film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

Image result for the best years of our lives

Midway through the 1940s, the world saw first the end of World War II in Europe, followed soon thereafter by the end of the war in Japan.  Thousands of United States servicemen were free to rejoin their families and lives.  And in each case, after they walked in the door and were tearfully embraced by kids or wives or girlfriends or mothers or whoever waited for them, and after a couple hours of excited storytelling and a good night’s sleep, no doubt everyone woke up asking themselves, “….okay, now what?”

The Best Years Of Our Lives follows three of those “now whats”.  Three servicemen – Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Petty Naval Officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) – all meet on the plane bringing them home to “Boone City”, a fictional Everytown where they all hope to go back to their old lives; Parrish has a fiancée waiting for him, Derry hopes to rejoin his wife, and Stephenson has a family and his old job at the bank.  But as excited as they are, they’re all a little uneasy as well; Stephenson’s wartime experience is causing him to have a bit of a think about his priorities, and Derry is starting to think he may have married in haste.  And as for Parrish – he’s a double amputee, with two steel hooks replacing his lost hands, and is afraid his disability will be too much of a burden for fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnel).

Image result for the best years of our lives

All three men flee their respective welcome-home parties to meet up at a bar owned by Parrish’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) and do some veterans-club bonding.  Stephenson also brings his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), who hits it off with Derry over the course of the evening.  After this night of carousing, though, everyone tries to settle back down into a normal life.

That settling-back-down, and the bumps all three face on the way, make up the rest of the movie. Stephenson is appointed vice president in charge of distribution of loans offered to returning G.I.s. But Stephenson’s altered perspective leads to some unorthodox decisions about who is deserving of a loan, causing consternation in the board rooms.  Derry has less job success – he was a soda jerk at the local drug store before the war, a position that’s not quite lucrative enough for his fashionista wife Marie (Virginia Mayo). Marie chafes at having to cut back after living on Derry’s sizeable wartime payments, and the home strife – plus bumping into Peggy again once or twice – causes Derry to rethink his marriage.  Parrish has the bumpiest transition – a physical adjustment to his new prosthetics, and an emotional one as he wrestles with the reactions of friends and strangers to his prosthetic hooks.

Image result for the best years of our lives

The plot description sounds a little hokey and Capra-esque.  But there is some really sophisticated stuff in this film, particularly in Derry’s story.  His post-war struggles seem especially current, since he’s facing the same kind of pressures that veterans face today – joining the military to flee a dead-end job, performing exemplary work in service, but then returning home and finding that the skills they learned during wartime don’t always translate to the home front. There’s an uncomfortable scene where Derry is at his old job asking about coming back to something a bit better than his previous soda jerk position. But Derry’s military service was mostly as a bombardier. “Unfortunately, we’ve no opportunities for that with Midway Drugs,” sniffs the store manager, before offering Derry a low-level retail position.  And Derry’s co-workers gossip that the only reason he even got the job is because of his service; “nobody’s job is safe with all these servicemen crowding in,” another clerk grumbles.  I was surprised to see that; the narrative I’ve grown up with is one of a much smoother post-war transition, with all of the former GIs happily sliding right back into their old lives or trotting off to college with tuition paid by the G.I. Bills.  But it wasn’t that simple.

An even bigger shock was to see the dangers of the atom bomb acknowledged, if only for a moment. Stephenson’s son is a slightly nerdy high school student who grills his father at one point about one particular aspect of his service.

Say, you were at Hiroshima, weren’t you Dad?..did you happen to notice any of the effects of radioactivity on the people who survived the blast? […] We’ve been having lectures in atomic energy at school, and Mr. McLaughlin, he’s our physics teacher, he says that we’ve reached a point where the whole human race has either got to find a way to live together, or else […] Because when you combine atomic energy with jet propulsion and radar and guided missiles, just think…”

Growing up as I did in an era of ICBMs and Mutually Assured Destruction and the Cold War Arms race, hearing a warning against those very things from 1946 stunned me.

