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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 55

Part 55: 1947


MOVIES:

  • The Yearling

  • The Razor's Edge

  • The Best Years of Our Lives (winner)

  • It's a Wonderful Life (hidden gem)

  • Henry V

The Yearling

Director: Clarence Brown

Starring: Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, Claude Jarman Jr., Chill Wills, Clem Bevans, Margaret Wycherly, Henry Travers, Forrest Tucker, Donn Gift

Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction (Color), Best Cinematography (Color)

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Actress (Jane Wyman), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture


When you think of “family films” these days, a lot of them probably involve a cartoon animal or a sassy Lego character…but back in the day, it wasn’t rare to get a “family film” that tackled the big themes of growing up, personal responsibility and maybe even the death of a loved one. These themes were meant to speak to audiences young and old. They include such classics as Old Yeller, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and the somewhat forgotten The Yearling.


Based on the 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Yearling tells the story of a young boy and a rambunctious deer, but it speaks to larger issues that made it a hit with audiences. If it were made today, it would never fly as it stands and it’s certainly one of those films that needs to be appreciated for what it was at the time.

Pa (Gregory Peck) and Ma (Jane Wyman) are pioneer farmers who live and work deep in the Florida backwoods. Their son, Jody (Claude Jarman, Jr.) is their sole surviving child.


Tormented with the loss of her three other children, Ma exudes a cold demeanor to Jody, refusing to hug him, kiss him, or even acknowledge his basic existence. Jody, therefore, finds comfort with his father and the two bond over the daily routines of farm life.


On one particular occasion, Pa gets bit by a snake. He kills a doe, believing her liver and heart will help absorb the poison from his body. The doe leaves behind a fawn and Jody insists that he cares for it. Pa agrees – it’s a great way to teach his son how to care for another living thing. Ma, unsurprisingly, is not a fan.

The deer grows quickly and becomes a major nuisance around the farm. He helps himself to the crops, causing panic that Pa, Ma and Jody will starve to death during the coming winter. Not to mention the deer is a wild animal and has no business being domesticated. And when the ultimatum eventually arrives, Jody must learn that heartbreak comes hand in hand with survival.


Though the selling point of The Yearling is the baby deer (and probably Gregory Peck, let’s be honest), this is purely Jody’s story. He has grown up without any siblings or friends and is desperate for companionship. His only exposure to the world is when he joins his dad on bear hunts, going to the neighbor’s house for business or travels to the local store to buy supplies. Like many kids his age, there’s a lot he doesn’t understand about the world, but through his unique experiences, he gets a taste of the best and the worst the world has to offer.

Likewise, those coming into this film expecting a movie about a boy and his deer pet are going to be disappointed. This is much more a story of a boy and his parents and the complexities that build and destroy those relationships. While the scenes with the baby deer are of course precious, it’s only a minor part of the story. In fact, the deer doesn’t even appear until more than an hour into the movie. This is much more a tale about children who have to grow up and face some harsh realities. Like others in this classic “family film” category, it teaches us that life can be devastating at times, but also quite fulfilling.

 

The Razor's Edge

Director: Edmund Goulding

Starring: Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, John Payne, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb, Herbert Marshall, Lucile Watson, Frank Latimore, Elsa Lanchester, Cecil Humphreys, Fritz Kortner

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Anne Baxter)

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Picture


The Razor’s Edge is a film with a promising idea, but it doesn’t quite know how to deliver. It’s a somewhat dull dive into the human existence, particularly that of a returning World War I soldier. It wants to say something about the complexities of PTSD, but doesn’t quite have the tools (or the guts) to get there.


Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) is a returning World War I soldier who is trying to process the fact that a fellow soldier died to save his life. He’s struggling to find the meaning of life, particularly his own. He is desperate to find his place in this world and the purpose of his existence. Relatable.

His struggles don’t exactly bode well with his fiancée Isabell (Gene Tierney), a socialite who wants Larry to find a good job and accept his high status in life…aka suck it up and go to parties with me!


But Larry doesn’t feel that way. He decides to take a gap year of sorts, travelling to Paris and India to find himself. Meanwhile, Isabel can’t wait forever. She decides to marry a wealthy man named Gray (John Payne)…a man who has everything until he loses it all in the 1929 Wall Street crash.


