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William Wyler’s Love Letter to His Comrades in Arms: The Best Years of Our Lives

In the opening shot of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), CAPT Fred Derry walks into an airport terminal in hopes of catching a flight home to Boone City, USA. Upon reaching the clerk at the counter, Fred learns there is a several day wait for a commercial flight, even though he’s a returning war hero. A wealthy middle-aged businessman then charges up next to Fred, interrupts his conversation with the airline clerk, and confirms his seat on the next flight regardless of the extra cost. He barely acknowledges CAPT Derry, no nod or a “thank you for your service.” The air is thick with rotten apathy, and it’s this scene that signals the audience is in for a different kind of war movie. William Wyler, himself a WWII veteran, saw America’s shift in attitude immediately following the war. The wells of patriotism had been tapped dry and those keeping the fires burning on the home front were tired of making sacrifices. Once the servicemen returned home, the warm welcome was short lived. After fighting for years in the Pacific and Europe, these soldiers were expected to resume life as normal almost immediately. Definitely easier said than done. The transition back to civilian life was difficult for many of the soldiers displaced by the war, and Wiliam Wyler wanted to pay tribute to their post-war struggles.

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Fredric March: The Eyes Have It

by Bobby Rivers

“Some of you seem to think this is a course in anatomy.”  ~Fredric March in The Wild Party as the anthropology professor in a women’s university.

In that 1929 talkie directed by Dorothy Arzner, he also teaches feminism to his flirtiest student, Stella, played by Clara Bow.  The professor literally saves that babe in the woods from possible rape after she hit a roadhouse for some hot cha cha.  He educates her on the college’s founder: “She braved the ridicule of her friends and the abuse of her contemporaries to bring a true freedom to women.”  Prof. Gilmore falls for Stella but she must embrace “work, scholarship and achievement” and stop being a party girl. This movie made Fredric March a star. We can see why. The camera loved his face. Early March had matinee idol looks and serious actor skills.  His tone here — in vocal quality and performance — still feel modern.  Certainly more modern than Bow’s.  Her Betty Boop faces were more suited for a silent film.  She does too much. March seems to have hit Hollywood cameras with a natural sense that less would be more in the new sound era.  He stars in another film directed by Dorothy Arzner, Sarah and Son.  With this 1930 film, Arzner became the first woman to direct another woman to a Best Actress Academy Award nomination.  Oscar nominee Ruth Chatterton (much better and memorable as the restless wife of Dodsworth) played the German Sarah.  Bow’s physical excess is matched by Chatterton’s vocal excess. Her accent sounds a little to the left of Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles (“I vant you should get up und get out und get some money.  Or you don’t see me again…mebbe.”)  She’s the hoofer/singer who married a lazy American.  He gives their baby away and then dies.  March stars as the respectful lawyer who helps the hard-working single mother reclaim her son.  Again, he’s natural.  Every time Chatterton opens her mouth, lederhosen pops out.

The Eagle and the Hawk.  I wish this World War I film was as popular as 1930′s All Quiet On The Western Front.  The star quality felt about March in his first Arzner film has been confirmed by the time he stars in this 1933 drama.  And he’d been recognized by Hollywood with the first of his two Best Actor Oscars, winning for 1931-32′s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  His second Oscar® came for William Wyler’s 1946 classic about World War II veterans, The Best Years of Our Lives. Only about 70 minutes long, The Eagle and the Hawk packs quite a punch and contains one of my favorite March performances.  The movie is visually handsome, with the 1930s pearly Paramount sheen plus a gorgeous use of darkness and shadow in its black and white cinematography.  The aerial sequences are exciting.  March and jovial Jack Oakie were both in The Wild Party but didn’t have scenes together.  They do in this WWI picture.  They’re best friends. Cary Grant plays the bad-ass.  “This is a war.  I’m hired to kill the enemy,” Grant’s airman says.  We see each pilot’s character in the opening credits.  Jerry (March) is the upper class good sportsman.  Mike (Oakie) is the happy-go-lucky slug. Crocker (Grant) is the unsympathetic roughneck.  Here, March is in peak form.  His internal work is masterful.  He mentally breaks down from a likable guy who sees war as sport to a haunted shell of a war-hating hero by the end. He drinks, as several March characters do. We feel the rage building in Jerry’s soul.  He’s at war with himself every time he gets more medals for shooting down the enemy.  “I got these for killing kids!”  It’s all there in March’s eyes.  And in his stillness. He was one of those actors who realized early on that to be still, to let the audience come to and into your character was very powerful.

A commanding officer asks Jerry to give the new fresh-faced recruits a pep talk with tales of his latest victory. We see the self-loathing and irony in his eyes as he tells them  “…you’re fighting for humanity and for the preservation of civilization.”  In March’s most stirring scene, Jerry has a nightmare about combat.  He’s dreaming but his eyes are open.  For that’s what war has made his life — a nightmare with his eyes open. A much-needed breather from the horrors of war is supplied by Carole Lombard as The Beautiful Lady at a London party.  Her serious role as an elegant woman who comforts Jerry for a night on leave is practically a cameo.  Four years later, March and Lombard co-star for lively loopiness in the screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred.

My first professional broadcast job was doing news on 93 QFM, a radio station in Milwaukee.  During that gig, I got to meet and spend time with Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and Martha Raye when they toured in a 1970s stage revue that played Milwaukee for a week.  One night after the show, we went out to a barbecue rib joint for dinner and they started telling show biz stories.  Martha, who was under contract to Paramount in the 1930s, piped up with what a flirt Fredric March was.  Not only that, but he was endowed with more than just a great acting talent.  Rosemary and Margaret practically did the Danny Thomas Spit Take with their beverages.  I said “Fredric March?”  She said, “Why do you think he wore that cape in Death Takes A Holiday?  He needed something long enough to cover it up.”  What a marvelous night that was with Martha Raye, who later added “Lombard knew how to handle him.”  Rosemary Clooney and Margaret Whiting were tired and wanted to go back to the hotel after we finished dinner.  Martha turned to me and said, “Let’s get a nightcap.”  Over vodka tonics in downtown Milwaukee, I asked her if the celebrated actor was really that much of a Casanova.  Martha Raye’s answer:  “Honey, if he saw a crack in the wall, he’d make a pass at it.”  I miss Old Hollywood.  Fredric March.  He was gifted.

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Bobby Rivers is a veteran network TV host & entertainment reporter. He had his own VH1 celebrity talk show, reviewed movies for ABC News/Lifetime TV & Premiere Radio and hosted “Metro Movies with Bobby Rivers,” a weekly local show highlighting the NYC film scene. He’s acted in TV commercials and played clueless “Prof. Haige” in satirical news features for The Onion.

Miriam Hopkins on Aisle 9

While grocery shopping recently, I caught an amazing sight out the corner of my eye: a magazine featuring none other than the brilliant and talented Miriam Hopkins. As you might imagine, I was a little shocked to find her beautiful face next to a stack of newspapers featuring the disgraced Atlanta Public School system on the front page. Instead of buying the newspaper with incredibly relevant information about a very real scandal in our city, I reached for a magazine with a dead actress on the cover. Ms. Hopkins is featured in the summer issue of Georgia Backroads magazine. Definitely not Vanity Fair or Time, but a nice tribute to one of Georgia’s own nonetheless.

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