Image result for the best years of our lives

Parrish’s story is the most “pat” – the tale of a veteran learning to cope with a prosthetic is a sadly familiar one now. But it was new for 1946 – and is handled with tremendous sensitivity. A lesser movie would have shown Parrish clumsily struggling with things and having countless temper tantrums, raging against the unfairness of it all.  There are one or two instances of this – a fumble with a glass of lemonade his first day home and shouting at some peeping-tom kids trying to watch him perform some household chores. There are also a couple of moments that feel borderline “stunty”, with Parrish lighting a cigarette or playing “Chopsticks” on Uncle Butch’s piano. But Parrish’s story is mostly about him getting over his fear of becoming a burden to Wilma; for most of the film he’s treating her coldly, hoping she breaks their engagement and moves on.

But a determined Wilma just doubles down on her devotion, leading to one of the film’s most poignant scenes; Wilma turns up at the house while Parrish is getting a midnight snack, begging him to open back up to her.  So Parrish decides to show Wilma what she’d be in for, and invites her to come watch him get ready for bed.  And in a surprisingly intimate sequence, Parrish matter-of-factly shrugs off first his robe, and then his prosthetic hands, which are fastened onto his body by a shoulder harness.  “I’ve learned how to wriggle into this,” he matter-of-factly tells Wilma, shrugging on his pajama top.  “It’s a good thing I still have elbows.  …I just can’t do up the buttons,” he concludes, turning to her.  After a beat, Wilma calmly reaches out and buttons his pajama top for him, then helps him into bed before kissing him a fond goodnight and slipping out, leaving Parrish lost in contemplation.

Image result for the best years of our lives

Harold Russell, who plays Parrish, gives an especially impressive performance when you learn that he wasn’t even a professional actor.  Russell had been a grocery clerk in Massachusetts before the war and lost his hands in a combat training incident. The prosthetic hooks were his own, and he became adept enough with them that he was featured in a military short-subject documentary about rehabilitating injured vets. The Best Years director William Wyler happened to see the documentary and offered Russell a role. At the 1947 Oscars, the Academy presented Russell with a special honorary Oscar statuette “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”, at the behest of the Academy Board of Governors who wanted to make sure Russell got something. But they needn’t have worried – Russell was also presented with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year, the only time in which anyone has won two Oscars for the same performance.

The film wraps up all three stories with suitably happy endings, but the journeys each took to get there were sensitively handled and presented all the nuances honestly enough that the happy endings felt sincere instead of hokey.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Children of Paradise (1945)

Image result for children of paradise

Now that’s how you make a movie about a courtesan.

Like Camile, Children of Paradise deals with a courtesan in mid-1800’s Paris. But unlike Camile, it presents a much more realistic approach – acknowledging the economic realities that drove our heroine into that life and addressing the thorny emotional complications.  Although, in this case, the film deals more with the Parisian theater scene; our heroine Garance (who goes by a mononym, as does the actress Arietty playing her) is simply a little more open to favors from her admirers.

Image result for children of paradise

Garance is more of a sideshow performer; barkers lure rubes in by claiming they’ll see the naked Garance, only for the rubes to find that she’s sitting neck-deep in a tub of colored water.  Still, it’s a living, and Garance is pretty enough for the rubes to leave without feeling too disappointed.  She’s also pretty enough to catch the eye of Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), an aspiring actor who passes her on the street one day.  He immediately tries hitting on her, but she’s on her way to meet up with another admirer, Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand).  Lacenaire is a scribe, but it’s a front for a small crime ring, with Lacenaire’s pickpockets mingling in the crowds outside and bringing Lacenaire the spoils.

