Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives: Deep Focus

After achieving victory on both the European and Japanese fronts, it would seem natural that the Academy would give valediction to films that would glorify our country. As it turns out, Oscar had social consciousness on its mind. 1945’s Best Picture—The Lost Weekend—brought with it a raised awareness of social issues (in the case of that film, alcoholism) America was facing post-WWII. The Best Years of Our Lives continued that trend, and it is the first Oscar-winner to deal directly with the return of veterans from a war. In the last of my series comparing 1940’s Oscar winners to the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, The Best Years of Our Lives is a film with acceptance as its core theme.

After winning his first Best Director Oscar for Mrs. Miniver, William Wyler, like many in Hollywood, served his country during WWII. As a major in the U.S. Army Air Forces, Wyler directed documentaries which served as morale-boosting pieces for the troops as well as illuminate the war to audiences at home. On his best known of the documentaries, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, his cinematographer was shot down and perished. Wyler was no stranger to combat or the experiences of the armed forces in WWII, and undoubtedly his own experiences as a veteran informed his direction of The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler was still on active detail while making the picture).

The film is a nice bookend to Mrs. Miniver. Where that film sought to spur a latent nation into action by provoking their anger, The Best Years of Our Lives is a sensitive and thoughtful examination of the characters of three veterans who return home from the war. Where Mrs. Miniver unabashedly propagandized, The Best Years of Our Lives uses immense depth of focus on the lives of its characters to evoke emotional responses from audiences.

Wyler collaborates with celebrated cinematographer Gregg Toland (of Citizen Kane fame) to create a realistic portraiture. More than anything, The Best Years of Our Lives is about people. Action plays out on facial expressions and emotions. Toland’s lenses and his celebrated innovations with depth of field capture every detail of the actor’s performances; he is as important to the success of the film as the script and Wyler’s direction. The film has a crisp, austere look that is never too showy. The images are far too crystalline to be considered documentary-esque, but they lend themselves toward a realistic and natural style, allowing the audience to feel like a participant in the drama.

Three actors—Frederic March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell—lead an ensemble cast, and they are the poles between which the film fluctuates. March plays Army Sgt. Al Stephenson, a banker returning to a wife (Myrna Loy, best known as Nora Charles from The Thin Man films, in a marvelous change of pace role—the high mark of her career), and two children—daughter Peggy (Theresa Wright, reuniting with her Mrs. Miniver director) and son Rob (Michael Hall). Andrews is Army Air Forces Captain Fred Derry, a bombardier in the Eight Air Forces who flew in Europe. Fred was married right before he joined the service, and was a soda jerk before the war. Russell lends real-life authenticity playing Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both of his hands in an explosion on an aircraft carrier. Homer was the football hero growing up, and is returning home to Boone City (the film’s fictional stand-in for Cincinnati, Ohio) a double-amputee. Russell’s real-life prostheses—two fully functional, grasping metal hooks—are incorporated into the character of Homer.

The first scenes of the film allow the three lead actors to share scenes together. One of the themes the film explores is how difficult for veterans to readjust to life at home. Even doing something as catching a plane is a huge obstacle. Al, Fred and Homer meet at an Army Air Corps terminal, where they eventually share a ride in a B-17 bomber home to Boone City. Thrust together on a long trek home, the men form an immediate bond of friendship, though through their conversations, it is revealed that each man is of a different rank and social class (not to mention that each man is about ten years apart from the other, with Al being the elder statesman and Homer the youngest). The script is wise to point out ironies in the status of each man. Fred, as a captain, not only holds the highest rank of the men but he is also the most decorated soldier. Yet at home he is of the low socio-economic class. Al was little more than a grunt as a sergeant, but he is the wealthiest man of the trio. Homer is afforded the cruelest irony. He was a high school football hero, but having lost his hands in an explosion, he will never be able to recapture that glory. Despite that, Homer is the most affable of the three, and Fred and Al do not look down on him because of his injury. In fact, between the three men, class, rank and economic barriers dissolve—they each accept the other for who he is.

When the veterans arrive home in Boone City, they split a cab ride to their respective homes. Homer is dropped off first, though he expresses his fears to Al and Fred that his middle-class family may only look at him as an object of grotesque curiosity. His anxiety is most magnified when he thinks of how his high-school sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Connell) will react when she sees him. Homer suggests that the three men share a drink at Butch Engle’s (Hoagy Carmichael)—a saloon owned and operated by Homer’s uncle. Fred and Al decline, encouraging Homer to face his fears. Upon Homer’s arrival, his family reacts in different ways. His younger sister is ecstatic that her older brother is home, but his parents—while also thrilled—pity him, and his mother sobs uncontrollably when she sees Homer’s hooks, which is the exact reaction Homer most feared. When Wilma sees Homer, she runs to embrace him, but Homer stands stoically, his arms at his side. Al observes, “They [the Navy] couldn’t train him to put his arms around his girl to stroke her hair.”

