The Best Years of Our Lives

teresa wright & dana andrews - the best years of our lives 1946The stark reality of surviving life after war is best faced with the aid of friends and loved ones and that is story that is told in this 1946 film which remains one of the best films ever made.

At the end of World War II, three men meet hopping a military plane back to their home, a fictitious mid-western metropolis called Boone City. The officer in the group, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is returning to Marie (Virginia Mayo), a wife he barely knows, since they were married less than 20 days before he shipped out.  Although he was just a soda jerk before the war, his heroism as a bombardier in the Air Force brought him up to the rank of Captain.  Fellow passenger Al Stephenson (Frederick March), is a former banker who served as a Sergeant First Class in the Army.  The oldest and by far the wealthiest of the three, he is returning to his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy) and children, Peggy (Theresa Wright), who is in her early twenties, and Rob (Michael Hall) who is a freshman in college.  The third member of their party is Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a Navy man who lost both of his hands when his aircraft carrier went down in the Pacific.  A former quarterback, he now uses two hook prosthetics that he is quite deft with, but when he left for the service, he was engaged to his childhood friend, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) and now he worries how she will accept his apparent disability.

Although all three men are looking forward to their return home, there is also a deep feeling apprehension. They’ve all seen intense action, watched friends die, and suffered the many tortures of war.  How will their civilian loved ones receive them?  Will they ever be able to relate to anyone who hasn’t experienced battle?

Taking a cab together, they look around their old home town and Homer tells them about his uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) who runs the best bar and café in town. Attempting to avoid the reunion with his family, he suggests that they get a drink first, but the others agree to meet at Butch’s some time for a drink.  As Homer expected, his family is hyper-sensitive to the loss of his hands and he feels estranged from Wilma, although she shows him that she still loves him.  He is haunted by the feeling that everyone is ether staring at his hooks or purposely looking away–he is different and he feels that difference intensely.

After checking in with his parents (Gladys George and Roman Bohnen), Fred goes looking for his wife, but she is not at her apartment, having already gone to work at her nightclub job, so he ends up at Butch’s.

Al has a difficult time adjusting to the fact that his children have grown up while he was away and he is nervous and edgy. When Milly finds that they are out of liquor, Al decides to go out on the town with her and Peggy.  During the course of the evening, Al gets progressively drunker, but they finally end of Butch’s and find Fred, who is already pretty well tanked himself.  After Homer spills a glass of lemonade in front of Wilma and the two families, he leaves in frustration and also ends up at the bar.  The three of them are like people out of time and out of place and getting drunk seems the only way to deal with having to face this return to civilian life.  Peggy takes a shine to Fred, even though he is pretty well gone.  They take him back to his wife’s apartment building, but there is no answer when he rings the bell and he passes out in the doorway, so Milly and Peggy load him into the back seat of the car with Al, who is passed out.

Back at Al and Milly’s apartment, Peggy puts Fred in her room, loosening his tie, taking off his shoes and tucking him in while Milly does the same with Al in their bedroom. Peggy sleeps on the couch, but during the night she hears Fred calling out in his sleep.  He’s having a nightmare, reliving the loss of a friend’s life.  Peggy wakes him and calms him, wiping the sweat from his face and he falls back into his drunken sleep.  In the morning, he can’t remember where he is or that Peggy is Al’s daughter.  She enlightens him over breakfast.  When Milly joins them, Peggy gives Al a ride back to his wife’s apartment and Milly busies herself with trying to salve a very hungover Al.

Marie is a gorgeous blond and obviously lives in a completely different world of nightlife, money, and men, but when Fred tells her to quit her job, she agrees and tries to support him, even though he can’t find a job. When the money runs out, however, she can’t stand the idea of being poor and their relationship begins to suffer.  Finally, he takes a job working in his old drug store, spending part of his day at the perfume counter and part of it as a soda jerk.

