Monday, May 28, 2012

Filled With All The Love And Warmth And Joy. . .The Human Heart Can Hold!

The Best Years Of Our Lives(1946)
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Harold Russell

World War Two, the greatest of all human conflicts, has spawned several fine films, many ranking among the best works in cinema. It's difficult to name just one film to represent the genre, considering the breadth and expansiveness, but one that truly stands out as being particularly excellent is The Best Years Of Our Lives, the finest film made about soldiers returning home and an essential for any film lover.
Many might say that this film is dated and/or would only be relevant to an American audience, but i'd argue this, as it's theme touches all cultures that have been affected by conflict and war, and certainly, the drama presented and the first class direction makes it essential by any standard.
At the time of it's release, only six months after the close of World War Two, and the first being about returning soldiers, this was the biggest film since Gone With The Wind(1939) at the box-office. It also swept the Oscars, earning seven wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and a Best Actor Award for Frederic March.
Not every film of this period stands up very well, especially message pictures, but this one is a wonderful exception and despite a nearly three hour length(!) the film manages to be very entertaining and moving, working as both a time capsule of the period and a tribute to that greatest of generations.

The Best Years Of Our Lives follows the return of three veterans, all from different combat theaters and all having served in different branches of the military. We are first introduced to snappy Air Force Captain, Fred Derry(Dana Andrews) who wants to get home to see his wife, whom he had only met and married twenty days before he went overseas. He is able to hitch a ride in a military plane that is also carrying a Marine Sargent, Al Stephenson(Frederic March) who is waiting to see his wife of twenty years. They are also joined by Homer Parrish(Harold Russell) a sailor who had lost his hands in the war, and now has to use hooks.
All three are nervous about meeting their respective families, and all do, with varying results.
Homer finds his family, loving and accepting, but finds it awkward fitting in with his new found handicap and disfigurement. Al comes home to his wife, Milly(Myrna Loy) and is able to find the same love he left, but his children are now grown and distant. It surprised me that his son mentions radiation fallout, and an implied sympathy for the Japanese, considering the time this was made, that seems like a very ahead of it's time philosophy.
Fred, the decorated Captain, returns to his parents who live in a railway shack and cannot locate his wife, who has moved out and is working at a local club. The men all have a hard time adjusting and this manifests itself in different ways, as Al takes to drink and Homer runs away to his Uncle's bar("Butch's") and that's where all the three men meet again. Al is joined by his wife and his daughter, Peggy(Teresa Wright) and Fred and her share immediate attraction. Al and Fred get plastered and Homer is sent home, as his uncle will not allow him to drink more than a beer and Fred ends up spending the night with the Stephenson's, as he cannot find his way into his wife's apartment.

In a very poignant scene, Fred experiences a recurring nightmare of some hellish experience he had in the war and wakes up from his sleep in a fit, where Peggy comforts him, displaying her empathy and her nursing skills, that were implied earlier when Milly explains what everyone has been doing, since Al was gone.
The next morning, Fred returns to his apartment, much to Peggy's visible disappointment, and reunites with his wife, Marie(Virginia Mayo), who takes him at first, but is later revealed to be a selfish and cold-hearted person. Eventually, her vain and high-living lifestyle catches up with them and Fred is forced into taking his old job...a humiliating job as a soda jerk.
Al returns to his bank and finds himself unable to be as callous and cutthroat as a banker should be, and is into giving veterans loans with little or no collateral, while Homer remains distant from his fiance, Wilma(Cathy O' Donnell) and feels a sense of helplessness.
Various complications ensue for the three, including Fred and Peggy having a near-affair, due to his too-quick and rapidly failing marriage, and Al telling Fred that he is not to see his daughter anymore. On top of that, Fred ends up quitting his job, after a run-in with a jerk who spews isolationist propaganda at Homer, telling him that the United States should have sided with the Japanese and the Nazis. He proceeds to punch the guy out, after he gets rough with Homer.
Eventually, Fred and his wife divorce, and he finds himself in an airplane graveyard, reliving some of his past. It's a scene that proves unforgettable, and is one of the best directed scenes I've ever witnessed, a moment both nostalgic and moving. Fred, who believes himself to have such little worth, finds himself working as a junk man, helping dismantle the very machines he flew to glory, such a short time before. I confess that this scene, along with the one involving Fred's father(Roman Bohnen) reading of his son's accommodation in service, to his wife(Gladys George) always manages to choke me up.
In the end, Wilma ultimately accepts Homer for his handicap, as she has said all along(another tearjerker moment) and they get married, with all the principal characters present. Al is still on the wagon, probably a way off from full recovery, but is helped by his family and friends, while Fred and Peggy find each other, and while we know the road ahead will he tough, it's an inevitability that these characters have come to accept and are ready for.