Later, Homer’s fears become amplified when Wilma’s parents visit the Parrish residence. Before the war, Homer and Wilma were engaged to be married. Since Homer’s accident, he now has mixed feelings about going through with the engagement, especially since he thinks that Wilma could never love a man with hooks instead of hands. His future in-laws ask him about any employment opportunities there are for someone with his “disability”, and suggesting that Homer would make a good insurance salesman because potential customers would take pity on him. Homer drops a glass of lemonade, and then retreats to Butch’s Place to find solace.

Al is dropped off next, and he confides to Fred that he also has considerable fears and misgivings about his reunion. He describes the looming event thusly: “It feels as if I was going to hit a beach.” Once home he surprises Milly, his wife, and is equally surprised to find how much his children have grown. They have changed so much that Al hardly recognizes them. Peggy, his eldest, works as a nurse. Al has brought gifts back for his college freshman son Rob—a samurai sword and a Japanese flag—but Rob is far more interested in quizzing his father about the effects of radiation on the people of Hiroshima (Al was there). Al is flabbergasted to find himself discussing the effects of nuclear warfare with his son. He too, becomes restless, and takes Milly and Peggy on a night on the town. They go barhopping—and Al gets ridiculously drunk in the process, and wind down the evening at Butch’s.

Fred returns home last. He is dropped off at his parents’ home—a ramshackle hovel alongside railroad tracks. Unlike the swank Stephenson apartment or the modest suburban residence of the Parrish family, the Derry residence is immediately indicative of their socioeconomic status. Fred’s parents—stepmother Hortense and drunkard father Pat—admire their son as a war hero (which he most assuredly is) and especially beam at “all those beautiful ribbons” pinned to his uniform. Fred is obviously a bit embarrassed by his parents, and declines to stay for dinner. He only wants to know one thing—the whereabouts of his young bride, Marie (Virginia Mayo). Hortense tells Fred that Marie has moved downtown and supports herself with a job at a nightclub. Fred sets off to find Marie, and he eventually makes his way to Butch’s as well.

At the bar, the three men again immediately begin to feel comfortable around one another. The events I have just described cover the first third of a three hour film, brilliantly executed to show the audience that the first steps Al, Fred, and Homer must take toward their new reality must be in lockstep. These three very different men will each make a journey toward acceptance, and each faces obstacles to overcome.

For Homer, acceptance will come when he realizes that Wilma loves him despite the hooks on his hands. For Al’s readjustment, he simply needs to start accepting that his children have grown up, and when he returns to work at the bank, things are not the same (there is an excellent scene when Al defends a loan have gave to a returning serviceman who did not have sufficient collateral, followed up with a bit later when Al gives a boozy speech at a dinner in his honor decrying his institution’s valuing of profits over people). Fred has the hardest journey. He finds that the more he gets to know Marie, the more she loves the medals on his uniform and material comforts. Although Fred was respected in the military, his skills do not translate into a career that can support his family. Finally, he falls hopelessly in love with Peggy (and she reciprocates his feelings), but the relationship offends Al (who doesn’t want his daughter to accrue a reputation for wrecking marriages), and he casts his true love away. Ultimately, Fred has to look beyond his personal and professional setbacks and accept that he is the master of his own destiny.

There is a sequence in The Best Years of Our Lives that merits extra attention. First is a scene that closes the second act of the film at Butch’s Place. Al has learned of Fred and Peggy’s relationship. By this point in the film, it is clear that Marie doesn’t love Fred, Fred doesn’t love her, and Peggy and Fred are absolutely right for one another. At the bar, Al confronts Fred, and tells him “I don't like the idea of you sneaking around corners to see Peggy, taking her love on a bootleg basis. I give you fair warning. I'm going to do everything I can to keep her away from you, to help her forget about you, and get her married to some decent guy who can make her happy.” Crestfallen, Fred “guarantees” that he will end things with Peggy, not wishing to sour the relationship with a true friend. As Fred slinks off to the phone booth in the back of the bar, Homer enters, and he shows Butch that he is skilled enough with his hooks to play “Chopsticks” on the piano. Cinematographer Toland makes excellent use of deep focus photography in this shot, with the happy faces of Homer, Al and Butch filling the foreground and the small, hunched over and pained figure of Fred in the background in clear focus as he makes the call that will break Peggy’s heart.