Meanwhile, Al receives a call from his former boss at the bank, Mr. Milton (Ray Collins). They not only want to take him back, but to promote him to Vice President in charge of handling GI loans.  Al is uncertain about going back to work at the bank, but the offer is too good for him to pass up.  Early on, he receives an application from a former Navy officer who wants to buy some land to begin farming.  Although he has no collateral, Al approves the loan and is then counseled by Mr. Milton that they simply can’t do business that way.  Al tells him that the man’s collateral is in his heart, in his guts, and in his patriotism, but they part ways each seeing the situation differently.

When Peggy runs into Fred at the drugstore, he takes her out for lunch and then kisses her in the parking lot. They are in love, but the situation of his marriage is a firm impediment.  That afternoon, Peggy calls Marie and invites her and Fred to join she and her date for a night out, hoping that if she sees Fred and Marie together, she’ll get over her infatuation with him.  It coincides with a bank banquet at which Al is the guest of honor.  Before they all leave for the evening, Peggy confesses to her parents how she feels about Fred and that she is going to use the evening to get over her feelings.

At the banquet, Al again drinks too much. Milly watches him with apprehension and when he is invited to speak, he tells the assembled that the only way America won the war was by taking risks, by stepping in even when there was no collateral and getting the job done.  At the same time, Peggy is sizing up Marie and finding out that Fred is in a loveless marriage to a woman who is not worthy of him.  When she gets home, she tells her parents that she is intent on breaking up Fred’s marriage and having him for herself.  While all of this is going on, Homer has isolated himself, convinced that he is no longer worthy of Wilma.

This film comes with a stunning pedigree of collaborators. Producer Samuel Goldwyn got the original idea from a Time Magazine article about the difficulties of servicemen returning home.  He spoke with novelist McKinlay Kantor about writing a screenplay and Kantor produced a novella in blank verse called Glory for Me, which was adapted into the screenplay for The Best Years of Our Lives by the brilliant playwright Robert E. Sherwood.

Director William Wyler, who flew in combat missions over Europe during World War II as a cinematographer, was signed to direct. Although he assembled a top notch cast of well-known Hollywood actors to play most of the parts, he wanted to part of Homer Parrish to seem as real as possible, changing the character from a man with a psychological disorder to a tangibly physical manifestation.  It was this director’s decision that led to the casting of  Harold Russell, a non-actor in the critical role. Russell lost both of his hands while handling explosives making a training film.

The film taps deeply into human emotions. Almost from the very beginning, the viewer is led into the emotional landscape of each of the three men and feels a deeply human bond with them.  Wyler brings forth the best that each actor has to give in crafting a deeply felt, realistic portrayal of human being struggling with recovery after traumatic experiences. 

One might think that this film is all about the men, but it is definitely about the women, too. Frederick March and Dana Andrews give deep, emotionally valid performances as Al and Fred, but Myrna Loy and Theresa Wright are both amazing as Al’s wife and daughter.  Throughout the early scenes after the men return home, you can feel the women’s love and empathy as the stabilizing factors.  For an amateur, which Russell must be considered, his performance is beautiful and deep.  Never for a one moment does the viewer feel a false step in his acting, but the role of his fiancé Wilma has its own difficulties.  To be so good and true is almost impossible to achieve without seeming false, but Cathy O’Donnell’s eyes show the heart of the little girl who loved Homer and child and still holds him dear.

The movie is full of amazing little performances. Roman Bohnen as Fred’s father is mesmerizing in his brief few minutes.  Virginia Mayo gives unexpected depths to Maria, a part that might have been played as a simple tramp with no heart.  All of these performances add up to a movie that is completely compelling.

In glorious black and white.

