The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

I don’t usually watch sad movies during the school year, because the stress and exhaustion from work coupled with a sad film can derail my mental health quickly.

But Sunday I was feeling more anchored and less sad than I have in months, so I pulled out the good ol’ Warner Brothers collection and when I saw the next movie on the list was “The Best Years of our Lives,” I thought, why not?

Plot: Three men catch a hop to their hometown after the end of World War II. They didn’t know each other before the war, but are bonded by their separate experiences in the war and the long trip home. The next three (yes, three!) hours chronicle their adjustment back to civilian life.

Best moment: Homer, who has lost both of his arms, invites his would-be fiancĂ© up to his bedroom to get a glimpse of what her life would be like should they marry. He shows her what it takes for him to get ready for bed, and openly shares his emotional vulnerability about what kind of husband he thinks he’ll be, dependent as he is. It’s so raw and touching, and I applaud Robert Sherwood’s writing and William Wyler’s direction for taking such an intimate moment and showing that vulnerability, while scary, most often brings us closer to each other.

Worst moment: In terms of quality, there’s not really a “worst moment,” but in terms of discomfort, there were several moments that could be labeled “worst,” only because they were awfully difficult for the characters. Reentry to civilian life can’t be easy, and everyone involved in this film confronted that head-on, not shying away from or sugar coating the realities of post-war life. This means that some scenes were really hard to watch.

Fun fact: William Wyler, who directed the film, was one of five big-name Hollywood directors who filmed documentaries from the front lines during World War II. I highly recommend Mark Harris’ book “Five Came Back,” and the Netflix documentary of the same name to learn more about those directors who risked their lives to show Americans what war was really like.

Recommendation: I watched this film in 2005, and perhaps age has mellowed me a bit, but I rather enjoyed watching it this time around. I wasn’t bored at all watching. If you have a lazy afternoon, it’s definitely worth your time.

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Plot: Monte Beragon has been shot dead in his home, and the police pull in his wife, Mildred Pierce-Beragon for questioning. Because, you know, it’s always the spouse, right? During questioning, Mildred recounts her life story: from a stay-at-home mother who loves her children, to a single working mother, to a successful businesswoman.

Best moment: OH. MY. GOSH. That ending. I did not see that end coming. I mean, I suspected it a little, but seeing as this was 1945 I did NOT think they were going to go there. Also, the film was directed by Michael Curtiz, who is becoming my favorite director (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy), so every frame and his use of light and shadow is just *chef’s kiss*.

Worst moment: VEDA. All of her moments. Though I will say I’m adding this film to the list of resources I pull when people lament about “kids these days are the worst” or “moral decay has never been what it is now.” To those people I say, “Really? You should watch Mildred Pierce and then get back to me. I’ll wait.” Though I will say this about the writing–we’re never really given a good reason for why Veda is so awful. And maybe to a 2019 audience, we don’t need a reason; after all, Veda just reminded me of any number of teen Instagram influencers so it wasn’t a stretch for me to buy her “I’m so embarrassed that you work in the food industry” criticism of her mother as the sole reason she was so mean.

Trailer screenshot [Public domain]

Fun facts: Joan Crawford was not Curtiz’s first (or second, or third) choice for the title role, but she was really quite good. HBO did a miniseries starring Kate Winslet (the film was based on a book) so now I want to check that out.

Recommendation: See it. I see movies by myself all the time, and I’m never bothered by not having someone around to react with. But I kinda wish someone had watched this with me, because at least three times I said “WHAT?” out loud. That doesn’t happen often. Also, it held my attention, probably because so many of the characters were flat-out unlikeable and I wanted to see if that changed at all.

Anchors Aweigh (1945)

Plot: Joe Brady (Gene Kelly) and Clarence Doolittle (Frank Sinatra) have been granted four days’ leave in the wake of receiving the Silver Medal. Joe is wanting to find his portside girl Lola, and Clarence just wants to find any girl. They get delayed thanks to a six year-old who wants to join the Navy, and they meet Aunt Susie. Clarence is immediately enamored with Aunt Susie, while Joe is annoyed as he wants to see Lola. Who will Aunt Susie end up with? Will the two midshipmen ever stop calling her Aunt Susie? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Best Moment: Well, shoot, I think I have to say every time Gene Kelly dances. He’s just. so. good.

Worst Moment: Maybe the song Joe and Clarence sing about hooking up with girls that they didn’t actually hook up with? The song is a little bit yikes, but here’s where I really saw just how good a dancer Kelly is–Sinatra could not keep up, try as he might.