One of Lacenaire’s men actually gets Garance into trouble one day – she’s watching a street show outside one of Paris’ theaters, and a bystander in the crowd gets his pocket picked and blames her. But luckily, one of the performers – a mime named Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) – has seen the whole thing, and gives his wordless witness statement. Surprisingly, it works. It also turns out to be Baptiste’s big break; he’s a bit player at Paris’ “Funambles” Theater, but his unexpected mime convinces his manager that Baptiste may be an undiscovered talent.  Baptiste is of course pleased by the new attention – but is also haunted by the memory of Garance (a condition his existing girlfriend is none too happy with).

Image result for children of paradise

He finally bumps into her again at a local dive bar – she’s come with Lacenaire, but he’s acting like a jerk and Baptiste makes his move, the pair leaving for Baptiste’s boarding house. While they’re pitching woo, however, Baptiste realizes that she’s treating the whole thing like a hookup; he won’t settle for anything less than love, and he stalks out.  But – conveniently, Lemaître is in the room next door, and he’s a lot less fussy.

Image result for children of paradise

Lemaître is there, actually, thanks to Baptiste, who’s taken the aspiring actor under his wing a bit; getting Lemaître both a spot in the boarding house and a job at the Funambles, as a supporting player in Baptiste’s new mime sketches. Lemaître would actually rather be playing Othello, but work is work. Baptiste makes Garance the same offer, and she accepts, appearing with Lemaître alongside Baptiste and then fooling around with Lemaître off hours.  Baptiste knows everything, and is increasingly glum. Then the wealthy Count Édouard de Montray attends the show and stops backstage to ask Garance to be his mistress. She turns him down at first, but he says she can always come find him if she changes her mind. Soon after, Lacenaire tries to murder another man in the boarding house and Garance is brought in as a suspect; knowing it’s her only way out, a desperate Garance asks de Montray for help, agreeing to whatever he wants. Turns out that what he wants is to leave Paris, and he takes Garance with him.

Image result for children of paradise

Some several years later, Lemaître is a star member of the ensemble at Paris’ Grand Theater, and has managed to finally convince the producers to give him a shot at Othello. He and Lacenaire are chums, after an attempt Lacenaire makes to rob him takes an unexpected turn. And Baptiste is still at the Funambles, where he’s a top box-office draw with his original mime pieces.  Baptiste is also married and a father, but has never forgotten about Garance.  And then a mysterious and well-to-do woman starts coming to see Baptiste every night, reserving a box seat all to herself and wearing a veil. Lemaître hears about the woman and is determined to find out who she is…

Image result for children of paradise

In his own review, Roger Ebert said that “all discussions of Children of Paradise begin with the miracle of its making”; maybe I didn’t begin with it, but it certainly bears mentioning. The whole thing was shot while France was under Nazi occupation, and two members of the production staff – its art director and its composer – were Jewish, and had to work in hiding. Half the cast were covert French Resistance members, but the other half were Nazi sympathizers who the director had to hire to appease the Nazis (and amazingly never knew their colleagues were in the Resistance).  Other extras were so hungry that during a banquet scene, the extras made off with all the food the second filming wrapped for the scene. The film stock was under rationing and had to be parceled out. There wasn’t enough money or resources to build sets in both shooting locations, so they had to move the sets from Paris to Nice depending on where they were that week; even worse, a spate of bad weather in Nice damaged some of the sets.

None of that hardship is evident on screen.  Instead, we see a vibrant, rich world, full of lavish costumes and mansions and ornate theater boxes and shabby little dive bars, with crowds and crowds of people in the streets and in the theaters, and a leading ensemble of five vividly real characters. Perhaps the screenwriters were assisted by reality – all four of the men in love with Garance are based on actual people, and in the case of Baptiste and Lemaître they were even given their names.   Jean-Louis “Baptiste” Barrault actually pitched the director the idea for a film about Baptiste and Lemaître, but the director and screenwriter were reportedly not that into mimes and added to the story some.