Upon his return, Larry reconnects with his childhood friend, Sophie (Anne Baxter) who has her own set of problems. Bound with his savior complex, he decides to marry Sophie but Isabel, who is still in love with him, won’t have it. Eventually, someone ends up murdered…who done it? And why?

The Razor’s Edge tries unraveling the deep conflicts of the soul but, in many ways, is soulless. It’s a movie about rich people who scream prestige, yet go around talking about living an honest and simple life. The entire film is the exact opposite of what it’s trying to preach.


The only redeeming one is Anne Baxter, who’s Oscar-bait role succeeded in winning her an Academy Award for Best Actress. She easily had the meatiest role in the film and was given the best character arc out of the whole cast. While her best performance might still be All About Eve, she shines here in a part that seemed to be written for her specifically.

While The Razor’s Edge tried to touch on the difficulties of living with PTSD, particularly after seeing combat, it still couldn’t tell a cohesive story with believable and relatable characters (in my opinion, the winner for this year – The Best Years of Our Lives – tackled this way better).


For Larry, life after war wasn’t so much a struggle as it was an excuse to leave a woman you didn’t really love to explore a world you’ve never seen and live a life you’ve always wanted. Not everyone in his position was so lucky. For many soldiers, life after war was filled with challenges and hardships. While The Razor’s Edge may have told an intriguing story, it was far from a realistic one.

 

The Best Years of Our Lives

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell, Gladys George, Roman Bohnen, Ray Collins, Minna Gombell, Walter Baldwin, Steve Cochran, Dorothy Adams, Don Beddoe, Marlene Aames, Charles Halton, Ray Teal, Howland Chamberlain, Dean White, Erskine Sanford, Michael Hall, Victor Cutler

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score (Drama), Special Award, Best Screenplay, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Sound Recording


It’s no secret that even winners pay a toll when it comes to war. Many soldiers returning home struggle with reacclimating themselves into the world, and the families, they left behind.


When The Best Years of Our Lives was released in 1946, World War II had just ended. Survivors were coming home – some with physical scars, most with psychological ones. Yet they all returned with the same goal of putting the past behind them and returning to life as usual…but that wasn’t always so easy. Wives and children had become strangers. Marriages, sometimes started on impulse before the man went overseas, foundered. Jobs were scarce, money was scarce, and – for many – the American Dream had turned into a nightmare.

What makes The Best Years of Our Lives so unique among the plethora of World War II movies that have been made is how it treats the mental and emotional health of its main characters. The first is Al Stephenson (Fredric March), an infantry soldier somewhere in his 40s. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), is a frequently decorated Air Force captain who commanded bombing missions. The final character is Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a Navy man – and the youngest of the three – who lost both his hands and now wears hooks. While Homer’s injuries are the only visible ones, each man carries his own psychological burdens as they attempt to acclimate back into the lives they left behind.


One by one, we meet their families. Homer, who still lives with his parents, is given a bittersweet greeting. While his mother, father, and fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) are all elated to see him, there are moments of awkwardness when they glance at his lost hands. Though they display no dismay at his disability, he’s still left feeling inadequate.

Fred, who quickly married Marie (Virginia Mayo) before he left for war, can’t seem to locate her anywhere. She’s stopped writing to him and every attempt to visit her at their old place goes unanswered.


Al returns to a full house. His wife, Milly (Myrna Loy); daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright); and son, Pat (Michael Hall); are all there to welcome him home. Yet Al feels uncomfortable. His wife has changed…his children have changed. He decides to get out of the house for a bit and goes bar-hopping with Milly and Peggy.

Later on that night, Al and company run into Homer and Fred at a local bar, each man looking to drink away his sorrows. It’s here where Fred meets Al’s daughter Peggy, and the two begin to fall in love.


Yet even the love of family and friends can’t mask the torment these men feel after war. Al has difficulty accepting that his wife and children aren’t what he imagined them to be during his absence. Homer can’t get close to anyone, fearing his disability will cause him to be a burden on those he loves. And Fred, who finally tracks down his wife and realizes what a complete bonehead she is, can’t seem to find a job to help pay for her lavish lifestyle. Not to mention he has growing feelings for Peggy.

What makes The Best Years of Our Lives so effective is that it makes no effort to paint these men as anything less than they are. Everything about them is pretty average, which probably helps make this film feel relatable even today. The acting is also top-notch, particularly Harold Russell, a real handless veteran with no acting training at all. For his part in The Best Years of Our Lives, Russell actually won an honorary Oscar “…for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.” He also won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, making him the only person to win two Oscars for the same role.


