Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

Director: William Wyler
Cast: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Harold Russell
Genre: Drama, Romance
Other Nominees: Henry V, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Razor’s Edge, The Yearling

The Best Years of our Lives deals with three World War II veterans who return to America to begin the road to rehabilitation, Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Fred Darry (Dana Andrews), and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). All three soldiers bare either physical or emotional scars from their wartime experience and struggle to adjust to normal life. We see psychological problems manifest themselves in all three, most notably in the night terrors that Fred suffers through and in Al’s struggle with alcoholism. And we see the physical devastation war can leave behind in young Homer Parrish who is missing both hands below the elbows. While all three suffer different agonies they each have women in their lives who attempt to help them through it. The Best Years of Our Lives is a film that tests the love that these women have for their men to see if it can survive the difficulties that the veterans struggle with.

There are three very different love stories in this film and each displays a different test for love to endure. First there is the love between the now disabled Homer and his high school sweetheart Wilma. Homer is a Navy officer who lost both his hands in battle and is played by Harold Russell, an actual war veteran afflicted with said disability. Despite having little acting experience Harold excels in his role, perhaps because the pain and confusion he portrays is less pretend for him than it would have been for other actors. Incidentally, Harold won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role and was commemorated during the ceremony for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”.

When we first meet Homer Parrish it appears that he has accepted his disability and even overcome it. Rather than suffering with what would have been an understandable depression he is jovial and lively while he speaks with his fellow veterans. But when his disability meets his old life, his family and his girlfriend, it surfaces as a painful problem and it is in the awkward embrace of his girlfriend that we first glimpse his suffering.

Fred Derry: You gotta hand it to the Navy; they sure trained that kid how to use those hooks.
Al Stephenson: They couldn't train him to put his arms around his girl, or to stroke her hair.

We learn that Homer is simply unable to accept the notion that Wilma can see beyond his missing hands. He does not want her to settle for him, for something less than she deserves. As he puts it: I want you to be free, Wilma, to live your own life. I don't want you tied down forever just because you've got a kind heart.” The love that Wilma has for Homer is tested to see if it can be blind to Homer’s physical disability.   

The second love story is between the older soldier Al and his wife of a few decades. When Al returns home he bears no physical disabilities and is even welcomed back at work with a promotion. But he has returned to find his children have grown into young adults and finds a wife who is distant and unfamiliar to him. Overwhelmed by his old life suddenly returning to him and by his inability to relate to his family Al turns to alcohol to help him through it.

Mrs. Stephenson has a great line in which she explains to her daughter that love is not always easy and alludes to the fact that she and her husband need to rebuild their relationship. This comes after the daughter exclaims that they have "never had any trouble." Speaking to her husband she says:

How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me; that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?

The love between Al and his wife is tested as they struggle to reconnect. Both have to be patient enough, kind enough and understanding enough in order for that to happen.

The third love story is a story of new love that has to overcome an enormous social taboo. Fred returns home but is unable to find his wife. It turns out she has taken up work at a nightclub and, using the money Fred has been sending back home, she has been living the life of a socialite. There is clearly little love between the two and the bitterness that lives in their marriage becomes all the more apparent when Fred is unable to find work and his wife has to face the prospect of a great lifestyle change.

Fred Derry: Thirty-two fifty. I used to make over four hundred dollars a month in the Air Force.
Mr. Thorpe: The war is over, Derry.

When this film was screened to audiences it is said that there were many audible gasps when Marie Darry uttered the word “divorce” to her husband. At the time divorce was severely frowned upon and considered to be socially unacceptable. By today’s standards the big moment has less of an impact and comes across as melodramatic but I think it is important to understand how unheard of this word was in film. Personally, considering that Fred suffered great psychological distress I found the disregard for his experience more shocking than the mention of the D word!

Marie Darry: I gave up the best years of my life, and what have you done? You flopped! Couldn't even hold that job at the drugstore. So I'm going back to work for myself and that means I'm gonna live for myself too. And in case you don't understand English, I'm gonna get a divorce.

The final test for love does not exist within this marriage but outside it. As he and his wife separate Fred meets Al’s daughter and they begin a romance together. But it is a timid and frightened affair that may not survive in the society it finds itself in. Of the three love stories this is perhaps the one most at risk of survival simply because of its environment. The ultimate test for both lovers is to see if their love is worth the sacrifice of being labeled a social outcast.  