Image result for children of paradise

It’s still a superb work. Even without the additional hurdles of “filming during war” it would be a superb work – a rich story, a stunning attention to detail, and some gorgeously composed shots (there’s a scene towards the end of Baptiste trying to chase someone through a crowd; but it’s a carnival scene of Baptiste fans, with all of them cosplaying as his Pierrot character, and he gradually gets drowned in the hundreds of doubles).

Image result for children of paradise

Incidentally, the “Paradise” of the title refers to the highest-up seats in French theaters of the time – the cheapest seats in the house, usually occupied by the poorer theatergoers, all of whom were less reserved in their reactions to a play. Baptiste mentions that he prefers playing for these “Children of paradise” and that the mimes he creates are for them. “They understand, though they are poor. I’m like them. […] Their lives are small, but their dreams are vast.”

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Rome, Open City (1945)

Image result for rome open city

Well, I quite liked this one.

Made on the shoestringest of budgets and the slimmest of circumstances, Rome, Open City is a look at Italian life under Nazi control and the resistance within.  We jump right into things with Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), a leader of the Italian resistance, scrambling out his window and fleeing across the rooftops as German soldiers search his apartment. Manfredi heads for the home of Francisco, another resistance member, where he’s met by Pina (Anna Magnani), Francisco’s pregnant fiancée.  Pina all but throws him out, suspecting he’s a cop – but when Manfredi explains his predicament, Pina changes her tune, chattily talking about her upcoming wedding. She is fortunately in touch with Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), the local priest – he’s the one performing the service.  But Don Pietro also happens to be in the resistance, so when he stops by later that night, Manfredi urges him to meet a colleague and deliver some messages for him.

Image result for rome open city

The Gestapo aren’t the only ones looking for Manfredi, though. Marina (Maria Michi), a cabaret singer and occasional call girl, has been having a bit of a dalliance with Manfredi, and keeps calling around Rome looking for him.  Marina also occasionally sells the Gestapo some low-level secrets about the Resistance in exchange for extra cash or for opium. Pina’s sister Laura (Carla Rovere) is another call girl and is friendly with Marina, so when she lets slip that Manfredi is hiding at Pina’s place, Marina is jealous enough to tip off the Gestapo, prompting a raid on Pina and Francisco’s building the morning of the wedding.

Everyone in the building springs into action – Dom Pietro first smuggles the men out through the basement, then heads up to the roof to where the local kids have been making improvised explosives; all while the women drag their feet and harangue the Gestapo as their herded out, making as much fuss as possible as a distraction.  Dom Pietro is able to hide the bombs with the help of Pina’s boy Marcello (Vito Annicchiarico), but tragically, some Gestapo catch some of the escaping men – including Francisco, whom they drag out past a screaming Pina and fling into a truck.  Pina makes a desperate chase after the departing truck and is shot while Francisco’s watches helplessly.

Image result for rome open city

The Resistance is fortunately able to spring Francisco, but soon suffers another blow as both Manfredi and Don Pietro are captured, thanks to another tipoff from Marina.  The guilty Marina begs them to go easy on Manfredi, but the Gestapo have quite another opinion on the matter, and spend a desperate night cruelly torturing Manfredi – and making Don Pietro watch – determined to make one or the other speak before daybreak, or die.

So it’s a bit of a melodrama, yeah.  But there’s a freshness and frankness to Rosselini’s style that made this fascinating instead of overwrought.  It may have been born of necessity; Rosselini was filming in the waning days of World War II, casting mostly amateur actors and using three completely different kinds of film stock scavenged from the black market and discards from the U. S. Army’s Signal Corps supply.  But sometimes having to scrounge and make do leads you to make especially creative choices, and sometimes taking away the extra trappings lets your actors shine.

And Anna Magnani especially shines here.  Her Pina is only in a handful of scenes, but I was drawn to her immediately; she’s a fierce mother-hen type, ready to fight Manfredi off when she first meets him but then insisting he have a cup of coffee when she learns he’s a friend.  But she also has her quiet moments, enjoying a heart-to-heart with Francisco on the eve of their wedding or unburdening herself to Dom Pietro.

