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I’m powering through the remainder of the 1940s this week.  A local theater – well, an old picture palace, really – is showing AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (Best Picture, 1951) this weekend and I think it’d be fun to see it on the big screen.  But I’m being very strict about watching in order, so I need to try to get through the remaining films before that one.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Best Picture, 1946)

This is the first film since MRS. MINIVER that I’ve genuinely liked, though it’s a difficult movie to watch.  The story focuses on three men returning from the WWII military – one bomber pilot, one soldier, and one sailor – and the difficulties they have in readjusting to civilian life.

Since it weaves together three overlapping stories in a sort of narrative braid, it is hard to summarize.  Homer, the sailor, is a double amputee.  Both his hands were so badly burned when his ship sank that he had to have them removed up to mid-forearm.  As he says, he’s lucky to have his elbows.  He’s been fitted with hook prostheses, and he’s impressively dextrous with them, but his family is paralyzed with the awkwardness of good intentions and Homer becomes extremely self-conscious.  He pushes his family away and he pushes his longtime girlfriend/fiancee away and sinks into a depression.  Eventually his girl, Wilma, gets through to him and manages to convince him that she doesn’t care about the prostheses because she loves him and wants to be with him forever (aw).  It’s really darling – and not saccharine at all, which can be a risk in 1940s films.

Fred, the fighter pilot, impulsively married a girl he met during basic training and left this wife of less than three weeks.  Returning three years later, the two of them quickly discover that they don’t fit.  Fred is most obviously exhibiting signs of classic PTSD – he has nightmares, talks in his sleep, and sinks into a funk.  It’s clear that he’s having a great deal of trouble with the seeming triviality of his life as a soda jerk after the intensity of the war.  His situation does not receive any help when Fred falls in love with the daughter of the third main character, Peggy.  Fred has to deal with having no skills to qualify him for a proper job, his extramarital love for Peggy, and a wife who is far less impressed by a man who’s genuinely making an effort but struggling than her handsome pilot husband.  She pouts whenever she sees him in civilian clothes and only wants to go out to clubs and parties.

Al, the soldier, is the eldest of the three.  He is married, has two adult children, and a lucrative job to return to at a local bank.  His readjustment struggle has to do with growing alcoholic tendencies and his wish to help the young veterans make new lives in whatever way he can – usually by offering risky loans through his bank so they can buy land or businesses.

In some ways, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES reminds me of MRS. MINIVER.  It could have been predictable.  It could have been a pat story about three veterans learning to relax back into civilian life that fell into stereotypes of the supportive, relatively colorless women who support the brave war heroes who’ve come home.  Instead, it continually surprises.  The first night the three men are home, none of them feels comfortable at home so they all go out drinking.  Al takes his wife and daughter along, who show remarkable acceptance of the situation.  They do not preach, they do not moralize, they do not get drunk.  The two women sigh, laugh a bit sadly, and accept the situation for what it is.  They do what they can to keep things under control, from physically supporting the men out of the final bar to Peggy comforting Fred when he wakes up in the middle of a nightmare/flashback of being in the midst of something on fire.  The wife, played admirably by Myrna Loy, even makes a wry joke or two as she looks into the back seat of the car at the two sleeping drunk men – commenting that they make a charming couple.  The discomfort, grief, and anger portrayed by Homer, his family, and Wilma is startlingly realistic.

When I think of 1940s films, I think of the Hayes Code – that set of rules that makes old movies just a little bit unrealistically squeaky-clean.  Married couples sleep in twin beds, not double beds, lovers never kiss for longer than three seconds, nobody swears, all bad deeds are punished and all good deeds rewarded.  THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES turns that on its head.  It is vividly real, from Al’s drunkenness to Fred’s anger and aimlessness to Homer’s anger and depression.  The film has received praise since its release for including a real amputee as a main character, and I can’t help but wonder the extent to which the actor calls on his own personal experience in showing the intensely uncomfortable situation between the young former athlete and his well-intentioned family.

