Armchair Oscars – 1946

Best Picture

The Best Years of Our Lives (Directed by William Wyler)
The Nominees: Henry V, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Razor’s Edge, The Yearling

It’s a Wonderful Life (Directed by Frank Capra)
My Nominees:
The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler), Duel in the Sun (King Vidor), Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock), Gilda (Charles Vidor), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett)


The time was so right for a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives that it is hard to believe now that the studio initially considered it box office poison. A year after the end of World War II, Hollywood had no more interest in making films about the war than it had in making silent pictures. Yet, the story of veterans returning home and living through the struggles to re-adjust to civilian life did have an appeal because it touched something very real in its depiction of the problems of finding work, the problems of re-establishing family ties and, most amazingly, a soldier who readjusts to civilian life after having lost both hands.

Directed by William Wyler and adapted by World War I veteran Robert Sherwood from the novel by MacKinlay Kantor, the movie is an affectionate look at the returning vets but it never glosses over the material. It is beautifully photographed by Gregg Toland (who shot Citizen Kane) and wonderfully acted by Fredrich March, Myra Loy, Dana Andrews and especially by Harold Russell, a real-life vet who lost both hands during the war and walked away with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

For me, The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the better films to win the Best Picture Oscar in the 1940s and it would be my choice for my Armchair Oscar were it not for It’s a Wonderful Life. Not perfectly understood at the time, It’s a Wonderful Life was nearly a forgotten relic until something magical happened – it fell out of copyright and into public domain. In the early 70s, the film began cropping up on every two-bit UHF station in the country.  That gave the film access to a wide audience and the film eventually became an annual Christmas tradition.

It became a tradition for me too, not just at Christmas, but anytime that I need a lift. It tells the story of a genial, high-spirited Average Joe named George Bailey who struggles his whole life to get out into the world and make a name for himself. He dreams of becoming an architect, but responsibilities at home in Bedford Falls keep pulling him back.

Far up in the heavens, George’s life story is laid out by the guardians above to the angel who will step in to keep him from committing suicide. We see that, as a kid, he saved two lives; he saved his brother from drowning and later his pharmacist boss from accidentally poisoning a patient’s pills. As an adult, he makes a name for himself in town and continually puts his dreams on hold so others can have theirs. He holds off on going to college so his brother can go. Then, when he finally gets a chance to go to school, his father dies and he has to take over the family building and loan. Then he survives the depression by using the money from the company to build houses for the poor folks. All the while he still has stars in his eyes, dreaming of making a foothold on the world, even after he marries his sweetheart Mary and they start raising a family together. Then his uncle foolishly loses the company’s $8,000 bank deposit that could send one or both of them to jail. Deep in dispair, George briefly considers killing himself.

That is the moment that Heaven sends an angel named Clarence his way and he shows George the world of Bedford Falls had he never existed. Those he loved are either dead or in great dispair. The town is now owned by the mean Mr. Potter, whom George spent his life trying to keep from buying the town and molding it in his own image. His wife has never married and his war hero brother Harry drowned as a kid. These scenes are the polar opposite of what has come before and the polar opposite of the tone that Frank Capra always used. Where Capra puts every emotion on screen in the lighter scenes, he allows the alternate universe to have the opposite effect, not just dark but a complete hell on earth.

Yet, Capra’s great achievement is in creating a film that contains multitudes of comedy, of drama, of humanity, of the composition of a life and not just the plot points. The closing passages of the despair are so strong that we forget the reason they are so strong is because we have such an emotional investment in what has come before. Scenes like the joy of the high school reunion which turns into a pool party; the immortal scene in which Mary loses her bathrobe and hides in a bush while George teases her with it; George’s handling of the bank crises and how he keeps the building and loan from being swallowed up by Mr. Potter; the scene in which George tells Potter to take a flying leap after the man offers him a job so he can liquidate the building and loan and the later scene in which he has to crawl back to Potter to ask for help when Uncle Billy loses the bank deposit.

Then, of course, there is the tearful reunion when everyone in town brings him money to help refurbish the bank deposit (which turns out to quadruple the lost money). The brilliance is Capra’s nerve to put all these elements into one film in a coherent, sentimental mixture. He allows the great tapestry of George’s life to play out long before we get to the nightmare. When that nightmare comes, Clarence explains it beautifully: “Don’t you see, George, you really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it all away?”

It is difficult to put It’s a Wonderful Life into words.  What can you say about it that hasn’t already been said? This a beautiful film about the value of a single life and its positive effect on so many others. This is one of the most quoted films in history but I think the line that sums it up best comes from Clarence, and it plays to our feelings: “Strange isn’t it? One man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t there it leaves an awful hole.”