After a sequence where a heartbroken Peggy has received Fred’s break-up call, the film follows Fred to his job, where he reluctantly returned to work as a soda jerk. Homer follows him there, and one of Fred’s customer’s asks Homer about his hooks. Homer uses humor to diffuse the situation (“I got sick and tired of that old pair of hands I had. You know, an awful lot of trouble washing them and manicuring my nails. So I traded them in for a pair of these latest models. They work by radar.”), but the customer persists in the conversation, implying that Homer’s sacrifice was in vain, and that the country went to war for the wrong reasons. Fred will not tolerate his friend to be made a pariah, and he demands the customer leave. The argument escalates into a physical confrontation between Homer and the customer, and Fred ends it by socking the man on the jaw, sending him crashing through a glass-covered jewelry display. Fred is fired, and Homer feels responsible. Fred isn’t sorry though and offers this piece of advice: “Take [Wilma] in your arms, and kiss her. Ask her to marry you. Then marry her. Tomorrow if you can get a license that fast. If you want anybody to stand up for you at your wedding...”

This sets up the climax of Homer’s story. That evening, he is confronted by Wilma, who is being persuaded by her parents to forget about Homer. She offers Homer an ultimatum: “Tell me the truth, Homer. Do you want me to forget about you?” He replies: “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.”

He then asks Wilma to follow him upstairs, hoping to shock her by going through his difficult nightly routine—something only Homer’s father has helped him with—to simply prepare for sleep. Without assistance, he removes his robe, his harness, the halter to which it is attached, the braces, the hooks—and places them on the bed. Homer is then able to wiggle into a pajama top, but not button it. At this point, Wilma—in an act of ultimate compassion—buttons his shirt closed. Threadbare and utterly helpless Homer says:

“This is when I know I'm helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can't put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can't smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can't open it and get out of this room. I'm as dependent as a baby that doesn't know how to get anything except to cry for it. Well, now you know, Wilma. Now you have an idea of what it is. I guess you don't know what to say. It's all right. Go on home. Go away like your family said.”

Instead of recoiling, Wilma tells him, “I know what to say, Homer. I love you and I'm never going to leave you, never.” The scene is one of the most tender and intimate love scenes ever put to film, and it is made all the more potent by the compassionate acting from Russell and O’Connell.

Russell deserves special mention. He actually won two Oscars for the part of Homer Parrish, the only actor ever to be awarded two Oscars for one part. Russell was not a professional actor (which some critics have held against the picture), and was essentially playing himself. Wyler used him because he felt that no actor could bring sufficient authenticity to the role. The Best Years of Our Lives was the clear frontrunner to capture the majority of the Oscars awarded that year, and received several pre-Oscar honors. It was also the biggest box office smash since Gone With the Wind. Despite (or perhaps because of) the film’s popularity, the Academy board of Governors felt that as a non-professional, Russell had no hope of being nominated for his performance. They created a Special Oscar for him, “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”. As it turned out, Russell was not only nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but won the Oscar to rapturous approval.

The scene with O’Connell sealed his victory. Russell is no mere prop, showing off his prostheses in a robotic fashion. Instead, he draws on his own experiences to create the character of Homer Parrish. During the scene, Russell makes the humor in the scene work (“at least I got my elbows”), expresses doubts, and shows that Homer’s vulnerability comes not from removing his hooks but from the fear of Wilma rejecting him because he will be needed to be cared for like a child for the rest of his life. Yes, Russell (and Wyler) uses his real-life status as a double-amputee to ground his performance in reality, but Russell’s choices as an actor give Homer a soul. It is Russell’s probing, deep focus into character—not his disability—that gives the performance unforgettable emotional weight.

Russell’s performance is matched by the rest of the ensemble. The Best Years of Our Lives is a film where the actors are fully aware of the importance of the material, and they each rise to the occasion, delivering humane, compassionate performances. Compassion is the key to the film. It’s easy to make a film that hugs at heartstrings or goes for an easy cry. The actors here dive into the reality of their characters and uncover real emotions, be it Myrna Loy as Milly, assuaging her heartbroken daughter or Teresa Wright as Peggy, who has utmost faith in the man Fred can become. Even in the smaller parts—such as Gladys George and Roman Bohnen as Fred’s parents—are infused with compassion and humanity. I defy anyone to not feel a swell of pride when watching the scene where Pat reads to Hortense Fred’s citation for a Distinguished Flying Cross, whereupon they learn the full extent of their son’s heroism. If you aren’t fighting tears back by then, a part of your soul must be missing.

