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The best films are those which are about a specific time and place but which are also universal in their theme and appeal. Such is the case with the 1946 Oscar winner, The Best Years of Our Lives, which is a film about homecoming American servicemen after World War II – the Army officer who returns to his comfortable bank job; the flyer who finds his job in a drugstore has been filled by someone else and the sailor who returns with hooks where his hands used to be. It could be any country, any war, any time, in which the soldiers and sailors return to a world different from the one they left, one in which they no longer comfortably fit.
Oscar winner Fredric March as the officer, Dana Andrews as the flyer and two time Oscar winning non-professional actor Harold Russell as the sailor are all excellent as are the actresses playing the women who love them (Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Cathy O’Donnell) and those who don’t (Virginia Mayo). It’s all exquisitely filmed by legendary director William Wyler, winning his second of three Oscars on his sixth of twelve nominations.
The won seven of the eight Oscars it was nominated for as well as an eighth for Best Supporting Actor winner Russell, who won a second Oscar for himself “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.” It also won for Best Editing, Scoring and Screenplay, losing only the award for Best Sound, which went to The Jolson Story.
Though not terribly successful on its initial release, but popular enough to secure five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, It’s a Wonderful Life has in recent years surpassed The Best Years of Our Lives as the best loved film of 1946, and why not? Who among us isn’t a sucker for this film about a man who is shown how the world would be a lesser place without his having been in it?
The film became a popular favorite only after producer-director Frank Capra failed to renew the film’s copyright in 1972 and the film fell into the public domain, allowing TV stations to broadcast the film free of charge. It quickly became the broadcast film of choice for every Christmas thereafter. Both Capra and star James Stewart considered it their favorite film. In addition to Best Picture, Actor and Director, it was nominated for Best Editing and Best Sound. None of the other actors including Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell and Henry Travers were nominated.
Nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, Edmund Goulding’s film of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge was a powerful film about one man’s search for truth and salvation. Tyrone Power in his first post-War film gave one of, if not, the best performance of his career, but he was overshadowed by the Oscar nominated performance of Clifton Webb as Gene Tierney’s eccentric uncle and particularly that of Anne Baxter as the tragic young wife and mother who turns to drink and prostitution after the death of her husband and children. Herbert Marshall is almost as good as Maugham himself, inserting himself into the lives of his fictional characters.
It was also nominated for its striking Black-and-White Art Direction.
Films about boys and their dogs are as old as film itself, but a film about a boy and his pet deer was something unusual even if Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling about such a subject had been a huge best-seller with the rights owned by MGM for some time.
Originally intended as a starring vehicle for Spencer Tracy and Anne Revere, it was finally brought to the screen by Clarence Brown with Gregory Peck as the understanding father, Jane Wyman as the harsh mother and Claude Jarman, Jr. as the sensitive boy. Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Editing, it won two for Best Color Art Direction and Cinematography. In addition, Jarman won a special juvenile Oscar as the best child performer of the year.
World cinema began intruding on Hollywood’s hold on Oscar in 1946. Laurence Olivier’s film of William Shakespeare’s Henry V, made in 1944 before the end of World War II,was the fifth Best Picture nominee. It also secured nominations for Best Actor, Color Art Direction and Scoring. Olivier’s performance in the title role was the film’s only acting nod. Renee Asherson was his leading lady.
Henry V was only the tip of the iceberg. Other foreign films vying for Oscars included Britain’s Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit and Vacation From Marriage as well as Italy’s Open City and France’s Children of Paradise.
Nominated for Best Actress (Celia Johnson), Director (David Lean) and Screenplay, Brief Encounter from a Noel Coward play, was a much loved story of an unconsummated affair between two middle people who meet at a railway station. Both Johnson and Trevor Howard were ideally cast in one of Lean’s “little” films.
Coward and Lean’s other “little” film of the year, Blithe Spirit won in the only category for which it was nominated: Best Special Effects. Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Johnson and the incomparable Margaret Rutherford as the happy medium Madame Arcati, starred.
