Tomorrow is Veterans Day, and this started me thinking about my father Lester who served as an Army sergeant in the Pacific in World War II. He came home from the war and married my mother in 1946. That was a big year for a lot of people. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted on Facebook about how much he loved MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, John Ford's superb 1946 movie version of the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and it got me thinking about one of my pet movie theories:
It is an article of faith in the history of movies that 1939 was the Greatest Year of All Time. And there is ample evidence to justify that belief: GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, STAGECOACH, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, NINOTCHKA, etc, etc. But I believe that 1946 was an equally important year of achievement; maybe even greater. This was the year that great filmmakers came back from the war, and they came back with something to say. Some came back to comfortable, classic forms; some explored new, more mature territory. But almost all came back with superlative efforts.
Check out this string of masterpieces:
John Ford's MY DARLING CLEMENTINE – Probably my favorite Western. Roger Ebert's too. It's perfect, even including a little Shakespeare.
The whole movie --
Alfred Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS – Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Rio, with the indispensable Claude Rains. Screenplay by Ben Hecht. "Mother, I am married to an American agent." The TG's favorite Hitchcock. Francois Truffaut's too.
The whole movie --
Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE – A big-hearted, bold statement. Capra tries to get the full range of life, from dark to light, into a single work. I love this movie so much that I named the honky-tonk in WHAT IT WAS LIKE "Bailey's."
The final scenes -- "Help me, Clarence! Help me live again!"
The bank run
George lassos the moon.
William Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES – That rarest of things, a truly human epic.
Homer and Wilma in the bedroom – as poignant a scene as has ever been shot – "I know what to say, Homer: I love you. And I'm never going to leave you. Never."
Dana Andrews confronts the past in a junked bomber
Howard Hawks' THE BIG SLEEP – The TG's favorite Bogart movie and mine, too, although I can watch CASABLANCA a million times, and every time I'm bowled over by its economy of storytelling. (Structure!!!!)
The beginning -- Philip Marlowe meets General Sternwood
Bogart being Bogart, with a very young Dorothy Malone
A banter scene added for Bogart and Bacall when TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT became a smash hit
Some other outstanding films of 1946 were David Lean's "Great Expectations," Ernst Lubitsch's "Cluny Brown" (the Master's last movie), "Gilda" with Rita Hayworth on that bed, and "The Postman Always Rings Twice," that rarest of things: a tolerable Lana Turner movie.
And there was a major masterpiece by an artist who sat out the war in less than honorable circumstances. "Long live the shameful peace!"
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – Belle's arrival
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – The Death of the Beast
There are a few footnotes to my Theory of 1946: Billy Wilder jumped the gun by releasing THE LOST WEEKEND, his triple-Oscar winner, in 1945. That was his step-forward to greater maturity. And John Huston, who had a very tough war and tough time getting his next project going, had to wait until 1948 until everything fell into place. But since the movie was THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, it was worth the wait.
And Lester Robinson came back in 1946, and he and my mother made my brother in 1948. That was a major production, too.
(For some wonderful background history on the personal journeys of many of these filmmakers during – and after – the war, I recommend FIVE CAME BACK by Mark Harris.
I should add, however, that I've recently read long, long books on FDR and the history of World War II, and the subject of Hollywood movie-making was never mentioned once.)