Coming to accept a new reality is often the hardest challenge a human being will ever face. At the start of WWII, director Wyler made a film that sought to provoke, to anger its audience into action. By the end of the war, Wyler knew that only through goodness, integrity and compassion could a film—and by extension, the audience—find acceptance with a new world. Values such as goodness, integrity and compassion are often seen as square or too passé to make for an entertaining subject on film. The Best Years of Our Lives is 172 minutes of proof that when done right—with unyielding focus on character and humanity—those square and passé values are rich and fertile grounds for the creation of profound art.


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Director: William Wyler

Starring: Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Cathy O’Connell, Virginia Mayo, Hoagy Carmichael, Gladys George, Roman Bohnen

Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

Total Oscars: 8 (Best Picture*, Best Director—William Wyler, Best Actor—Frederic March, Best Supporting Actor—Harold Russell, Best Adapted Screenplay—Robert E. Sherwood, Best Editing, Best Score, Dramatic or Comedy Picture**) out of 9 total nominations (Best Sound Recording)

* Producer Samuel Goldwyn was also awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Award at the 1946 Oscars. Goldwyn was a highly prolific and influential producer in Hollywood, his Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives is his only competitive win.
** Best Score was split into two categories—Dramatic or Comedy Picture and Musical Picture

NEXT BLOG: Gentleman’s Agreement

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Lost Weekend: The Downward Spiral

Just so nobody is misled, the subtitle here is referring to depression—stage four on the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief—and not the brilliant 1994 Nine Inch Nails album. Spirals are an apt image to use when discussing Billy Wilder’s 1945 Best Picture winner, as the film deals with the cyclical nature of alcoholism (of which in this film depression is most certainly a symptom). The film was released in November of 1945—a season after the United States won victory on both fronts in the Second World War—and it signals a turning point in subject matter for Oscar-winning films. The Lost Weekend is the first Best Picture winner to directly confront A Very Serious Issue, and three of the remaining four Best Picture winners of the decade have social issues as their subject matter (the period of readjustment for homecoming veterans, anti-Semitism, political corruption, and hell—Hamlet is a Very Serious Play). I don’t think that the mood of the county was necessarily that of depression at the time of the release of The Lost Weekend, but I do think that the country—having lived through nearly half a decade of bloody armed conflict, was ready to have films reflect the issues facing Americans at home.

The Lost Weekend opens with a left-to-right pan of the Manhattan skyline. The camera settles on an open window of an ordinary apartment, a bottle of whiskey dangling outside, tied to the window crank. Inside is Don Birnam, a permanently blocked writer (played by Welsh-born actor Ray Milland, in a performance completely and totally worthy of the Best Actor Oscar he was awarded for it). Don and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) are packing for “a long weekend” to a country farm away from the city. At this point, Don has been on the wagon for ten days, and the bottle of booze tied to the window is a temptation he can bear no longer to resist. Almost immediately he starts lying. His girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman, an ex-Mrs. Ronald Reagan) has stopped by to see Don and Wick off, and Don fobs off a pair of concert tickets onto her and Wick—thus delaying their departure on the 3:15 train out of town to 6:30—claiming he wants to have a couple of hours to assemble himself. Wick, who is no fool, finds the dangling bottle, drains it and leaves with Helen after an oft-repeated and always unsuccessful argument with Don about his drinking.

After the pair leave, Don searches high and low through his usual hiding places in the apartment, but Wick has been successful in cleansing the apartment of booze. Don catches a break when their cleaning lady drops by. Wick has left her ten dollars in wages, but Don spins a lie to her, shoos her off, and absconds with her wages. His first destination: the liquor store, where he promptly buys two bottles of the cheapest rye (“none of that twelve year old aged in wood—not for me”). His next destination: Nat’s Bar, where he strikes up a conversation with the eponymous bartender (Howard Da Silva). Nat knows the depth of Don’s alcoholism, but Don is able to charm him into serving him a glass of whiskey. Director Wilder focuses on the circular impression the condensation on the glass leaves behind on the bar (no coasters at Nat’s, apparently). Don observes: “Don't wipe it away, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning.” Don is keenly aware of the imprisoning nature of his alcoholism, but he is unable and certainly unwilling to break the cycle. He reflects, “What you don't understand, all of you, is that I've got to know it's around. That I can have it if I need it. I can't be cut off completely. That's the devil. That's what drives you crazy.”

Hours pass, and the circles pile up on the bar—first six, then twelve (Wilder uses this image not only as a visual metaphor but also as a clever way to signify both the passage of time and how sauced Don is)—and Don has completely forgotten about the 6:30 train and blown off his commitment to his brother. He manages to return to the apartment—sober enough to narrowly avoid Wick and Helen as they leave in disgust—satisfied that he will be alone for a long weekend with his two bottles of booze. Don hides one of the whiskey bottles in the overhead lamp fixture. Early the next morning, Don rises—bottles empty now and compulsively walks over to Nat’s, for in Don’s eyes, a minute without alcohol is time wasted. Nat doesn’t want to serve him, but Don replies “I can't cut it short. I'm on that merry-go-round. You gotta ride it all the way. Round and round until that blasted music wears itself out and the thing dies down and comes to a stop...” Again, Don is aware that he is trapped in a self-repeating loop, and the brilliant script by Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett gives another brilliant metaphor for addiction.