Perhaps the saddest part of this movie is the indication that these men had ‘the best years of their lives’ in wartime, not in their experiences after the war. Though each man came home, in one way or another, to open arms, there are some wounds that can’t be healed with love. Some wounds turn into scars that we carry with us for the remainder of our years.

 

It's a Wonderful Life

Director: Frank Capra

Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H. B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Virginia Patton, Charles Williams, Sara Edwards, Bill Edmunds, Lillian Randolph, Argentina Brunetti, Bobbie Anderson, Ronnie Ralph, Jean Gale, Jeanine Ann Roose, Danny Mummert, Georgie Nokes, Sheldon Leonard, Ray Walker, Edward Kean, Carol Coomes, Karolyn Grimes, Larry Simms, Jimmy Hawkins

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (James Stewart), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, Best Picture


In the years following World War II, many Americans were struggling with a very specific mental hurdle. Many soldiers who had returned home were wracked with mental anguish over what they had seen and done.


Today we recognize this as PTSD, but 1940’s America had no such diagnosis. In an effort to better understand what these men had experienced, many turned to the movies…stories about men coming home from war and trying their damnedest to make their sacrifice worth something. The movies of 1946 alone saw several films about soldiers coming home and trying to assimilate back into society. The Best Years of Our Lives, which took home the Oscar for Best Picture this year, was one of them. And on the same day that movie started shooting, another film about a man so down on his luck that he attempts suicide started filming as well. Little did the world know what an impact this little film would have long after its initial release.

Buut it didn’t start out that way. Both The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life focused on life after war, but The Best Years of Our Lives had the added bonus of perfectly capturing the country’s mood. It’s a Wonderful Life was technically a box office bomb, losing more than $500,000 and was all but forgotten until repeated TV showings in the 1970’s helped it find its rightful place among many top holiday watchlists.


The plot of It’s a Wonderful Life is known to pretty much everyone at this point. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is a man who never quite makes it out of his quite birthplace of Bedford Falls. As a child, George lost his hearing in one ear after risking his life to save his brother from drowning. As an adult, he gave up his dreams of traveling the world and going to college to stay home and manage the Bailey Building and Loan after his father passes away. Through he dreams of shaking the dust from his shoes and traveling to far-off lands, he knows his responsibility is at home.

The villain of the story is a pompous old man named Potter (Lionel Barrymore), who uses his considerable wealth to bleed the citizens of Bedford Falls dry. The Bailey Building and Loan is the only institution in town he doesn’t own…and he’s willing to do anything to get his grubby little hands on it.


Meanwhile, George marries his high school sweetheart, Mary (Donna Reed) and settles down to raise a family. Everything seems okay until George’s uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) misplaces some bank funds, causing Bailey’s Building and Loan to go into financial ruin. Desperate for financial help, George begs Mr. Potter for help, which – like the asshole he is – he refuses.

George is at the end of his rope. Standing on a bridge, he contemplates suicide. He’s about to jump when someone beats him to it. George jumps in to save the man, only to discover it’s none other than Clarence (Henry Travers), George’s lovable, bumbling guardian angel who has come to Bedford Falls to prove to George that his life is worth living.


He grants George a wish – the chance to see what the world would be like if he never had been born. As he and George travel through an alternate reality, they observe how much worse off many people would be without George.


It’s no surprise that It’s a Wonderful Life is actually a darker film than its feel-good reputation might suggest. It is, after all, a movie about a man who puts his dreams on hold, again and again, for the betterment of his community. In fact, it’s not unlike America at the time…a country that was asked to set aside other goals to respond to crisis.

Though it’s a classic holiday film today, director Frank Capra never intended for It’s a Wonderful Life to be a Christmas movie. He wanted it to mainly be a celebration of the lives and dreams of America’s ordinary citizens, those who tried the best they could to do the right thing by themselves and their neighbors. It fact, both Capra and Jimmy Stewart considered it their favorite film.


At its heart, It’s a Wonderful Life is not about a crisis and a happy ending. It’s about frustration, compromise, oppression and loss. And not just a day of it, a lifetime of it. But it’s also about how such a life can still be a life well lived.