Fun Facts: If you’ve seen stills or clips of Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry Mouse, it’s from this film. There’s also a great scene at the Hollywood Bowl of a dozen pianists playing Franz Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2.

The film was released in between V-E day and V-J day, and as I watched, I couldn’t help but think this film was somewhat of a collective exhale of entertainment. There’s no ulterior war-supporting subtext, just singing and dancing and piano playing and falling in love.

Recommendation: It really is just nice fluffy escapist fare with some fantastic costuming (I want ALL of Aunt Susie’s dresses) and the sequence with Jerry Mouse is quite adorable. If you’re into that, see it.

Oh, and there’s Frank Sinatra singing this song, which is just a little on the nose for my life, tbh.

Gaslight (1944)

Hey, remember this project?

I didn’t forget about it. Let’s see, how can I phrase this…I like the way my friend Amy put it: the “crazy year winds down (really ramps up until it crashes into the wall and we are left to recover). “

I’m close to recovering.

Anyway. I admit I delayed watching “Gaslight” because I knew what it was about, and I knew I had to be in a certain frame of mind to watch it. Today I just ripped off that Band-Aid, and, well, here’s some thoughts.

Wikimedia Commons

Plot: We first see Paula dressed in mourner’s clothes, being shuttled off to a different country after her aunt’s murder. Then we see her years later, an aspiring (but failing) singer in love with her accompanist. The accompanist, Gregory, convinces her to marry him and have the two of them move back into her aunt’s house. He then systematically convinces her she is losing her sanity, for reasons I do not want to spoil because YOU SHOULD SEE THIS MOVIE.

Best Moment: When the tables turn and Paula uses his tactics against him to make a point.

Worst Moment: Anytime Gregory speaks to Paula after moving into her aunt’s house. Though probably the worst-worst moment is when he manipulates her right into a mental collapse at a concert.

Fun Facts: As I watched this, I wondered if my ex had seen this movie and taken notes, because he certainly deployed the same tactics to keep me in his life for as long as he did. I also wondered if I’d seen this movie before dating him, maybe I would’ve been inoculated against those tactics.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and Ingrid Bergman won for Best Actress–quite deserved. And wow, the talent she was up against that year: Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Greer Garson, and Barbara Stanwyck (for “Double Indemnity,” which is equally amazing). She also won the Golden Globe for Best Actress that year.

Recommendation: According to Wikipedia, “gaslighting” (which is more in today’s collective lexicon than it was 25 years ago), derives from this film and the 1938 play it was based on. For that reason alone, this is a must-see. Plus, Ingrid Bergman really slays this role.

Casablanca (1942)

Recently someone asked me if I had a favorite movie, and I didn’t hesitate to reply, “Casablanca.” I. Love. This. Movie. So much so, that a student bought me the movie poster, which I framed, and when I look up from my desk where I do most of my writing, it’s the only thing I see.

The view from my desk at home.

Plot: Two German couriers have been killed, their letters of transit stolen. Rick, an apolitical nightclub owner, allows the thief/murderer to hide the letters in his club. Victor Laszlo has arrived in Casablanca with his wife, recently escaped from a concentration camp, hoping to use the letters as passage to the U.S.

Best Moment: THE ENTIRE MOVIE.

Worst Moment: I can’t even say “when the credits roll,” because the last line is so iconic.

Fun Facts: I once dated a guy who said “They say you never forget who you saw Casablanca with for the first time.” I don’t know who the “they” are, but he was right–every time I watch this movie, I think about him.

This movie is part of my Popular Culture Studies class curriculum. I show it for two reasons: to make sure my students see a film considered one of the greatest in American cinema, but also to dissect its role in supporting U.S. involvement in World War II. There’s a fair chunk of propaganda in Casablanca, and while the love story is lovey and Humphrey Bogart never fails to make me swoon in that white dinner jacket and bow tie, all that is window dressing.

Also, because this film is in my curriculum, I have seen this movie probably 20 times, minimum. I used to think I’d catch up on grading or lesson planning while the kids watch it, but I eventually gave up on that, because I just end up watching it every single semester. Some semesters, twice a day. And since I watched it today, that means by the end of 2019, I’ll have watched this movie four times. (If my class numbers hold, that is.)

Want more fun facts? Read this. So interesting.

Oh, and one more fun fact: no one ever says “Play it again, Sam.” The line is “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.'”

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/5X0M16GjlZYN1WjPNzerb5

Recommendation: Um. SEE IT.