Gloria (Doris Dowling), a call-girl enamored with Don, comes into Nat’s. They flirt, and he makes a date with her. Nat chides Don for making a date with Gloria when he knows that Helen is in love with him, and the conversation turns to Don telling the story of when he first met her. In the first of two extended flashbacks (undoubtedly the influence of Citizen Kane), Don tells of the night when he took in a performance of La Traviata. Don is already entwined in the throes of his addiction. He has stashed a bottle of rye in his raincoat, but he checked the raincoat before the performance started. When the singers perform “Libiamo ne’lieti calici (The Drinking Song)" Don hallucinates seeing his raincoat on each of the singers, each drinking from his bottle of rye, he becomes overwhelmed by the urge to drink. When he returns to the coat check, he finds out he has been misticketed and is given a woman’s leopard print coat. Don cannot retrieve his coat until the person who has his claim ticket returns, so he is forced to wait through the remainder of the performance and until all the rest of the coats are claimed before he can retrieve his bottle. The leopard print coat belongs to Helen, and although Don is very rude at first (he’s been deprived of his booze for an extended period of time, after all) they strike up an easy rapport. Helen invites him to a cocktail party, to which Don declines—he’s an alcoholic, but he prefers relative solace when drinking. However, his bottle accidentally smashes to bits on the street, and Don reconsiders Helen’s invitation and leaves with her, caring far less about her company than the booze fix that will be available to him.

Don continues his conversation with Nat, and goes into further detail on the background of his relationship with Helen. The film’s second extended flashback finds Don waiting in a hotel lobby for Helen. She is introducing him to her parents, who are in town from Toledo, Ohio. Don hasn’t met Helen’s folks, but he overhears a couple talking about a 33 year-old writer with no job who never graduated from Cornell University. Don quickly deduces that the older couple is Helen’s parents, and his eavesdropping smashes his self-confidence and Don again bolts for booze. He returns home and confesses his insecurities to Wick, but hides when Helen—whom Don ditched—comes calling for him, Wick covers up for his brother, confessing that he is an alcoholic, and that Don is away on an interview. In a rare moment of nobility, Don emerges from hiding, and confesses to Helen that he is a drunk. He explains that there are two Dons—Don the Writer and Don the Drunk—and that his life vacillates between the creative highs he feels when drinking and the drudgery of the lows when the booze has worn off. Helen believes that Don can overcome his addiction, but he tells her, Come on, let's face reality. I'm thirty-three. I'm living on the charity of my brother. “Room and board free. Fifty cents a week for cigarettes and an occasional ticket to a show or a concert –all out of the bigness of his heart. And it is a big heart and a patient one...I've never done anything, I'm not doing anything, I never will do anything. Zero, zero, zero!”

The zero Don describes himself as is yet another circle. When the scene dissolves back to Nat’s, Don becomes resolute, and vows to begin writing his novel. Don returns home, and begins typing. His novel is titled The Bottle, and it is dedicated to Helen. Don is again seized by his alcoholic cravings, and again completely overturns the apartment in search of booze, forgetting that only yesterday he stashed a bottle of rye in his light fixture. Don again leaves, is unsuccessful in trying to steal money for liquor, and returns home, dejected. He finds solace only when he turns on the lights, sits down, and sees the shadow of the whiskey bottle projected onto the ceiling, its hiding spot illuminated.

The film is wise to show Don repeat behaviors. He is constantly lying or wheedling his way into a drink. He steals. He cheats. He blows off engagements (Nat proves prophetic when he says that Don will stand up Gloria). He forgets where he hides his bottles of rye. Don’s life plays like a record on repeat. The scene that does the best job of illuminating the spiral that Don is caught in and cannot escape from comes the next day in the film. Don has decided to hock his typewriter for cash to buy alcohol. He desperately searches for an open pawnshop, but finds that they are all closed because it is Yom Kippur. Wilder pioneered a technique using rear-projection to illustrate this scene, by squaring Don in the middle of the frame as neon signs and storefronts flash and rush by him. This technique has been used in countless films and television shows since it was first used here.

