The amazing reunion scene in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) between Myrna Loy and Frederic March

The 19th Academy Awards, for the film year 1946.  The nominations were announced on February 9, 1947 and the awards were held on March 13, 1947.

Best Picture:  The Best Years of Our Lives

  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Henry V
  • The Yearling
  • The Razor’s Edge

Most Surprising Omission:  Brief Encounter

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Children of Paradise

Best Eligible English-Language Film Not Nominated:  The Big Sleep

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #41

The Race: For the third straight year, the race was pretty much over before it began.  While hordes of Foreign films had finally made their way to the States with the war finally over, it seemed the from the moment it was announced that The Best Years of Our Lives would win Best Picture.  The critics raved about all the films finally arriving.  From Italy came Open City, from France came Children of Paradise and from Britain came Brief Encounter and Henry V.  All of them were welcomed by great reviews and solid box office.  But once The Best Years of Our Lives, pushed by Samuel Goldwyn from the day in 1944 when he first read an article in Time about problems facing returning soldiers, got released, it was all over.  The critics raved and the crowds approved.  The likely also-rans included The Razor’s Edge, The Yearling, Frank Capra’s return to feature film-making It’s a Wonderful Life and David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun.

When the National Board of Review kicked off the awards season, it didn’t look so good for Hollywood.  Henry V won Picture and Actor, Open City won Actress and Foreign Film and while The Best Years of Our Lives came in 2nd for Best Picture and won Best Director, it was the only one of the major Oscar contenders to finish in the Top 10.  Things went better at the New York Film Critics, where Best Years won Picture and Director, though the acting awards again went for non-American films (this time opting for Brief Encounter for Actress).  The Golden Globes spread the wealth around, sticking to Hollywood products, giving Best Years Picture, Director to It’s a Wonderful Life, Actor to The Yearling and both Supporting awards to The Razor’s Edge (Best Actress went to Sister Kenny, which would earn an Oscar nomination for Rosalind Russell but wasn’t a serious Picture contender).

The Results: The lack of awards attention hurt Duel in the Sun, which earned only two acting nominations.  In its place was Henry V.  But the race was over.  Best Years was the only Picture nominee with a writing nomination and had the most nominations overall (8).  In the end, it almost swept, winning 7 of its 8 nominations (losing only for Best Sound) and the other four nominees combining for only 3 Oscars total.

The movie poster for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) which includes Virginia Mayo but not Oscar winner Harold Russell

The Best Years of Our Lives

  • Director:  William Wyler
  • Writer:  Robert E. Sherwood  (from the novel by MacKinley Kantor)
  • Producer:  Samuel Goldwyn
  • Studio:  RKO Radio
  • Stars:  Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (March), Supporting Actor (Russell), Editing, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Sound
  • Special Oscar:  “Harold Russell for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.”
  • Length:  172 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  21 November 1946
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #54  (nominees)  /  #13  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (March), Actress (Loy), Supporting Actor (Russell), Supporting Actress (Wright), Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound

The Film:  They do not give the Pulitzer Prize for film.  The Pulitzer Prize for fiction is given to an American author for a work, preferably dealing with American life.  What could fit the bill more than this film?  This is the story of America after the war.

It’s that simple.  We begin with three soldiers trying to catch a ride back home.  We slowly begin to learn about them.  There is the grunt sergeant.  There is the Captain flyer.  There is the sailor who has lost both his hands, but can write his own name and light a match with the hooks that have replaced his hands.  We follow the three of them across the country and back home and watch them try to find a way to re-enter their lives.

It’s all so poignantly painted right from the beginning.  The sailor returns home to a family who loves him and the girl next door who refuses to leave him, but, as the sergeant says, the Navy couldn’t teach him how to put his hands in his girl’s hair.  Then the sergeant returns home in one of the most emotionally moving scenes in all of film history, already written about in detail in my William Wyler piece.  Then the Captain returns home to find no wife and only the parents who love their hero.

But all is not well at home.  We have men who get drunk to forget their lives.  We have men who can not find jobs.  We have men who say that the war was a waste and that these men have been damaged, physically, mentally, emotionally, and that it was all for nothing.

But we grow into these characters and we watch as they continue to interact and as they move towards the only logical conclusion to the film.  But just because the film ends, we know that life will continue to go on, that these characters will continue to grow, that they will become a part of each others lives.