I still consider this movie one of the ten best films ever made. It was certainly amply rewarded at the Academy Awards, taking Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Frederick March), Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Music (Hugo Friedhofer), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell).  At two hours and forty-eight minutes, it’s a miracle that it even held anyone’s attention, but it is so well acted and directed, so well put together that time is no object here and time is something I take very seriously indeed.  For any movie to keep me engaged for much over an hour and a half, it must be a truly special film and there is no doubt that The Best Years of Our Lives is a very, very special film.

The emotional engagement is a such a level that once begun, it is difficult to disengage until it is over. Emotional involvement is so important, so much a part of what makes a good movie that it is truly elevating.

This is a very special film and as important and vibrant today as it was in 1946. It should be a part of every serious film buff’s film library and it should be watched every few years, just so we never forget what a truly great film can be.

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Il Postino (The Postman)

Il Postino Poster

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.

~ Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

On a small, nearly isolated Italian island, a fisherman, Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi), lives with his father. A rather simple-minded young man, Mario hates being out on boats all day and complains of the moisture, so his father tells him to get a job. One night, at the movies, he sees a newsreel covering the arrival of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) to Italy.  A communist, Neruda has been exiled by political opponents and has come to live on Mario’s little island.

Mario sees a sign on the door of the post office advertising for a postman with a bicycle to deliver mail. The next morning Mario applies and finds out that it is a part time job to deliver Neruda’s mail.  As he does his job, he begins a dialogue with the poet.  At first, he is looking for an autograph, so he can show he is a friend of great Neruda and get girls, but as he reads the poetry, he discovers that it appeals to him in some way that he can’t explain.  The poetry stirs in him both a desire for love and a desire to fight for the cause of the oppressed.  Wanting to write his own poetry, he asks Pablo how to go about it and that leads to an explanation of metaphors.

When Mario falls in love with Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the niece of the local inn owner, he begs Pablo to help him win her by writing some poetry for him, but the poet refuses, instead giving Mario a beautiful book of paper to begin writing his own poetry. He brings Mario to the inn and signs the book in front of Beatrice.  Using Pablo’s poetry, Mario begins to woo her with great success, so much so that Beatrice’s aunt becomes upset, complaining about the evil metaphors in the poetry.

Massimo Troisi was a beloved Italian actor long before Il Postino, mostly for his wonderful comedic roles.  When he found the book Ardiente paciencia by Antonio Skármeta, he bound himself to the project, committing to not only star in the film, but to help write the screenplay, along with director Michael Radford, Anna Pavignano, Furio Scarpelli, and Giacomo Scarpelli, even though he was having serious heart problems.  He put off surgery in order to the film and dies shortly after it was completed.

The film is beautifully photographed, full of light and color, with the sea surrounding the island always prominent. There is a great deal of Neruda’s poetry included in the movie and it certainly enhances the beauty.  The film’s Academy Award winning score, composed by Luis Enríquez Bacalov, is beautiful and gives the film a heightened sense of the love not only between Mario and Beatrice, but the brotherly love between Mario and Pablo.

Besides the win for film score, it was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screeplay Adaptation. The soundtrack features many well known actors reading Neruda’s poetry to the film score.  Some of the readers include Julia Roberts, who backed the project, Glenn Close, Ethan Hawke, Andy Garcia, Madonna, and Wesley Snipes, among others.

This is an excellent film. It is beautiful, full of poetry, music, and love.  In Italian, with subtitles in English, it runs an hour and forty-eight minutes.

Ordinary People

Ordinary Tim Hutton Elizabeteh McGovernFor those who remember what life was like in 1980, Ordinary People will be a real trip to the past.  For those who are too young to know, this movie will give you a brief tutorial in clothing, hair styles, cars, and so on.  For both types of people, this will be an extraordinary family drama, full of terrific performances, raw and deeply moving.  It won four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Robert Redford.

Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) is a high school senior in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Plagued with insomnia, he is a loner who shuns his friends and can barely communicate with his father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore).  Recently released from a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt that was foiled by his father, Conrad has been home now for over a month, but still has not started therapy.  The false happiness and optimism of his parents grates against him as they all attempt to cope with the incident that started everything down this crazy road: the death of Buck, the older son in the family.  Calvin pretends that life can go on without regard to the death, while Beth seems to have retreated into a coldness that allows for no emotion whatsoever.