Another technique pioneered in The Lost Weekend is the use of the Theremin in a film score for the first time. Miklós Rózsa liked the instrument for the eerie, wailing effects the Theremin produces. The instrument is ubiquitous in science-fiction and horror films, and in many ways the Theremin is absolutely appropriate because The Lost Weekend is a horror film, with an uncontrollable, two-faced monster at the center. Don falls in an accident, and awakens in the detox ward of New York City’s infamous Bellevue Hospital (Wilder secured permission to film in the actual detox ward, lending the picture tremendous authenticity). He doesn’t take the pills to ward off the DT’s, although he is warned of their effects, and he is warned of the consequences of escape: “You just hit the nearest bar and bounce right back again. What we call the quick ricochet...” During a commotion, Don recklessly slips out of the hospital, steals a bottle of booze, and returns to his apartment. Once there he experiences terrifying hallucinations (it is here where Rózsa’s Theremin really kicks in full throttle)—a rat emerges from a hole and a bat (deliberately phony looking), swoops down and snaps its neck, its blood oozing down his apartment walls—and Don, overwhelmed by the phantasmagoria he sees, howls into the night. Helen—who has been working with Don’s landlady to try and catch him while he’s home—runs in and comforts Don, but he feels that his death is imminent.

Originally, The Lost Weekend was set to end after this scene. However, the film has an upbeat coda. Don attempts suicide but is rescued by Helen. The theme of “the love of a good woman” saving a broken man is used time and again in Hollywood (and in several Best Picture winners), and it is milked to maximum effect. Don is able to start writing again, beginning by describing the whiskey bottle dangling out of his window. Wilder ends the film by panning right-to-left out the apartment window, mirroring the opening shot of the film and closing the circle of the film.

On one hand, I think the ending betrays Don’s character. No evidence is given within the film that he makes a fundamental change, and while Helen’s belief in him never wavers, I don’t know if Don ever has a moment of clarity. On the other—nothing suggests that Don will be able to stay sober either, and with Wilder choosing to end the film with a closing shot that mirrors the opening, it can be inferred that Don is never able to break the cycle. I think also, that a socially responsible choice is made by showing it is possible to overcome alcoholism. Either way, the “tacked on happy ending” can be looked at in more than one way.

The Lost Weekend represents a point in the history of Oscar-winning pictures when it became okay to have a representation of reality move and entertain audiences as much as a period epic or a feel good film. Wilder directed a frank, uncompromising and depressing film. With America coming out of WWII, it would seem natural that a sentimental, feel-good picture like Going My Way would capture the Oscar (its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s, was one of the five films The Lost Weekend triumphed over). With the victory of The Lost Weekend the award winning films of America looked to conquer the social issues that plagued the country. (The Lost Weekend isn’t overtly political, but Wilder, in the scene at Bellevue Hospital, includes a line where the blame for the rise of alcohol addiction in the country is placed squarely at the feet of Prohibition.) There were battles on the homefront that still needed to be fought, and Hollywood was accepting of that challenge.


The Lost Weekend (1945)

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Philip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling

Studio: Paramount Pictures (though Universal now owns the rights)

Total Oscars: 4 (Best Picture, Best Director—Billy Wilder, Best Actor—Ray Milland*, Best Adapted Screenplay—Wilder and Charles Brackett) from 7 total nominations (Best B&W Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score—Miklós Rózsa**)
*Milland gave the simplest speech ever at an Oscar ceremony—he simply bowed and walked off stage.
** Miklós Rózsa was also nominated for his Theremin heavy score in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound . He took home the first of three Oscars for Hitchcock’s film.

NEXT BLOG: The Best Years of Our Lives

Monday, May 10, 2010

Going My Way: Too Schmaltzy Is an Apt Description (and the overlooked Best Picture winners of the 1940's)

Okay, so I had a vacation to the Midwest, and a couple of long weekends, all of which makes for a very unproductive blog. Currently, I’ve watched all of the Best Picture winners through The Sound of Music, and A Man for All Seasons, In the Heat of the Night, and Oliver! are burning a hole in my Netflix queue. I’ve seen all but four of the Best Picture winners now (A Man for All Seasons, Oliver!, Chariots of Fire, and Out of Africa). So what I really need to do is catch up on my reviews.

Okay, I was in the middle of a series of reviews that compared five 1940’s Best Picture winners to the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief. It would have been fantastic if I could make a case for the five Oscar winners in a row matching the five stages of grief, but Leo McCarey’s Going My Way simply doesn’t fit the pattern (luckily for me, the next two Oscar winners—The Lost Weekend and The Best Years of Our Lives match up incredibly well to depression and acceptance, respectively). Going My Way is a slight, sweet and sentimental film. I guess if I want to compare it to the mood of the country in 1944—arguably the direst of WWII—Going My Way is exactly the kind of film American audiences wanted: the kind of film where the troubles of reality are temporarily replaced by something uplifting.

