- The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler*
- Henry V, Laurence Olivier
- It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra
- The Razor’s Edge, Edmund Goulding
- The Yearling, Clarence Brown
It can’t just be me…doesn’t Fredric March look remarkably like Basil Fawlty in that poster?
Anyway, 1945 Part II 1946 continued the postwar, five-nominee era balance of escapist and socially conscious, this time managing to make an even split despite the odd number. The winner, like Casablanca before it, was vastly superior to its fellows in almost every respect, and represented the work of a director and cinematographer at the top of their respective games. Only one other nominee was a real challenger, a film that is great for entirely different reasons, and if I’m being honest (and subjective) will probably stay with me longer than the winner.
But before I come to those, seeing as it’s Christmas Eve, I’m going to delve a bit deeper into one particular nominee this year than I probably would otherwise. And because of that, I’ll be splitting this year into two parts. So let’s not waste any more time…
The most unashamedly silly film of 1946 was by far The Yearling, a dopey little slice-of-life drama about a young boy who adopts a deer. No, really, that’s it. It’s the first time in this project that I’ve had to visit the Children’s DVD section of the New York Public Library, a dismal portend that was not redeemed by this interminably dull examination of the perils of keeping wild animals on farms in post-Civil War Florida. Just in case I made the poster too small to read, the tagline is “This is the year of The Yearling,” a ridiculously optimistic bit of fluff that probably cost an entire division of copywriters their jobs (though considering this was the fifth highest-grossing film of 1946, probably not).
There’s not much more to say about the plot of the film than what I outlined above. The titular fawn doesn’t even make an appearance until the 45 minute mark, and from there on the film basically becomes Old Yeller without the rabies. So much of the running time is devoted to various woodland creatures that the plot is largely redundant, merely an excuse for the production team to film resplendent Technicolor scenes of the Florida swampland. Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman try their best to drop as many g’s as they can, and every character is one-note and uninteresting as they impatiently trudge towards their Great Big Moment of Revelation.
“Listen careful, boy…this here’s the call of the Common Lazy Screenwriter. I may not get it just right, see I’m rehearsin’ my lines for Gentleman’s Agreement in my head.”
I should mention that Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious was also released this year, but for some reason The Yearling was nominated for Best Picture. My best guess for the reason for this is that the Academy was tired of films starring Ingrid Bergman, or else just really liked deer.
The Razor’s Edge is a great film, expanding on the themes developed by Lost Horizon in the context of post- rather than prewar. It tells the story of a World War I veteran who returns to America and rejects his society’s standards of success, and who travels first to Paris and ultimately to India in his search for meaning. In the process he loses the love of his life, but this is no great defeat as it leads him to enlightenment (if not happiness, but the film makes a strong argument that this is inevitable).
Great performances abound, not least by Clifton Webb as a remnant of the old aristocracy trying to cling to the old ways; leading man Tyrone Power as the aforementioned disenfranchised veteran struggling against the nihilism the war tried to force upon him; and, in between the two, Anne Baxter, who won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of a lost soul roundly defeated by an indifferent world wherein only a lucky few leave satisfied. She represents the moral mean, neither superhumanly pure like Power, nor unabashedly reactionary like Webb.
Lost Horizon, made in 1937, touched upon many of the same themes, but dealt with them in a distinctly pre-World War II manner. That film’s protagonist, upon discovering enlightenment and the meaning of It All, promptly fled from the frightening realities of Western society to rejoin the safe haven he had discovered–the idea being that there is a perfect world out there, but we need to let go of the one we’ve got if we are to attain it.
This film takes a decidedly more cynical, and thus decidedly more realistic, stance. Tyrone Power’s character, upon discovering wisdom, takes the difficult step of returning to the society that bore him and attempting to impart his discovery upon his fellows. It makes perfect sense for a film of 1946…after the war, there was no going back, and certainly no safe haven. Within the narrative he is almost entirely unsuccessful, but the small victories are enough to establish him on the right path. It’s really quite dark, but interspersed throughout with the small glimmers of hope that are sometimes all we have to keep going.
It’s a level of maturity I’d come to expect from the man behind the next nominee of 1946…
Here it is, the Ultimate Christmas Film, the one that gets trotted out every December on basic cable and in cinematic revivals–even in France–to lift the maudlin spirits of those who need a refresher course on how angels achieve winghood. Need your faith in humanity restored? The first step, so says conventional wisdom, is to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.
I must admit, when I first started on this journey a year ago, I wasn’t looking forward to this one. I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life some time ago, and it soured me to Capra for years afterward. I was annoyed by the pomposity, the triteness, the lack of believable performances, and the naïveté of its message. But then I embarked on this little project and I saw It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take it With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I realized…goddamn, can Frank Capra direct a motion picture. So I approached this film with at least a little bit of optimism, imagining (in the spirit of the season) that within the context of the rest of his catalogue, perhaps It’s a Wonderful Life is not so sickeningly saccharine as it at first appears.
