Movie magic draws people to a particular film through many forms. It can be comedy so well performed that you laugh hard enough to get stomach pains or horror so scary that you to go to sleep with the lights on for the next three nights. My personal preference is the emotional attachment I feel for the characters of a well-written dramatic story. If a film can inspire me, enough to bring a tear to my eye, than I am all in for it. Two films that do just that were produced in 1946 during Hollywood’s Golden Age and are among my favorite all-time movies―It’s a Wonderful Life and The Best Years of Our Lives.
God has other plans for a man on the verge of suicide and sends an angel to show him how wonderful life can truly be. That’s the premise for Frank Capra’s first post-war film―It’s a Wonderful Life. Based on a short story, originally produced privately on Christmas cards before being purchased, the film went on to receive five Academy Award nominations. But with no wins and poor box office performance it found its way to obscurity, only to be re-discovered 30 years later. Copyright had run out on the film in the 1970s, making it fortuitously available for public domain. At that time it became over-saturated on television, quickly becoming a Christmas tradition in many households and an all-time classic. The film holds significance in cinematic history for its innovation in snow making (shaved ice, gypsum, plaster, fomite and soap as opposed to painted cornflakes,) as well as having one of the largest sets ever constructed (4 acres, 75 buildings and 20 live oaks planted on set). All of this equates to greatness, but the reason I love this movie most is for the main character―George Bailey.
Played by Jimmy Stewart in his first acting role after serving in World War II, Bailey easily wins the audiences hearts by genuinely being a hard-working, honest, loyal, patriotic, loving family man. Capra shows this wonderful personality right from the start as a young George Bailey saves his brother’s life and protects his druggist boss from accidently poisoning someone. These early dramatic scenes set the tone for the whole film and George Bailey never disappoints us. He is there for his friends and family all along, sacrificing his own career and goals for the sake of doing good for the community. The most inspirational/tear-inducing part of the film comes when George needs his friends and family the most. Without hesitation, they come to his aid by filling up his home on Christmas Eve and financially supporting him out of a jam. It’s as if they are symbolically paying him back for all the good deeds he has done for them. George’s war hero brother Harry speaks a line of dialogue that sets off an emotional zenith in this incredible heart-warming scene. After being flown in through a blizzard to be there for George he toasts, “To my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
Three World War II veterans return home to their small town, only to discover how difficult adjusting to civilian life can be. That’s the premise behind the homage-inspired title of this article and Academy Award-winning film―The Best Years of Our Lives. Reluctantly directed by William Wyler, the film–based on Mackinlay Kantor’s novel Glory For Me–went on to win seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, beating out the aforementioned It’s a Wonderful Life. Variety magazine reported it as “One of the best films of our lives.” Many considered it to be the most realistic portrayal of soldier’s hardships following their tenure serving in the war. More recently, Luisa F. Ribeiro of the Baltimore City Paper said, “No film examining that time better details the contradictions, uncertainties and hardships of patriotic sacrifice.”
What brings the emotional element to the film, or who rather, is the all-American youngster Homer Parrish. While serving in the Navy, Homer loses both his hands and returns home with hook replacements. You feel deeply for this character right from the beginning when you see he has lost his hands and the jolly way he jests about his hooks. Although he learned to use the hooks to do many things, like open doors or light a match, he struggles mentally because he doesn’t want to burden the love of his life and girl next door, Wilma. The most appropriate dialogue in regards to this matter speaks volumes:
Fred Derry: You gotta hand it to the Navy; they sure trained that kid how to use those hooks.
Al Stephenson: They couldn’t train him to put his arms around his girl, or to stroke her hair.
Homer only wishes Wilma to be happy but doesn’t realize that all she still loves him no matter how the circumstances have changed. The allusion to a possible suicide presents itself through mise-en-scene (gun hanging on wall of bedroom,) and a military/depressing score during Homer’s scenes. Harold Russell plays the role of Homer and actually did lose both his hands during a 1944 training accident when TNT exploded in his hands. He was discovered when Wyler saw a short informational training video in which Russell proved to be a natural in front of the camera. For his role, Russell won the Academy Award for best supporting actor and also an honorary Oscar for “Bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans,” making him the only actor in history to win two Academy Awards for the same role.
If you haven’t already seen these films I strongly suggest you do so. If you have, you might want to re-visit them and don’t be afraid to let the tear drops fall.
Craig Pisani is an avid moviegoer and aspiring screenwriter with Bachelor degrees in both Cinema and English.