June 23, 2011

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

I find it fascinating that, so far, most of the movies chosen for being the most financially successful of their decade have been among the least well remembered.  I'd never even heard of Mickey or The Big Parade before starting my research, and The Best Years of Our Lives only sounded hazily familiar.  Some featureless drama among many; fodder for AMC/TCM.  Yet both Mickey and Big Parade turned out to be my favorite movie of their respective decade, and, while I'd be pushing it to rate The Best Year of Our Lives above Casablana or Kane, it was certainly a pleasant surprise.  A warm, unassuming slice of Americana, devoid of artistic ambition perhaps, but also of ego or cynical manipulation.  Oh, it's manipulative alright, and oh-so-convenient, but not cynical about it.  It's just that it has a little less than three hours to tell over 15 million stories.

In many ways this felt like something of a sequel to Big Parade.  It picks up the story where we left it - with the eruption of peace.  Both were filmed shortly after a World War, and both are very much "in the moment" if you will.  That is, not movies about the war or about how we dealt with the war, but part of the process themselves.  That is why I can forgive the film for pulling some punches and reaching some implausibly tidy conclusions.  It doesn't exist to study or examine or otherwise shine lights in dark places - it exists as part of the healing process.  For members of its generation, watching it must be like attending a gathering of treasured friends.  For me, it feels a bit like I'm peeking in from outside the window, but it put a smile on my face all the same.

As I said, peace has broken out all over.  We meet three vets just returned from overseas, struggling to find transportation back home amid the throngs of fellow soldiers trying to do the same thing.  Eventually they manage to grab a ride aboard a bomber on its way to the scrapyard (if that's not enough symbolism for you, wait till the bombers at the end!).  As we get to know the men, our expectations are, naturally, quickly upended.  The ragged infantryman turns out to be a wealthy banker back home.  The decorated Air Force officer turns out to be the weathered remains of a high school pretty boy, now barely able to get a job as a soda jerk.  The third man, a Navy mechanic, must confront his old sweetheart with the pair of steel hooks that have replaced the hands he lost in a fire.

From top: Dana Andrews; Frederic March; Harold Russell

The banker's obviously grim experiences at first appear to have left him too mentally exhausted to connect with the world.  But as he regains his strength, a newfound compassion emerges that he must reconcile with, well... with being a banker.  The pretty boy has returned with the wisdom and solemn humility earned by his experience, but not with any motivating purpose.  This he must reconcile with the expensive, party-loving tart he married just before shipping out.  No need to say what ails the ex-mechanic.  He is portrayed by non-actor Harold Russell, a real vet with real hooks, whose astonishing capability and earnest delivery rightfully earned him two Oscars for the role - the only time in history that has happened.

Of course he's good - he's learning from Hoagie Carmichael!

In terms of craftsmanship, the film was subtle but interesting.  As you might expect, the photography is primarily in that straight-forward Hollywood style that doesn't call attention to itself, though nonetheless clean and effective (notably, lensed by Gregg Toland, cinematographer for Citizen Kane).  However, it isn't afraid of a flourish where appropriate, such as a gliding camera truck that gives a scrap B-17 hull the appearance of one last flight.  Editing and music follow suit, being mostly utilitarian apart from the occasional long silence to allow us to soak up a moment or an emotion, or some rattling action music to score a harrowing dogfight flashback that we can only imagine.  That last one impressed me the most actually.  The flashback scenes don't even use sound effects to suggest the action - only music.  This is a clever decision that distances us from the character, preventing us from feeling too comfortable with the whole thing.  We aren't meant to sympathize - we're meant to see this as the weird, scary affliction that it is.  Overall, the filmmaking style possesses that careful blend of unaffected populism with commanding craftsmanship (and rote sentimentalism if you wish) that defines the work of Steven Spielberg - another thing this film shares in common with The Big Parade.  It's also worth noting that director William Wyler joined several combat missions during the war while filming the documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.  The experiences he gained there and among the crew clearly did not go to waste, as evidenced by the authentic human touches to be found under the movie's slick Hollywood veneer.

Favorite moments: Russell matter-of-factly explaining how lucky he is to have his elbows; Fredric March, as the infantryman/banker, gazing curiously at his haggard, hungover visage in a mirror in comparison to a dashing pre-war photo of himself.  March also won an Oscar; as did Wyler and just about everybody else (8 wins total).

Oh yeah, and Myrna Loy is in it too, for moral support.


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