So what more is there to say?  Sadly, it wins none of my awards, though it comes in second place in Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress and Score.  The acting is first rate all across the board.  Though it doesn’t win any of my awards, not a single one of its seven Oscars could be said to be undeserved.  It is one of the great films in American history and one of the the few films that really fit the bill for a Pulitzer Prize.  How many films say this much about American life?

the film poster for It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life

  • Director:  Frank Capra
  • Writer:  Frank Capra  /  Frances Goodrich  /  Albert Hackett  (from the story by Philip Van Doren Stern)
  • Producer:  Frank Capra
  • Studio:  RKO Radio
  • Stars:  James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Stewart), Editing, Sound
  • Length:  130 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  20 December 1946
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #55  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Stewart), Editing, Art Direction

The Film:  I am capable of very few impersonations.  I can do a credible Jack Nicholson, an amusing Jack Kennedy (which is a little different than my spot-on Mayor Quimby) and I can do a half-decent Jimmy Stewart.  I used to do Stewart’s plea at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life: “I want to live again, Clarence.  I want to live again.”  I used to do it as home-spun, the way Stewart is often portrayed.  But watching it again, I noticed how desperate the plea was.  It’s not corny in the slightest.  It’s a passionate plea of someone who has learned how desperately important life is, especially his life, with his wife and his children and how much he wants to be alive.

What is the measure of a single human life?  That is the question of this film.  There is some corniness to it all, especially the set-up.  But this film, which so often gets thrown in with other, more corny holiday classics, has considerable depth to it.  It has some raciness (he is standing there with Mary’s clothes after all, trying to decide what to do), there is a considerable amount of pain and suffering (both for George and for the society he lives in) and there is a great deal of humor (most especially the line “He’s making violent love to me, mother.”).  But most of all, there is the amazing performance of Jimmy Stewart at the core of the film, a man who is forced to give up what he wants (except for that one thing, the thing he makes very clear what he wants).  He is so desperate to escape from this town, to have some good things happen to him, but he has always made the choices that must be made, not for himself, but for everyone around him.  That this man should be driven to the moment where he grabs his poor pathetic uncle and screams “Somebody’s going to jail and it’s not going to be me,” and to end up on that bridge shows what this kind of life can do to a man.

But then there is the world without him.  There are so many people whose lives can and do pass by without a blink.  But it is the strength of this film that this man, who would seem to not have much of an impact, has so amazing a life.  And it is a wonderful life.  And this film is a classic.  And what more can you really say?

Laurence Olivier's triumphant production of Henry V - his directorial debut

Henry V

  • Director:  Laurence Olivier
  • Writer:  Laurence Olivier  (from the play by William Shakespeare)
  • Producer:  Laurence Olivier
  • Studio:  Rank-Two Cities (distributed in the U.S. by United Artists)
  • Stars:  Laurence Olivier, Renee Asherson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actor (Olivier), Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedic Picture, Interior Decoration (Color)
  • Special Oscar:  “Laurence Olivier for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”
  • Length:  137 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Shakespeare)
  • Release Date:  17 June 1946 (U.S.), November 1944 (U.K.)
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #95  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Olivier), Cinematography, Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup

The Film:  This was it – the bringing of Shakespeare to the film masses.  Shakespeare had been attempted on film before.  Olivier himself had starred in a small version of As You Like It, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks had, rather pathetically, made a version of Taming of the Shrew, and Warner’s all-star version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a Best Picture nominee in 1935.  But no one had really attempted this kind of feat.  Olivier was doing many things at once.  He was trying to make a large film on an epic scale.  He was trying to find a way to bring Shakespeare to the people without making it too difficult.  And he was trying to help whip up support for the troops in World War II by presenting an allegory, in which the British successfully invade French shores against terrifying odds.