The Best Years of Our Lives challenges love to conquer these tests. The test for love to be blind to physical or monetary problems, the test for love to be patient and understanding, the test for love to defy social conventions when necessary, and the test for love to endure ridicule. The men face enormous problems when they return to a life that no longer makes sense to any of them. In all three examples it is love that helps the men through their problems and in the end perhaps the movie argues that it's only love that could help them through it.

Up Next: Gentleman’s Agreement

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Howard Da Silva, Frank Faylen
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: Anchors Aweigh, The Bells of St. Mary's, Mildred Pierce, Spellbound

In the previous year director Billy Wilder directed the classic Double Indemnity, a film that was nominated for seven Oscar categories but failed to win a single one. It has been suggested that the success of The Lost Weekend owes a little something to its director’s snubbing by the Academy a year earlier. However, after viewing it and based on the heavy impact it had on me, I strongly feel that The Lost Weekend is a movie that, even today, stands on its own merits and deserved all the accolades it received.

Alcoholism is the subject matter dealt with in The Lost Weekend, a subject matter that is as important and prevalent today as it was in the 1940’s. The victim in this film is Don Bingham who is brilliantly portrayed by Ray Milland. Don refers to himself as being two people, Don the writer and Don the drunk. In one scene he explains to his girlfriend how these two Dons interact, and of how the writer’s lack of self esteem leaves him vulnerable to the drunk. Whenever he attempts to write, a panic seeps in and the drunk whispers in his ear, telling him that one drink will help. But as Nat, the local bartender explains “One’s too many and a hundred’s not enough!” In this way Don has never finished anything he has started writing and his self loathing keeps him stuck in a dangerous routine. “Don’t wipe it away, Nat. Let me have my vicious little cycle” he tells Nat who attempts to wipe away the condensation mark left behind by his last drink.

But as with all alcoholics no matter how disturbing their suffering is, it is the people who love them who suffer the most. In this movie we see two people suffer through Dons disease. Don has been living with his brother Wick free of charge for years and there is his girlfriend Helen St. James, who tells him “I know you’re trying Don. We’re both trying. You’re trying not to drink and I’m trying not to love you.” Both are just as much a victim as Don is. But while Helen, played by Jane Wyman, appears to be endlessly compassionate and forgiving, Wick Bingham has had enough of his brother and is seemingly beyond the point of being compassionate. When faced with the possibility that Don may harm himself over the upcoming weekend he lashes out and says:
If it happens, it happens and I hope it does. I've had six years of this. I've had my bellyful ... How often have you cried? How often have I beaten him up? Scrape him out of a gutter and pump some kind of self-respect into him and back he falls, back in every time.
The score to this film sounds as if it’s straight out of a classic sci-fi film. It is unrelenting and while it may turn some viewers off I thought it did a great job at helping to depict alcohol as a very real onscreen monster. In sci-fi/horror films the appearance of a villain is marked by a dramatic change in music, so too here is a glass or bottle of rye whiskey identified. In The Lost Weekend you are acutely aware when the villain appears to torment and destroy Don, as acutely as if an inhuman creature had just shambled onscreen and started towards him. The music confirms for us that for Don Bingham alcohol is a brutal enemy, a nemesis capable of destroying him completely.

As the weekend in question progresses and Don’s condition deteriorates some truly horrific scenes occur. After awaking to find him in an alcoholic’s ward of a hospital Don is warned of the effects of delirium tremens, or the DTs, a condition which the nurse predicts is imminent for Don given his blood alcohol levels. Don proceeds to escape the ward and return home where horrific hallucinations begin and culminate in the gruesome image of a bat biting the head off a mouse. This scene sees Don at his lowest point in the weekend, when his very sanity is threatened by his drinking.

My only argument against the greatness of this film comes with the ending. Until the final scene this film had been utterly uncompromising and as such had a profound effect on me. The notion of Don committing suicide had been foreshadowed throughout the film and, as disturbing as it is for me to say this, perhaps this film would have better sent the message it intended to send had it had a more negative ending. I will leave it for you to judge the final scene but for me, after being beaten mercilessly until then, I felt like the film pulled a punch.

Up Next: The Best Years of our Lives.