Image result for rome open city

Rosselini also makes room for some little moments of humor as well – in a scene where Dom Pietro is fetching something from a sculptor’s, he’s momentarily left alone in a room with a small statue of Venus, and after uncomfortably eyeing it for a moment, he turns it to face away from him.  Another early scene sees the boy Marcello returning from a bit of anti-Nazi kid mischief with the other boys in his building – but they’re coming home after curfew, so as each boy is met by a set of incensed parents Marcello gets more and more worried until by the time he reaches his own door he’s drafted another boy to serve as escort to run interference.  Standing up to Nazis is one thing – but standing up to Mom Pina? Forget it.

The earlier Ossessione was probably the earliest example of the “Italian neorealist” style, but this film is what really put it on the map for viewers.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Brief Encounter (1945)

Image result for brief encounter

Brief Encounter is regarded as one of the world’s most poignant doomed-love-story films.  It’s the story of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a suburban housewife who has a weekly routine of a little day trip to London every Thursday, where she does a little shopping and treats herself to a movie before heading home to her comfortable little house, just in time to serve dinner to her husband and two kids. It’s a quiet little life, with the little hiccups being dispatched easily, like when some soot gets in her eye at the train station while she’s waiting to go home one week; almost immediately, a kind doctor passing by on his way to his own train helps her to get it out.  Coincidentally, she runs into him a week later at her lunch spot and invites him to join her, in thanks.

Image result for brief encounter

These very small moments are the beginnings of what becomes an emotional affair that shakes both Laura and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) to their foundations.  Harvey is married as well, and only works in London once a week – but conveniently is done with his rounds at about the same time Laura finishes her shopping, so they start hanging out in the afternoons – taking in a movie, strolling through the botanic garden, trying out a rowboat in the park.  Fun, simple, innocent stuff.  Perfectly respectable.  Until the day Harvey points out the obvious – their meetings have been dates, and he has fallen in love with Laura.  And, he is pretty sure she reciprocates.

Image result for brief encounter

She does. Which terrifies Laura. She tries to resist it at first, urging Harvey to keep things platonic, but as they keep on with their “meetings” Laura is soon overwhelmed by what she feels. She starts fibbing to her husband about the things she does in town, lying to friends she meets on the street with Harvey, and generally coming closer and closer to adultery than is entirely comfortable for her. But the more uneasy she is about her behavior….the more sure she is that she loves Harvey.  Ultimately, though, fate conspires against the pair on several occasions before they finally have to say their goodbyes.

So, on paper this movie is so my jam. This exact kind of brief-encounter love story has always been the kind that affects me most – short, more emotional than physical, but unquestionably significant for both parties.  But there is one technique this film uses that pulled me out – Laura’s narration throughout, as she tells the entire story to us in flashback while she considers how – and if – she should confess the whole thing to her husband.

Image result for brief encounter

It was a frustrating detail because the film did not need it – Johnson and Howard’s performances are stellar, and Johnson in particular can convey depths of emotion with a simple look.  Director David Lean also earning his cred with every shot.  I didn’t need to hear Johnson talking about what Laura was feeling because I already could tell.  Ultimately the narration was a distraction that kept me from getting swept up alongside Laura and Alec.

Alex and I each had our own guesses what it was doing there; Alex thought it was a bit of a convention Lean thought he had to adopt, since narration was a convention creeping into films at the time, particularly in film noir.  Meanwhile, I think it may have been a bit of an ego play for the screenwriter – none other than Noel Coward, who adapted the work from one of his short plays.  Perhaps Coward simply got a bit too much in love with his own words, and included a bit more of his own writing than was quite necessary.

Image result for brief encounter

wanted to like this film; in the few scenes where the narration is given a rest, I did like it.  But ultimately I was a little frustrated at not being able to dive all the way in.