Olivier succeeds all across the board.  He begins the film in 1600 in the Globe theater and we get a sense of the kind of theatricality of Shakespeare’s productions in his own time.  We see the outlandish costumes, the over-acting, the crowd interaction.  But then we move on to seashore and then to France and we’ve moved on to an epic war film.  Olivier gives his Henry a grand regal approach — he is the man who has come to take back this land.  He is the man who will move among his own men at night to see how they feel and then will whip them up the heights of patriotic fever with one of the greatest of all Shakespeare speeches (would Ambrose ever have titled his book Band of Brothers had not Olivier made this film?).  Olivier adapted the play himself, adding little bits from the second part of Henry IV and cutting parts that would detract from Henry’s heroic exploits.  All in all, it is a triumphant success, the first truly great Shakespeare film and the beginning of a fine directing career.

Pulitzer Prize winner, Oscar nominee, okay film - The Yearling (1946)

The Yearling

  • Director:  Clarence Brown
  • Writer:  Paul Osborn  (from the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings)
  • Producer:  Sidney Franklin
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, Claude Jarman Jr.
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Peck), Actress (Wyman), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Interior Decoration (Color)
  • Length:  128 min
  • Genre:  Kids
  • Release Date:  18 December 1946
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #32  (year)  /  #405  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:

The Film:  Would the film be as aggravating if they had cast a different actor as Jody?  Or is Claude Jarman, Jr. not the problem?  Is the problem just the character of Jody himself?  I think I lean more toward the former.  Jarman is almost unwatchable.  He takes this kids film (and this is a kids film – I don’t really think that adults can be expected to watch this film and truly enjoy it — too much of it simply is speaking on a kids level) and he turns it from the kind of simple story about a kid and his pet on the edge of the wild with just his parents (a caring father and a mother stricken towards numbness with grief over too many dead children) and he makes it almost unwatchable.  His performance pushes it into the lower edges of a *** film.  It is still an okay film, but not a particularly good one or a particularly enjoyable one.

On the one hand, there is Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman and they are dependable and solid in their roles in only the way that they can be.  Peck must find a way to raise the boy and still deal with the emotional detachment of his wife, played so well by Wyman.  But if you want to watch a film about a family struggling to survive out in the wild with a child who finds a pet and grows to love it, only to be stricken by tragedy at the end, Old Yeller seems to be a better story and a better film.  If the Academy, instead of choosing The Yearling and The Razor’s Edge, had chosen any of the other truly great films eligible that year, many of which received major Oscar nominations, 1946 would be the single greatest Best Picture year in history instead of languishing down in 1946.  To think, they went with the sentimental kids film and the “deep literary” film rather than any of the following: Children of Paradise, Brief Encounter, Notorious and The Big Sleep.

Tyrone Power once again proves how boring he can be in The Razor's Edge (1946)

The Razor’s Edge

  • Director:  Edmund Goulding
  • Writer:  Lamar Trotti  (from the novel by W. Somerset Maugham)
  • Producer:  Darryl F. Zanuck
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Tyrone Power, Clifton Webb, Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter, Herbert Marshall
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Supporting Actor (Webb), Supporting Actress (Baxter), Interior Decoration (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  145 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Literary Adaptation)
  • Release Date:  19 November 1946
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #41  (year)  /  #439  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Webb), Supporting Actress (Baxter)

The Film:  Oh what a dreadful bore.  Here we have the story of a rich young man, disillusioned by life after serving in the first World War, who goes out to live a rather bohemian life out on his own, unprotected by his money.  The first problem is that it’s based on a novel by Somerset Maugham, that grand old man of American letters whose every novel was over-rated.  Then there is the presence of Herbert Marshall, playing the part of Maugham himself, placing himself directly in the story’s action, a rather meta-fiction aspect before its time but that just places him in the position of a rather boring narrator.  But the biggest problem is Tyrone Power as the main character.  Power would have been perfect as the young rich man, struggling through life, a man with no personality, much as Power really had no screen personality.  But the character tries to find enlightenment, and seems to find it and attempts to bring it to others.  Power is absolutely the wrong actor for this kind of role.  He has no depth.  He was designed to play pretty boys with no depth, not characters finding spiritual enlightenment.

On the other hand, there are the two key supporting performances in the film: Clifton Webb and Anne Baxter.  Webb is perfectly cast as the snobbish rich man who can’t bear anyone who seems to bring his society down and Baxter, first as the charming young woman, then the broken widow trying desperately to redeem herself are both perfect.  They bring a higher style of acting and almost seem out of place in the film among the rest of the wooden cast.  While neither wins my award, that is because of the strength of the category and not any flaw in their performances.

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