It would be interesting to get the opinions of a real therapist or combat stress sufferer, to see how this film compares to the real thing.  From where I sit, with my knowledge of the Hayes Code and my ignorance of combat and combat stress, it seems a shockingly raw portrayal for the period.  Or, to be honest, for any period.  Like GOING MY WAY or THE LOST WEEKEND, I suspect this film would be overdone if remade today.  It actually packs the stronger punch when coming from the context of the 1940s film industry.

Gentleman’s Agreement (Best Picture, 1947)

Of the movies I’ve watched in this project so far, this is the first one to really upset me.  It is simply ugly.  And given the nature of the story, I would like to believe that my being Jewish has little to do with my reaction.  I’d like to think that anyone today would find this a difficult story.

A young and very, very dishy Gregory Peck plays Phil Green, an investigative journalist assigned to write a series on anti-Semitism.  The story is spiced up by a supportive and insightful mother, a couple true friends, an adorable son, and an exceedingly unconvincing romance between Green and Kathy, the divorced niece of Green’s editor.  Their eyes meet across a room, they have one conversation, and as far as the audience can tell, the next evening they get engaged.   Not surprisingly, that’s when the problems start.  Green has decided that the way to write his story is to pretend he’s Jewish for a while and see how he’s treated by friends and strangers alike.  Kathy and Phil repeatedly argue about her reactions to anti-Semitic behavior and how he thinks she ought to respond.  For instance, at one point Phil’s son, who can’t be more than ten, comes home in tears because the boys at school called him a “dirty Jew” and refused to let him play with them.  Kathy’s response is to hug him and say it’s not true because he’s no more a Jew than she is.  Not really the response Phil wanted.  Because it’s a 1940s movie, it ends in a relatively happy place – Kathy has had an epiphany and Phil is willing to go on with the wedding.

This film is full of unpleasant and uncomfortable demonstrations of everyday anti-Semitism.  This is not the violent hostility of Nazis, but rather the petty bigotry of people who like to claim open-mindedness when there is no chance of being called on to demonstrate it.  A particularly interesting interaction takes place between Phil and his secretary, who admits to changing her name to sound less Jewish in order to get hired.  She finds out that the magazine has begun to make a point of indicating openness to different religions in its employment ads, and she’s upset – what if these ads attract the “wrong sort” of Jews?  The loud kind that wear too much makeup and no refinement.  Phil rightly calls her on this and tells her off, but it’s an important scene.  Some of the most prejudiced anti-Semites, even today, are Jews.  The comic world is full of the self-deprecating Jew.  This is different from genuine comedy.  The self-deprecating Jew is much like the self-deprecating nerd I described in a post a few months back.  They make the insulting joke before anyone else can, because somehow it hurts a little less when they feel in control of the situation.

At the end of the day, it’s clear that this film’s message is not as much about those who excluded Jews from hotels or country clubs, denied them jobs, or called names at school as it is about those who witnessed such behavior and didn’t speak up.  Kathy goes on and on about how sick and ashamed she felt when someone at a dinner told a racist joke, but is completely confused when Dave asks her what she did about it. There’s a quote attributed to Martin Niemoller regarding the inactivity of some of the German population in the face of the Nazi actions against various “undesirable” communities.  GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT is intended to chastise those who witness but do not speak out.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT has been in the news a bit recently because of the death of actress Celeste Holm, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in this film.  And truly, she is one of the bright spots of the picture in her completely convincing role of a fashion editor at the magazine who befriends Phil and seems to have the clearest vision of anyone in the entire movie.  She sees the problems between Phil and Kathy, the difficulty and endless humiliation of the position of Phil-the-Jew and his legitimately Jewish friend Dave.  Furthermore, she’s a delight to watch.  Celeste Holm was clearly a film natural.

Next Up: Hamlet (Best Picture, 1948) and All The King’s Men (Best Picture, 1949)