hepburn (Ann Hamilton), Robert Taylor (Alan Garroway), Edmund Gwenn (Prof. ‘Dink’ Hamilton), Jayne Meadows (Sylvia Lea Burton), Leigh Whipper (George), Marjorie Main (Lucy), Clinton Sundberg (Mr. Warmsley), Dan Tobin (Prof. Joseph Bangs), and Robert Mitchum (Gordon).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 'TILL DEATH US DO PART BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THERESA OF CINEMAVEN'S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH.


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Never Say Goodbye (1946, James V. Kern)

The first thirty-nine percent of Never Say Goodbye is phenomenally paced. It could be a short movie, if there were a little tragedy through in. A little melodrama. Seven year-old Patti Brady is moving back in with mom Eleanor Parker after living six months with dad Errol Flynn. They’re divorced. Flynn’s a successful cheesecake pinup artist and a cad, Parker was his star model and a Fifth Avenue blue blood. But they still love each other, Brady just knows they do.

And, even just as light forties screwball, it’s pretty good. S.Z. Sakall is the loveably inept owner of their favorite restaurant, Flynn is charming, Parker is lovely. Brady’s kind of cute. Her performance is fine. She’s not too obnoxious. She’s good with the other actors, but less so when she’s got to do a scene on her own. Hattie McDaniel’s her nurse. McDaniel’s good. Everyone’s kind of good.

Only then the script jumps ahead two months. I.A.L. Diamond and director Kern, in the second two thirds of the film, basically just string together screwball sequences. Not bad ones, but not great ones. It doesn’t help Lucile Watson–as Parker’s disapproving mother–is no fun. She’s not bad, just no fun. Donald Woods is no good as Parker’s new suitor, even if he does get one of the good screwball sequences.

The last third is similar. Forrest Tucker shows up. McDaniel and Watson (and Woods) are all gone. There’s new screwball, but nothing particularly good; it’s the weakest section–Parker’s characterization completely changes and Brady becomes incidental.

A lot of it is Kern’s mediocre direction–he manages to mess up a sequence where Flynn is pretending to be a Bogart tough guy (voiced by Bogart himself)–and a lot of it is the script. Flynn’s character is generic. Parker’s is even more generic. They’re both charming but don’t really have any chemistry. They’re far better with Brady than one another, which really cuts into the film itself’s charm.

It’s a really boring movie too. It’s less than a hundred minutes, but once that first third is up? Never Say Goodbye never gets moving again.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by James V. Kern; screenplay by I.A.L. Diamond and Kern, adaptation by Lewis R. Foster, based on a story by Ben Barzman and Norma Barzman; director of photography, Arthur Edeson; edited by Folmar Blangsted; music by Friedrich Hollaender; produced by William Jacobs; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Errol Flynn (Phil), Eleanor Parker (Ellen), Patti Brady (Flip), S.Z. Sakall (Luigi), Hattie McDaniel (Cozy), Forrest Tucker (Cpl. Lonkowski), Donald Woods (Rex), Peggy Knudsen (Nancy Graham), Tom D’Andrea (Jack Gordon), and Lucile Watson (Mrs. Hamilton).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 1: DREAM FACTORY.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)

It’s a Wonderful Life is going to be a tough one. When I was a kid, during the public domain days, Wonderful Life was omnipresent. It became a joke because of that omnipresence. But also because it’s undeniably sappy. And it has angels in it. It’s so saccharine, I didn’t even notice my eyes tear up for the finish. It’s so devastating, I also didn’t notice when they teared up at Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on the phone. Because It’s a Wonderful Life has all these things going on and some of them don’t actually interact with the other, which might be director Capra’s greatest achievement with the film. It’s well-intentioned, feel-good, historically relevant character study as epic. It’s a Wonderful Life is an epic. It’s a short one–the film speeds by in its 130 minutes–but it’s an epic.

The film has four credited screenwriters–including Capra–and a legion of uncredited helpers. The film has the rather expedient structure of heavenly intervention. Let’s face it–God magic is the best magic–and Wonderful Life is aware of the promise it’s making with God magic. A Greek chorus would probably be less awkward, especially since there’s angel bickering. Mind you, angel bickering shows up before Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t appear until twelves minutes into the picture. And it’s all about him. Jimmy Stewart doesn’t start his character–Robert J. Anderson starts the character and it’s great. The opening scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life are phenomenal. Capra goes all out with it.