 

Henry V

Director: Laurence Olivier

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Renée Asherson, Robert Newton, Leslie Banks, Felix Aylmer, Robert Helpmann, Vernon Greeves, Gerald Case, Griffith Jones, Morland Graham, Nicholas Hannen, Michael Warre, Ralph Truman, Ernest Thesiger, Frederick Cooper, Roy Emerton, Freda Jackson, George Cole, George Robey, Harcourt Williams, Russell Thorndike, Leo Genn, Francis Lister, Max Adrian, Jonathan Field, Esmond Knight, Michael Shepley, John Laurie, Niall MacGinnis, Frank Tickle, Ivy St. Helier, Janet Burnell, Brian Nissen, Arthur Hambling, Jimmy Hanley, Ernest Hare, Valentine Dyall

Oscar Wins: Special Award

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Best Art Direction (Color), Best Musical Score (Drama), Best Picture


The year 1415 must have had a serious lack of barbers.


Based on the Shakespearean play of the same name, Henry V tells the story of a young English king – with the worst haircut I’ve ever seen – who puts aside his misspent youth and embarks on a quest to recapture France. This campaign culminates at the Battle of Agincourt, when the English army defeated a much larger French force.


The film version, starring Laurence Olivier as Henry V, begins with a panoramic view of 1600s London. Slowly we zoom into the big O of the Globe Theatre, where Henry V is about to be performed. Women are selling fruits, men are selling drinks, theatregoers are milling about. We’re dropped into the theatre as if we were a patron.

Suddenly, the play begins. The Chorus (Leslie Banks) tells the audience that a story like this, including the famed battle of Agincourt, cannot be held entirely within the constrains of the theatre; therefore, he tells us “…on your imaginary forces work…” – basically, we can’t bring 2,000 horses onto this stage so, you know, just use your imagination.


The remainder of the first third of the film carries on this way – as if we’re watching a PBS version of the stage show. There’s a noisy audience, Shakespearean “in-jokes”, as well as everyday theatrical problems – actors missing cues and losing scripts.

It’s not until Laurence Olivier steps on stage as King Henry V that the players become more confident. The scenery becomes more realistic. The audience gradually disappears and, eventually, so does the theatre. And, just like that, we’re in some imaginary land where the battle of Agincourt comes to life on a colorful set, complete with all the extras, horses, weapons and battles that could never be shown on stage.


Shot in Technicolor, Henry V is about one notch below the gaudiness of 1939’s Robin Hood. It looks like something out of a fairy tale, with vibrant costumes and elegant set designs that look like a modern theatrical painting or set drop. Though the physical theatre might be gone, we never lose the feeling that we’re watching a play.

Once the battle is over and Henry conquers France, he meets the French Princess Katherine (Renee Asherson). The two fall in love and, just like that, we arrive back to the Globe Theatre…Henry’s costume not quite so bright, Katherine morphing from a beautiful woman to a pubescent boy in makeup.


Technically, Henry V is a brilliant dedication to theatre. It’s filled with spectacle, color, pageantry, elegant costumes and beautiful set designs. Laurence Olivier, who also directed the movie (it was also his first soiree into directing), clearly understood the assignment. It’s easy to see Olivier’s passion for The Bard.


From a story perspective, Henry V is a little hard to follow. It’s the final part of a tetralogy, preceded by Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, and Henry IV Part 2. Audiences of the day would be a little more familiar with the plot, having most likely seen the plays preceding this one. However, for those of us jumping in at the end, we’re missing a lot of the history and buildup when this story begins. Is it detrimental to understanding Henry V? Not at all. But those who live and breathe Shakespeare will certainly get more out of this movie than those of us who don’t.

At the 1947 Academy Awards, Olivier was awarded a special honorary Oscar “For his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen”. For audiences of the day, this film was probably a bit too artsy and British to win Best Picture, but its efforts were certainly recognized. Four years later, Olivier would return to the Academy Awards, this time winning Best Picture and Best Actor for his rendition of another Shakespearean play: Hamlet.


In the grand scheme of Shakespearean films, Henry V isn’t my favorite. Even as a student of Shakespeare, I wasn’t a fan of his historical plays; however, I can certainly appreciate the work that went into bringing this story to the screen. It’s a wonderful marriage between theatre and cinema, celebrating the wonders of storytelling and somehow offering us the best of both worlds.

 


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