Finally, Conrad goes to see a therapist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), but all he can talk about is maintaining control over his life. Berger would like to see the boy experience some emotion, to face his own anger, terror, and remorse, but Conrad tries desperately to hold on.  Remembering how much he liked his time in the hospital, Conrad seeks out a girl that he had been friends with there, Karen (Dinah Manoff), but she seems reluctant to find a relationship with him.  She tells him that she is happy now and that he should be optimistic, too.  “Let’s have the best year of our lives,” she tells him.  At school, he continues on the swim team, which had been previously dominated by his brother, with all of the awards to prove it, but Calvin is, at best, a mediocre swimmer.  He finds it impossible to relate to his old friends, who were all friends of Buck’s, too.

The girl who stands in front of him in choir, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) makes friends with him and a mutual attraction develops. For the first time since the accident that killed his brother, Conrad begins to have a sense of optimism.  But the tension within the family contains more than just Conrad’s angst.  Calvin has serious trouble dealing with Beth’s apparent lack of emotion and he goes to see Dr. Berger himself, discovering that he still has lingering grief over his son’s death and openly questions why his wife didn’t cry at the funeral.

As Christmas approaches, two dynamic incidents explode the plot wide open. Beth discovers that Conrad quit the swim team a month earlier and hadn’t told them, then Conrad finds out that his friend Karen has committed suicide.

Director Robert Redford handles this emotionally charged story very deftly. It could very easily have gone maudlin and mushy, but it always seems real and always completely honest.  There’s no fancy camera work or other tricks to divert us from the story, but Redford has a keen sense of pacing.  Two hours and four minutes of emotionally charged angst could have been way too much, but I never noticed the action dragging for one moment.  To be perfectly honest, I don’t really like dramas, but I couldn’t stop watching this one.  It is superbly crafted and Redford was deserving of the two Academy Awards.

The heartbeat of the story is provided by Timothy Hutton. His performance as Conrad is one of the best dramatic performances ever and he was given an Academy Award for it.  I’m not sure why they gave him Best Supporting Actor, when he is clearly the lead in this movie, but he would have deserved either one.  Donald Sutherland is terrific as Conrad’s father, giving a deep, heartfelt performance.  I felt a little bad for Mary Tyler Moore, because her character was so emotionally in control that she didn’t have the opportunity to really reveal her talents.  Nevertheless, she did an awful lot with very little to go on.  I kept wishing that they could have gotten Beth in to see the psychiatrist, because I felt that she was the one of all three that actually needed therapy more.  Hirsch is very good as the psychiatrist and both McGovern and Manoff are believable as the two girls.

The fourth Academy Award went to Alvin Sargent for his adaptation of the novel by Judith Guest. It is a really good screenplay, very tight, and beautifully crafted.

The title of the movie is enigmatic. On one hand, this really isn’t an ordinary family.  They are quite wealthy.  The parents golf, they are members of the country club, and their friends are all equally rich, if not more so.  But the title isn’t “ordinary family,” it’s Ordinary People and the title rings true on that level.  Stripped of their wealth, these people are just like everyone, struggling with their problems, trying to figure out how to live their lives in the face of adversity, trying to pretend that things are better than they really are so they won’t have to think about them.

One revealing scene occurs on Calvin’s first date with Jeannine. As they sit in McDonald’s eating burgers, she asks him what it was like to commit suicide.  He looks at her and remarks that she is the only person–outside of therapy–who has asked him about it.  That one stretch of dialogue speaks volumes about the level of disconnect that exists in this family, their utter refusal to face Conrad’s problems.

This is a great film and it is certainly one of the best domestic dramas of all time. Everyone should see it!