Because most of It’s a Wonderful Life concentrates on Stewart and Reed, which is great because they’re amazing together and if it weren’t for the the last third of the film, Reed would easily give the best performance. The way she watches Stewart is exceptional. It’s a Wonderful Life has some strange cuts–apparently Capra even processed zoomed for emphasis–but the sound design always carries it. The film’s setting is about its sound, about its residents’ voices. Capra brings characters back in at just the right moment, in just the right scene, so the nightmare sequence at the end even scarier. Anyway, the sound and Reed. Capra will go for these different takes, jarring the viewer and forcing a reconsideration of the character. With Reed, it’s a little different. Capra’s direction of Reed during the courtship is about making her the film’s center.

Once Stewart and Reed get married, there’s a handoff to Stewart. Reed literally disappears. Capra figures out a way to show she’s still essential, but she doesn’t have to be omnipresent. There’s a lot of frantic qualities to It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s like the screwball comedy came home from the war.

So around halfway in, the film enters a different relationship with its protagonist. After Stewart being crushed again and again in the first half, the film has to show him get some reward. It’s a Wonderful Life is a mix of pragmatism, hopefulness, and cynicism. Stewart has to live up to the promise of the character before he showed up on screen.

Stewart has to make the viewer dislike him. The scene where he terrorizes the family is so freaky. The architecture designs, given room with the family’s things, are tragic. It answers a question It’s a Wonderful Life told the audience to ignore–sure, Reed’s actually perfect, but would Stewart have made it if he’d gotten away from home? Yeah. But he’s not even angry right, because when he’s angry, he’s supposed to be telling Reed he doesn’t need her and everyone knows he’s lying and is supposed to know he’s lying. He’s betraying the viewer’s expectation–and Capra knows how to do it too. The film’s a wonderful mix of sensibilities. Capra changes the pace, the tone. He introduces memorable characters in the second half. He doesn’t care. It’s awesome.

The nightmare part–does it even have an agreed upon term (it better not be some alternate timeline thing)–is this great twist. We’d been promised God magic and what did we get. Henry Travers, who looks as adorable as he sounds. Travers gets very little screen time and a phenomenal introduction. Capra still has these amazing scene constructions for the finale. And I think It’s a Wonderful Life, in terms of acts, fits Dan O’Bannon’s second act to third act transition mark better than anything else. The bridge. It’s Capra trying some things he’d tried before without success and scoring, time and again.

Very off track, which is the thing about It’s a Wonderful Life–there’s too much. There’s so much to process, so much to appreciate, so much to consider. It’s impossible for me to watch it without thinking about it in terms of anticipation and recollection. I don’t even think I watched it in order when I first saw it. Or it had been cut down to fit a two-hour block and was missing a bunch. I’ve been thinking about how the film works since I was a kid. It’s brilliant. Capra does it. He goes for it, he does it.

Great supporting performances from Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, especially Gloria Grahame. Frank Faylen and Ward Bond are awesome. H.B. Warner, Samuel S. Hinds. Everyone else but especially those people.

Technically outstanding, especially William Hornbeck’s editing and Clem Portman and Richard Van Hessen’s sound. They make Capra’s forceful moves work.

Dimitri Tiomkin ’s score actually doesn’t help with those forceful moves, but enables them further. Only then that great scene construction brings it through. It’s a Wonderful Life is like shifting plates in perfect rhythm.

And now I’m never going to write about it again because it’s all I’d want to do.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Jo Swerling, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra, based on a story by Philip Van Doren Stern; directors of photography, Joseph F. Biroc and Joseph Walker; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Hatch), Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter), Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy), Henry Travers (Clarence), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Bailey), Frank Faylen (Ernie), Ward Bond (Bert), Gloria Grahame (Violet), H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower), Todd Karns (Harry Bailey), Samuel S. Hinds (Pa Bailey), and Robert J. Anderson (Little George).


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