The Best Years Of Our Lives is not just one of the greatest movies, but an important film as well. Few films have been able to capture in essence, what the average serviceman and their families went through after the close of that conflict, or any war, for that matter, in such honesty and conviction. Director William Wyler was wise in utilizing a more gritty and realistic vibe for his picture, depicting a world as one seen by the average citizen, and offering a glance into a changing time. Much of what is presented appears ahead of it's time, such as the already mentioned discussion between Frederic March and his son about radioactive fallout and the lack of work and respect for servicemen, even though many may have been instrumental in saving the world. The scene with the irate man at the Pharmacy, ranting about how America fought for the wrong side, was actually believed by some at that time, and even some today. It's a credit to the director that it comes off as well as it does, without the threat of being perceived as being too heavy-handed.
This is more than mere nostalgia, though and Wyler is able to create fully realized characters that have stood the test of time. March won the Oscar for his role of Al Stephenson, though in hindsight, he probably had the easiest part. This is not to disservice his performance, which is excellent, especially in the subtlety of returning to civilian life and reconnecting with his family.
 March gains much sympathy throughout, as a man apart, but it really shocks me that Dana Andrews was not likewise nominated. He really has the toughest part, infusing various unspoken of issues, like the ego and importance that is built up by being an officer, and how hard it is to readjust to being an ordinary man, especially when one was at the bottom. Fred Derry is a young man who has made rash choices and like many, just wishes for an opportunity and a chance to leave his past. His recurring nightmares are probably the collective terrors of many men who had witnessed so many unspeakable horrors in combat. That walk through the airplane graveyard is a scene like no other, working at allowing the character to properly say goodbye to his past, while also weaving a nostalgic chord for the audience, witnessing the dismantling and awesome sight of the machines that helped preserve their freedom.
Harold Russell has come under attack in recent years for appearing too wooden, but this a faulty argument, when one considers his lack of acting experience, and the fact that he actually does a commendable job in this film. Russell actually won two Oscars, one for Best Supporting Actor and another special one for the courage that he gave many such disabled veterans. His character's good-natured spirit and likability made him a hero in the eyes of many and his scene of acceptance with his fiance, has to be one of the great tear-jerker moments.
Everyone is fine in this film, though. Myrna Loy was billed first, because of her status as the highest paid and biggest female box office draw, even though it seems bizarre today. She's the very image of the perfect wife(remember The Thin Man?) and has remarkable chemistry with March, and we believe that they have been together a life time. On the other hand, Virginia Mayo is the very definition of a bitch, a role she often played to perfection, and is particularly horrible here. We know almost instantly that Fred made a big mistake and jumped into this relationship too soon. Teresa Wright is clearly the saner choice and even if the ending appears to be very "Hollywood", it works well and it's doubtful that it should have ended any other way. Wright is just excellent here, so warm and kind, the sort of person so crucial to rebuilding men such as Fred, who have undergone such trauma. Ditto, Cathy O' Donnell, a lovely, underused actress, who is sweet and affectionate as Homer's fiance, knowing the man that left for war, is still the same one that returned home, even if he may not.

At various times in my life, I have claimed this to be the finest war movie ever made, even though there is not a single scene of combat. That opinion, admittedly, fluctuates with time. Other masterpieces, such as All Quiet On The Western Front(1930), The Longest Day(1962), The Big Red One(1980) and various others, may take the crown, though few are able to carry the emotion and impact of this film. The American Film Institute, in one of their few lucid moments, called this one of the 100 Greatest Movies, and while people may argue that It's A Wonderful Life, should have won the Best Picture Oscar for 1947, I wonder how many knew what the winner was and how good it truly is. For this critic, this is one of America's finest movies and one that has aged remarkably well. In an age of rampant cynicism and irony, this film "Filled with all the love and warmth and joy. . .the human heart can hold!" still has the ability to offer reflection on an important time in history, while bringing a dose of entertainment and genuine warmth that few films have matched.
Fewer taglines have been truer.

*This review was written on Memorial's Day and is dedicated to the veterans of all nations.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Price Of Courage

The Mortal Storm(1940)
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Robert Young, Frank Morgan

Oftentimes, here on Monster Mania, I find myself deviating from the norms of reviewing horror and genre pictures, to focus on classic films, since I am very fond of cinema as a whole. However, it's not that these non-genre efforts are not always relative, for The Mortal Storm ca be p perceived to be as frightening as any Hollywood horror film.
Today, this film will be seen by many as a mere propaganda piece, popular during the time, but few were made before 1941 and almost none were told with the sort of honesty as this one. Frank Borzage is a director that has been unfairly neglected in recent years, a man responsible for several film classics, including one of my favorite pre-code pictures, A Man's Castle(1933), which was reviewed on this blog last summer.
I've never quite understood why this particular film does not receive more recognition, though i'd have to venture it has something to do with perception and the jaded views of a modern audience. That's a pity, because for those versed in the subject, The Mortal Storm is a fine film and even if one is a novice on World War Two, it's still damn fine entertainment.