And lo and behold, I discovered that within the context provided by Capra’s previous efforts, it is even worse than I’d remembered.
All the subtlety, the subtext, and the restraint of those films I mentioned above are gone, and the clear technical and artistic progression I observed between 1934 and 1939 just disappeared entirely. I understand that World War II had just ended and people needed a bit of moral boosting in its wake, and not every film can be The Best Years of Our Lives…but come on. I’m pretty sure Disney showed this film to the lemmings in White Wilderness to make them throw themselves off that cliff.
Look, I’m all about optimism in motion pictures, and I’d come to expect it from Capra, but he’d grown so much as a storyteller in the 1930s, able to weave it in to plots and characters that don’t gloss over the dark path that lies ahead after the credits roll. For example, Mr. Smith took on Washington and Capra had the cajones to end it on a deeply troubling note, implying that American politics was irreparably damaged and that the effort of one righteous person ultimately doesn’t change much. Here, he actually seems to believe that to be true, and that he’d filmed a happy, uplifting ending…and so do most people who watch it, it seems.
The story, for those lucky few out there who have avoided the film until now, is about a man named George Bailey who wants nothing more than to get out of the one-horse town in which he finds himself, only to be stymied at every turn by accidents and his indefatigable sense of right. So he watches as everyone close to him goes off to lead the lives he dreams of for himself, while he never leaves Bedford Falls. Things just go from bad to worse as he marries the love of his life, successfully stands up to the machinations of the materialistic Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, playing pretty much the exact opposite of his character in YCTIWY), and enjoys the love and respect of literally everyone in the town and beyond.
The fuck are you complaining about, again?
Nothing about George Bailey suggests he would do anything with his “freedom” besides travel around the world for a while as a tourist and then settle right back into Bedford Falls where he clearly belongs. Still, he’s so obtuse–and, one could argue, just as materialistic as Potter…he just buries it to feel superior–that he’s driven to the brink of suicide, only to be saved by the intervention of a slightly senile angel named Clarence (who only steps in because he wants to earn his wings…if he’d already had them, the film ends with Bailey drowning while Clarence watches and then flies away).
So he sees all the harm that befalls Bedford Falls when he’s not around, thanks to the contrivance of growing up in a town dominated by a One-Dimensional Antagonist up to whom no one will stand but him. He’s finally convinced of his worth when he is told that his wife remained single, and thus was never fulfilled by the bearing of his children. The camel’s back breaks when he sees her and discovers that, in this horrifying alternate timeline, she is a librarian who wears glasses.
“My god…no one should have to live through progressive myopia!”
(I’d argue that she’s doing more with her life in this reality, keeping a library operating and, it seems, relatively unscathed in a town as hedonistic and slummy as Pottersville. She’s needed here far more than in Bedford Falls, but since her role is to serve the protagonist, the film just glosses over that. Where’s her angel?)
And so George prays to get his old life back, Clarence gives it to him, and he returns to his family and friends, ostensibly a better man for his ordeal. Clarence gets his wings, George learns he’s not a complete failure, and everybody sings and laughs and cries. In the end, of course, everything is exactly the same as it was when George was standing on the bridge…actually, it’s worse. Much worse.
I mean, sure, the town and its inhabitants are better off than if he hadn’t been born, but nothing’s changed about the real world, the one in which he exists. He’s still deep in debt, managing a business with a patently unsustainable business model, and his rich friend is just advancing him $25,000, so that’s just more debt. Being in debt to friends is far worse than being in debt to enemies. Also, Potter’s still out there, and he’s not going to stop…Capra forgot the most important part of this story, the moral change that Potter must go through if anything is to get better. But his epiphany never comes, and indeed nothing implies that it will…he’s happy with who and what he is, and if he doesn’t consider himself a failure, what does it matter if Bailey and the rest of them–or we the audience, for that matter–do? What’s standing in his way besides a suicidal nudnik and a gaggle of indifferent townies?
In fact, Potter’s in a more powerful position than he’s ever been, because all the struggling townsfolk just gave their pocket money to George Bailey to save his business/etc. So now the next time Potter decides to make a move, no one will be able to stop him. The town is fucked.
In a month’s time, when the feelings have worn off, the business collapses, and George is driven to suicide again, the only thing different will be that he now knows he’s better off dead. His existence has merely delayed the inevitable. Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville all the same, only Mary can’t run the library because she’s a widow with four children to support, so all intellectual pursuits dry up and the town ends up worse than Bailey’s nightmare.
And on that cheery Christmas note, I leave you until Part II, next week!