The film tells the story of Father Charles O’Malley (Bing Crosby, who at the time was the most popular star in Hollywood), a young unconventional priest who becomes the new curate at St. Dominic’s, a Catholic parish in midtown Manhattan. The head rector is the elderly Father Fitzgibbon, an Irish immigrant who hasn’t seen his homeland in over four decades. Fitzgibbon has clearly lost touch with his parish—he’s very old school and set in his ways—and unbeknownst to him the archdiocese has sent Father O’Malley to St. Dominic’s in a last ditch attempt to save the church, which has fallen behind on its mortgage payments and soon will be repossessed by the bank.

Father O’Malley is a character very typical to film: the “saint” or “savior” who has an uncanny ability to win over and change the minds of the people who most resist him. (Julie Andrews as Maria in The Sound of Music is cut in the same mold, and Whoopi Goldberg in the Sister Act films is a modern interpretation of the character.) O’Malley wins over the entire neighborhood. He makes sure the church collects enough alms to secure rent for an elderly parishioner about to be evicted. He helps a young couple smooth over their new relationship with the beau’s disapproving father. He earns the trust of the juvenile delinquents in the neighborhood and reforms them into a boy’s choir. The person who most resists him is, of course, Father Fitzgibbon.

O’Malley’s past life comes into play in the film. A former flame, Genevieve Turner (Rise Stevens), comes back into “Chuck’s” life and is surprised to find he is a priest. She is now a star performer at the Metropolitan Opera. “Jenny” is appreciative of the choir’s performance, and she offers to help Father O’Malley publish his original songs. She and the boys perform “Going My Way” and “Swinging on a Star” backed by the orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera House. The publishers find “Going My Way” “too schmaltzy” (which is an apt description for the entire film), but see potential in “Swinging on a Star”. In lieu of paying O’Malley directly, the publishers surreptitiously deposit a substantial donation in the collection box at the next Sunday service. This payment is enough to cover the mortgage, and Father Fitzgibbon finally warms up to O’Malley (though the bond had been slowly strengthening between the two men throughout the film) as he joins him in a game of golf.

The final act of the film sees tragedy strike St. Dominic’s, as a fire burns the parish to the ground. The old priest becomes distraught and sick, only able to collect thirty-five dollars after the church is destroyed. However, Jenny has taken the boys choir on a concert tour with her, and she sends a check of $3,500 dollars for the repair of St. Dominic’s. As a new church is being constructed, O’Malley informs Fitzgibbon that he is being transferred to another failing parish, and Fitzgibbon is saddened. In the final scene of the film, O’Malley has arranged for Jenny to bring a very old lady—Father Fitzgibbon’s mother, whom he has not seen since he left Ireland—to St. Dominic’s. The old priest is moved to tears by the sight of his mother and the film ends on an upbeat note.

Going My Way was the highest grossing picture of 1944, with Hollywood’s most bankable star in the lead role. It is a gentle film without real villains, save for the bank that holds the mortgage to the church, but even the most naïve viewer will quickly come to the conclusion that the church is in good hands once Father O’Malley is on the scene. Above all, Going My Way is a film that reaffirms faith in God. This is exactly the sort of entertainment the American public was craving in 1944, and the film was rewarded with eight Oscars.

However, there is always a nice, pleasant, schmaltzy film (or two, or three) in each decade that hasn’t aged very well and didn’t deserve to win Best Picture. The 1944 Best Picture Oscar should have gone to Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s classic noir. (Wilder didn’t have to wait long for one of his films to win an Oscar though. The very deserving The Lost Weekend—a film that is the polar opposite of Going My Way—took home the top prize the next year.) I’ll do a quick rundown of films that Oscar overlooked in the 1940’s, broke down year by year.

1940: If the kind accountants at pricewaterhousecoopers ever released the vote totals for Best Picture, I’d bet that John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—with Henry Fonda’s iconic performance as Tom Joad—was the runner up. My vote though, goes to George Cukor’s screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story, with Katharine Hepburn as a snobby heiress who has two men—Cary Grant and James Stewart—vying for her affections. It’s a delightful and smart picture, and definitely proof that the classic romantic comedies are much better than the new ones. Jimmy Stewart won his only Oscar for his role, but Grant is clearly better—the Oscar was a make-up for his performance in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Also—Walt Disney’s not nominated Pinocchio may just be the finest animated film to ever be released.

1941: Okay, it has been discussed ad nauseam that Citizen Kane should have beaten How Green Was My Valley. Also overlooked is John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, which stars Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett’s cynical private eye. Bogart’s Spade is a nice warm-up act for Rick Blaine, and the film is generally credited as the first in the noir genre. The famous line in the film (a re-worded Shakespeare quote) “the stuff that dreams are made of” is used in great ironic fashion.