The film begins in 1933, with a beautifully delivered monologue about man's insecurities and fears, the background a sky of lovely clouds, which is eerily reminiscent of Hitler's arrival in The Triumph of the Will(1934).
The location is southern Germany and we are introduced to a kindly family led by patriarch, Professor Roth(Frank Morgan), who delivers one of his finest performances. Today is his birthday and he celebrates with his family and is greeted at his University with an award and the cheers of his students. That same day, Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany and his young sons(Robert Stack and William T. Orr) are very excited, as is Fritz Malberg(Robert Young), the fiance of Roth's daughter, Freya(Margaret Sullavan), who does not share the enthusiasm.She shares this belief with Martin Breiner(James Stewart) who does not agree with the ideologies expressed by the Nazi party.

In rapid succession, the peaceful town becomes populated with political radicalism of every sort, as Hitler's expressed nationality spreads like a plague, turning people against one another and leaving Stewart's farmer to remain in the mountains with his mother(Maria Ouspenskya of The Wolf Man). When he does return to town, he finds nothing but hatred and persecution, including the beating of a kindly old teacher, who refused to sing the anthem of the National Socialist Party. Things only get worse, as Roth's sons turn more cold and distant and the Professor finds himself an outcast in his own university, when the Nazi party refuses to believe that there are no differences between Aryan and non-Aryan blood. This leads to a massive bonfire, where all educational books are tossed in, including scientists and philosophers. It's a disturbing and disquieting scene. Shortly thereafter, the good Professor is imprisoned for his viewpoints and Martin escapes to Austria with the persecuted teacher(whom we suspect to be Jewish) and they head to Austria by skis, as Martin knows a hidden pass.

In a touching scene, Mrs. Roth(Irene Rich) is able to visit her husband in prison and finds him greatly aged and pained, as he tries to remain optimistic of his eventual release, which never comes. News arrives that he has indeed perished and this prompts the family to leave, but Freya is stopped midway to Austria, as she is carrying her father's notes with her, as such things are considered dangerous. Escaping the Nazis, she rejoins Martin, who has returned home, and they embark on a trip to Austria. Fritz is ordered to go and stop them, against his will, and before they can reach the border, Freya is shot by his men and dies in Martin's arms. Fritz is devastated and tearfully tells her brothers, as he leaves, they're now empty home. Robert Stack's character has by now lost most of his passion for the Reich and expresses the wish that they will be stopped someday. The final scene is devastating, as the camera pans over the empty home, the voices of the past fill the air like ghosts, asking for peace and wishful prosperity. It's a very powerful conclusion to an exceptionally dramatic and potent cinematic work.

To be honest, i'm surprised that MGM had the balls to make this. MGM often served the lowest common denominator, especially after the demise of Irving Thalberg, and the studio's films were often known for being too clean and overly moralizing. On the surface, The Mortal Storm, appears to be another propaganda flick and Hollywood product, but there's a measure of honesty running through it all that has made it stand the test of time remarkably well.
The performances are all above average, including Sullavan, in her last film with James Stewart, who is really quite poignant here. She's really the main character here and her character represents what many Germans were powerless to stop. Her final scene with Stewart is especially powerful and a great screen moment.
Admittedly, it's strange to see Robert Young and Ward Bond(!) as Nazis, but the point is made that the horror of the Third Reich were how normal, everyday people could be transformed into monsters and that this could very well happen to us.
It's interesting that the word, "Jew" is never uttered, but it surely is implied, especially towards Roth and the teacher. Not that it matters, for the prejudice and attitude towards those with free will is the point and this picture displays one of the Third Reich's great failings. Conquest was one thing, but the deplorable waste of human talent during the Final Solution, was another. Morgan is a good man, one that any country could be proud of. Rather than exploit that fact, this regime decides to punish it and that was a crucial error in Hitler's mad plan and just one of the many things that would bring about destruction of his "Thousand Year Reich."
Amazingly, The Mortal Storm was considered by most Americans upon release as being unrealistic, as most just did not know the full horror of the Nazis. They believed that the Third Reich had been "demonized" by warmongering, sword rattlers, but in a few years, they'd know the truth.
In many ways, The Mortal Storm is an important film, representative of a moment in time, that should not be overlooked, while also standing apart from many later films for it's own honesty and courage. This is not an easy film, rather it's a beguiling one, and even if certain aspects seem dated now, the message isn't and that's an indication of great art.