It’s been ten years since we’ve seen a Shakespeare adaptation amongst the nominees, the most recent being the critical and commercial failure Romeo and Juliet in 1936. After that age-inappropriate bomb, coupled with the previous year’s ridiculous A Midsummer Night’s Dream–and say what you will about R&J, at least Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard could perform credible Shakespeare, unlike Dick Powell and James Cagney–the bard was box office poison. And just like so much in life, it took Laurence Olivier to save the day.
Henry V was actually produced and released in the United Kingdom in 1944, personally commissioned by Winston Churchill–presumably right after he saw Wilson and was so depressed he needed to be reminded why his side had to win. So he turned to Olivier, who was hot off his triumph as a French-Canadian fur trapper in the otherwise-not-at-all-silly 49th Parallel…
And while Hollywood, as I pointed out, was foundering badly in the “morale-boosting war films” department (considering they thought of Since You Went Away, Going my Way, and the aforementioned Wilson as their “best” that year), Olivier took the PM’s directive seriously and produced, adapted, directed, and starred in Henry V, simultaneously reclaiming Shakespeare for England and ensuring no one on the street ever shouted “Mon dieu!” at him again.
Buying himself a few years of peace before “Is it safe?” came along.
Until this point, it was commonly accepted that Shakespeare was not only unprofitable, but that film could not do justice to his work. Henry V is a delightfully inventive film, and it makes sense that it was Laurence Olivier, not only a genius but well-versed in Shakespeare and someone with a keen instinct as to what made his plays great, who showed how to successfully translate 16th-century theatre to this upstart 20th-century art form. This film was one of a handful from the period that marked a shift in how people thought about moving pictures, a major contribution to the idea that they could be both entertainment and works of art.
The structure of the film is whimsical and, like the climactic musical number of 1933’s 42nd Street, utilizes to the fullest the potential of movies to seamlessly transport the audience to any time and place they can imagine. We open in 1599 with a performance of Shakespeare’s latest at the Globe Theatre, complete with a rowdy and appreciative audience, an inconvenient spell of stormy weather, and, most entertainingly, histrionic performances by actors in heavy make-up. There are even several shots of the actors backstage, adjusting their costumes and silently rehearsing their lines before going on and taking a bow.
I won’t go into too much detail as to how Olivier structures the film, because–and I may be speaking only for myself here, but no matter–half the fun of watching this movie is seeing how he playfully moves from one level of cinematic immersion to the next, gliding between layers of reality as the story of Henry’s successful campaign to claim the throne of France unfolds. Throughout it all he commands the screen in the title role, much as he did as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights back in 1939, and as Maximilian in Rebecca in 1940.
It’s definitely an outlier amongst the nominees, as it would have been in just about any other year. I would say it’s the first “art film” I’ve come across in this project…which makes sense given it’s Shakespeare, but then again I would never class the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream as art films. Those were grim reminders of the limits of the Hollywood formula–Henry V is a rousing affirmation of the limitless potential of cinema, when the film industries of other nations were beginning to come into their own and seriously challenge the Hollywood ideal. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the award for Best Foreign Language Film (read: Best Artsy Film) showed up the year after this.
Not that there weren’t plenty of Hollywood films of the period that were works of art, because there were. (Just as I would argue that not all “art films” are necessarily “works of art.” It’s a genre, just like “Golden Age Hollywood” is.) And that’s as good a segue as any to move on to this year’s winner…
The last time we saw William Wyler was in 1942, when his film Mrs. Miniver won Best Picture, Best Director, and two acting awards. Then, much like Capra, he joined the armed forces and produced/directed war documentaries, but despite this shared experience they returned to Hollywood with mutually exclusive ideas of what a postwar film should be. Capra came back a broken man and a worse director with nothing to left to contribute except saccharine spirituality and trite aphorisms.
I can think of few statements as demonstrably untrue as this.
Wyler, on the other hand, chose not to talk down to his audience and instead made a deeply personal and stirring film about the home front, and for the first time in Academy history, they awarded Best Picture to the year’s actual best picture two years in a row. The Best Years of Our Lives is a timely, poignant, and meticulously well-made bit of postwar cinema, the story of three returning soldiers to their small town home in Indiana and their (ultimately successful) attempts to readjust to civilian life and a country that doesn’t seem to need them anymore.
It was also the first film to get the now-standard “gritty reboot” treatment.
The stories of the three servicemen (played by Fredric March, Harold Russell, and Dana Andrews, the first two of whom won Oscars for their performances) are intertwined seamlessly throughout the nearly-three-hour film, and their paths continue to cross at various stages of their reintegration. Al Stephenson (March) is the oldest of the three and the best off financially/socially, a bank manager in civilian life; Fred Derry (Andrews) was a soda jerk before the war, but amongst the trio has attained the highest rank in military service; and Homer Parrish (Russell) was a football player in college, and returns with prosthetic hooks in place of the hands he lost in combat. Their three stories examine whether these are “the best years of their lives,” or whether those best years might already be behind them.
(Spoiler: It’s the former. This is still Hollywood.)
One of the major themes of the film is the blending and breakdown of social strata that comes with their shared experiences; having never met before their flight home, and coming from sections of society that do not overlap, they still find themselves closer to one another than their own friends and family. The support and encouragement they get from one another is largely what drives the first two-thirds of the film, until they begin to work out their place in the new world…but, crucially, they never drift apart.
This movie, like The Lost Weekend before it, is a great example of how serious, downbeat issues can be addressed within the Hollywood formula. It faithfully follows the three-act structure and includes the standard love story subplot, but in a way that is utterly unforced and serves the story perfectly. And even though it ends with all of the characters (relatively) happy and well-adjusted, it never falls into the Wonderful Life trap of simply telling us that everything is fine and will continue to be so because reasons…Wyler takes his time in order to show us their journeys, and therefore the feeling of optimism at the end is truly earned.
March and Andrews, not to mention Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, are phenomenal; one of Wyler’s great strengths was his ability to draw out deep and complex performances. The emotional center of the film, though, is Harold Russell as Homer Parrish, the youngest of the trio. Russell was not an actor, but rather a veteran who had lost both hands in an explosives accident; Wyler cast him as Parrish, after seeing him in a documentary. And even when sharing the screen with Fredric March, Russell steals every scene he’s in with his understated and unaffected portrayal…the whole film is worth it for the scene in which he bares his soul to his fiancée-to-be, which I won’t spoil.
The result is a film that, as I mentioned above, is nearly three hours long but never feels slow, drawn-out, or forced, and the Academy responded enthusiastically. March and Russell both won Oscars (and in fact, Russell received two, as he won Best Supporting Actor and also was given an Honorary Award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”), and Wyler took home his second Best Director award. We’re right in the midst of the Academy Awards’ first Golden Age, and there’s so much to be excited about as I move on to the 20th Awards.
Before I close out the Oscars’ second decade, however, I’m going to take a brief interlude and step back in time. I am finally going to California, and the UCLA Film Archive, to catch up on those rare nominees from years past. Specifically, I’m talking about East Lynne (1932), The White Parade (1934), and Hold Back the Dawn (1941), films that eluded me due to their scarcity (the latter two, as I mentioned only survive in the archive). My next entry therefore will be a special one, reviewing those films–and trying hard not to view them from the context of 1946/47–and moving into the Third Decade finally caught up on the first two. Onward!