Released as Perfect Strangers in Britain, Alexander Korda’s Vacation From Marriage is a lovely film about a mousey couple who grow stronger while apart – he in the war and she at home. Robert Donat is brilliant and Deboroah Kerr quite wonderful as they go through their transformations, ably assisted by Glynis Johns, Ann Todd and Roland Culver. It, too, won for the only thing it was nominated for – Best Original Story.
Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, filmed in Rome in the waning days of World War II, was immediately recognized as a landmark in film history, a brutally realistic account of life as it then existed. Nothing has changed in the sixty five years since to lessen its impact on anyone coming to it for the first time. Anna Magnani’s devastating performance rightly put her on the world stage. The film was nominated for its screenplay, but could just as well have been nominated for its unforgettable cinematography.
Also nominated just for its screenplay, Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise is generally regarded as the greatest French film of all time. An observant tale of unrequited love involving a company of actors and mimes and crimes, large and small, the film is beautifully brought to life by a cast that includes Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault and Pierre Brasseur. Its art direction, costume design and cinematography were also worthy of Oscar consideration.
Hollywood films vying for Oscars outside of the Best Picture category included Notorious; To Each His Own; Anna and the King of Siam; The Green Years and the afore-mentioned The Jolson Story.
Generally regarded as Alfred Hitchcock’s best film of the 1940s, Notorious was also his last critically acclaimed film until Strangers on a Train five years later. Ingrid Bergman is at her alluring best as the daughter of a Nazi spy going undercover for government agent Cary Grant to infiltrate a gang of her father’s associates led by Claude Rains who has romantic designs on her. That’s the basic plot, but there’s more going on here, much, much more. Nominated for Best Screenplay and Supporting Actor (Rains), the film was shockingly left out of the running for Best Picture as well as Best Actor (Grant), Actress (Bergman) and Director (Hitchcock), all performing at career peak levels.
The de Havilland Decision was a landmark court case in which actress Olivia de Havilland successfully sued to get out of her Warner Bros. contract, thus ending the practice of the studios of adding suspension periods to actors’ contracts. After three years off the screen she came back in her greatest role yet as the feisty businesswoman reunited with her illegitimate son in Mitchell Leisen’s classic tearjerker, To Each His Own. Made when she was just thirty, her remarkable interpretation of a brusque middle-aged womaneasily won her the year’s Best Actress Oscar. The film had also been nominated for Original Story.
Based on the popular best seller, John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam featured sumptuous Oscar winning Black-and-White Cinematography and Art Direction and wise and winning performances by Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison in the title roles. The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay, Score and Supporting Actress (Gale Sondergaard).
Based on A.J. Cronin’s acclaimed novel, Victor Saville’s The Green Years tells the story of an Irish-Scottish orphan (Dean Stockwell) who comes to live with his dour Scottish grandfather (Hume Cronyn) and gentle grandmother (Selena Royle) and their extended family which includes Gladys Cooper as Cronyn’s mother, Best Supporting Actor nominee Charles Coburn as Royale’s father and Jessica Tandy, Cronyn’s wife in real life, as his daughter. The film was also nominated for its gorgeous black-and-white cinematography.
Nominated for six Oscars including Best Actor Larry Parks, Alfred E. Green’s The Jolson Story won two, one for Best Scoring of a Musical in addition to Best Sound. Al Jolson himself provided the singing voice of Parks who mouthed the numbers perfectly. Evelyn Keyes co-starred as a fictionalized version of Jolson’s wife Ruby Keeler.
All but Vacation From Marriage, To Each His Own and The Green Years have been released on commercial DVD in the U.S. The Best Years of Our Lives is out of print but available at reasonable prices. Blithe Spirit is out of print and very expensive.
New DVD releases include the Blu-ray debuts of In Bruges and Insomnia.