The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

the_best_years_of_our_lives_film_posterIn Mark Harris’s book “Five Came Back,” Harris chronicles director William Wyler’s thoughts as he grappled with making “The Best Years of Our Lives.” He talks about his decision to cast the non-actor and real-life amputee Harold Russell as Homer, a man who lost his hands not in the war but during training. In making that choice, Wyler said he was dedicated to honesty and authenticity. He looked at thousands of veterans returning home to watch his movie, and he knew anything that didn’t ring completely true to their experience would fall flat.

Today when we think of authenticity, it’s the opposite of Hollywood endings and drama. It’s grittily real, dark and cynical. Earlier in “Five Came Back,” an early treatment of “The Best Years of Our Lives” became the novel “Glory for Me” by Mackinlay Kantor. Harris describes the book as “more explicitly brutal than any movie of the time could have been,” and that the “hardbitten pessimism of [Glory For Me’ was tonally closer to the budding genre of postwar noir.”

This is the film that would get made today. The returning soldiers have been through hell and back, and the civilians on the home front have taken their jobs and spit in their faces, either oblivious or uncaring to the challenges of PTSD. We’ve seen it in Vietnam movies, Iraq movies and more contemporary World War II stories. And journalists would write about those films as though these were the ones that captured the reality of the world.

Except Wyler’s film today seems the most authentic. It has a classical, Hollywood-friendly love story and uplifting ending despite some tough themes and drama. “The Best Years of Our Lives” doesn’t grapple with the extraordinary cases and nightmares but the ordinary people returning home. It’s 170 minutes long but feels intimate and small in its scope. Whereas other war films have been intrinsically tied to the politics and the pulse of the day, “The Best Years of Our Lives” feels timeless. Continue reading “The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)”

Rapid Response: The Thin Man

Myrna Loy’s Nora Charles has an adorable look when she scrunches her face like a badger in a knowing and casual embrace of her husband Nick’s drunken tom foolery. One time she does it while he’s poking fun at her over the phone, right after he’s sent her on a detour to Grant’s Tomb, and the two have such wonderful, good-hearted chemistry that you can bet he knows she’s doing it.

This is what most people liked best about “The Thin Man,” a delightful, smart and quick crime comedy that had a strong story and a clever concept but was almost completely overshadowed by Powell and Loy’s sparks. The pair of them communicate instantly that they are a married couple who knows each other very well and are capable of wittily snipping at one another without batting an eye. Instead they trade smirks and off-the-cuff remarks, and their swift wordplay and punch lines as dry as their martinis make them so easily likeable. They also have one of the cutest and most iconic movie dogs, the loveable Asta.

And whereas most crime comedies use their plots as filler for a comedy vehicle, “The Thin Man’s” story is never secondary to Powell and Loy’s good fun. It’s about a comfortably married couple so wealthy that the pair of them can lie around all day drinking and throwing parties for anyone who needs a quick pick-me-up. Nick is a retired detective from California dragged back into snooping based on his wife’s prodding that it’s probably a fun diversion. A family friend has gone missing and is suspected of murder, and everyone begs Nick to get involved, even though he confesses it’s getting in the way of his drinking. Continue reading “Rapid Response: The Thin Man”