1942: Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons—which used many of the same actors and crew as Citizen Kane—is as well regarded (well, maybe not best-film-ever praise, but still very acclaimed) as his most famous film.

1943: Casablanca was absolutely the right choice to win Best Picture. Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt—the director’s personal favorite of all his films (though I haven’t seen it)—wasn’t nominated but probably holds up best in a weak year.

1944: Double Indemnity. Billy Wilder’s noir basically spawned the entire erotic thriller genre. A sap (Fred MacMurray) is completely and utterly seduced by a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck). The sap is an insurance salesman, and the lovers scheme to bump off the vixen’s much older husband—but make the death appear accidental—and thus collect on the “double indemnity” clause in the husband’s life insurance. A dogged claims investigator (Edward G. Robinson) unravels the mystery. “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?” Double Indemnity makes the answer to that question crystal clear. The film is awesome.

1945: The Lost Weekend was the right choice, but Hitchcock scored again with Spellbound, a thriller starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman.

1946: In my opinion, The Best Years of Our Lives deserved its Oscar. However, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is far and away his most popular film, and I’m sure many people could cast their vote for this film if given the opportunity to have a mulligan. It tells the story of down on his luck George Bailey (James Stewart), who attempts suicide but is rescued by a guardian angel who shows him what his town would have been like if he had never lived. The stage is set for one of the all-time great endings in a film, and It’s a Wonderful Life has since become a perennial Christmastime staple. Casablanca aside, this is the most enduring film of the 1940’s.

1947: A weak year for films in general. However if the voting were recast, I’d bet Elia Kazan’s parable on anti-Semitism (Gentlemen’s Agreement) would lose to another perennial holiday favorite, the original Miracle on 34th Street.

1948: Humphrey Bogart once quipped that the only true way to judge Best Actor would be to have all the nominees play Hamlet and see who does it the best then. How ironic then, that the best performance of his career—as the paranoid Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—wasn’t even nominated and the eventual winner was Lawrence Olivier for playing Hamlet. Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptation also won Best Picture, but John Huston’s half-Western, half-Noir about three men who strike gold yet struggle to overcome its corrupting influence. Bogart is fantastic as the guy who almost immediately becomes consumed by paranoia, and Walter Huston (John’s father) gives an all-time great supporting performance as the old prospector who knows better. The senior Huston was justly rewarded with an Oscar, and this is the film that really should have collected more gold in 1948. It was way ahead of its time.

1949: Another noir, director Carol Reed’s The Third Man, fails to even receive a Best Picture nomination. This one also boasts what was probably Orson Welles’ finest work as an actor. He kills it as Harry Lime, the surprise villain. His speech about a cuckoo clock, delivered on a Ferris wheel in Vienna, is the highlight of the picture.

No genre is more closely associated with a decade than noir and the 1940’s; it’s criminal that not one true noir (Casablanca and The Lost Weekend have noir elements but aren’t truly part of the genre) took the top prize in the decade when the genre was the most creative. Comedy is again looked over. Many of the films that won Best Picture in the 1940’s are incredibly strong films—and Casablanca is probably the best Best Picture ever—but the true flavor of the decade is not completely reflected amongst the winners.


Going My Way (1944) (The 1944 Oscar ceremony was the first to standardize the number of Best Picture nominees to five. This remained the case until controversially; the field was again expanded to ten for the 2009 nominees)

Director: Leo McCarey

Starring: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Rise Stevens, Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer

Studio: Paramount Pictures (though many of Paramount’s early films have changed rights; Universal now distributes the film—as is the case with many Hitchcock films)

Total Oscars: 7 (Best Picture, Best Director—Leo McCarey, Best Actor—Bing Crosby, Best Supporting Actor—Barry Fitzgerald, Best Original Screenplay—Frank Butler and Frank Cavett, Best Original Motion Picture Story—McCarey*, Best Song—“Swinging on a Star”) from 10 nominations (Best Actor—Barry Fitzgerald*, Best Cinematography (B&W), Best Editing)
*Leo McCarey was the first man to win Oscars for both directing and writing in the same year. He was soon followed in the decade by Billy Wilder, John Huston, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz
**Barry Fitzgerald was indeed nominated for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role as Father Fitzgerald in Going My Way. There was no rule that said an actor could not submit himself for consideration for both acting categories, but after the 1944 Oscars, a rule was created that an actor could only be nominated for one performance in one category. However, an actor can be nominated for different performance in both categories in the same year, most recently achieved, I believe, by Jamie Foxx.

NEXT BLOG: The Lost Weekend