Best Actor

Fredric March (
The Best Years of Our Lives)
The Nominees: Laurence Olivier (Henry V), Larry Parks (The Jolson Story), Gregory Peck (The Yearling), James Stewart (It’s a Wonderful Life)

Jimmy Stewart (It’s a Wonderful Life)
My Nominees:
Glen Ford (Gilda), Cary Grant (Notorious), Jean Marais (Beauty and the Beast), Fredrich March (The Best Years of Our Lives), Lawrence Olivier (Henry V), Gregory Peck (The Yearling)


Fredric March was a solid, reliable actor who never gave a bad performance.  He was an actor of incredible range who could play comedy, drama, romance, he could play the hero or the heavy (and both, in the case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde).  Nominated five times by the academy he would be honored twice, first in 1932 for his performance in Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and again for his defining role as a returning vet in William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives.

His performance as Sergeant Al Stephenson, who finds out how much his family has grown and changed while he has been overseas, was very touching especially in the scenes in which develops a plan for his bank to make no-collateral loans to returning veterans.  I like March’s performance but it is hard for me to single it out because I see The Best years of Our Lives as such an ensemble piece. My choice for best actor could be accused of the same thing because It’s a Wonderful Life was the film that was populated by familiar faces for the time.

However, Jimmy Stewart makes George Bailey his own and gives, I think, the best performance of his distinguished career. This would be his favorite performance as well. While Al Stephenson discovers the frustrations of returning home, George Bailey discovers the frustrations of being stuck at home. From his early days he vows to shake the dust off his hometown of Bedford Falls and discover the world through architecture.

Destiny has big plans for George Bailey and sadly they don’t include anything beyond the borders of his small town. Year after year, he makes sacrifices for his friends and family and his late father’s building and loan business is the only thing keeping greedy Mr. Potter from taking over the town.  Trading, sacrificing, saving all for the comfort of others he becomes frustrated.  It takes a simple case of misplaced funds to sink George into despair.  Thinking that he’s worth more dead than alive he considers killing himself until his genial guardian angel intercedes and shows him the nightmare of the town if he had never been born.

George’s antsy demeanor comes out in Stewart’s performance. He is always moving, his hands are rarely still, he has itchy feet. He is a man of big dreams but a man bound by common sense and personal loyalty.  The energy in his very movements become the lifeblood of the town.  This is one of Stewarts more far-reaching performances, here he plays comedy but he also plays the depths of despair and anger.  Note the scene early in the film when he is walking Mary home, how bright and perfect his face is, he seems to have stars in his eyes.  Contrast that with the later scene in which he comes home after Uncle Billy has misplaced the money, his face is dark, dirty with bags under his eyes. He almost appears to be a different person.

It helps to see Stewart’s performance in the same vein as his career.  At the beginning of the movie, he plays George as happy, talkie, energetic, naive.  After the war we see him as depressed and sad.  This mirrors the roles that Stewart took in the years before the war, such as Jeff Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, who were naive folksy philosophers and after the war his roles got darker in films like Vertigo and Winchester ’73. George Bailey was the first character her played after his service in World War II and you can see the experience in his eyes.

Best Actress

Olivia de Havilland (To Each His Own)
The Nominees: Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter), Jennifer Jones (Duel in the Sun), Rosiland Russell (Sister Kenny), Jane Wyman (The Yearling)

Ingrid Bergman (Notorious)
Nominees: Cecilia Johnson (Brief Encounter), Myrna Loy (The Best Years of Our Lives), Anna Magnani (Roma, città aperta), Donna Reed (It’s a Wonderful Life)


Olivia de Havilland won two Oscars in the nineteen-forties, first in 1946 and again in 1949. Her first Oscar came for her role in Mitchell Leison’s To Each His Own, a soap opera in which she plays Jody Norris, a small-town girl who has a son out of wedlock and then gives him up for adoption only to spend the better part of the kid’s life never telling him that she is his mother. de Havilland is a wonderful actor in the right role, but what drives me nuts is that her emotional range is always the same – when she faces an emotional crises, she gets this slope-eyed look on her face as if she desperately needs to find a ladies room.

She would win another Oscar at the end of the decade for a much better role in The Heiress, playing a homely spinster who is warned by her stern father that the man she is courting is only interested in her inheritance and, by golly, he’s right. I liked that performance because, for once, de Havilland played a character who got to make her own choice. For once, she was the one who came out on top, even if it didn’t lead to a happy ending.

I noticed that most of the best roles for women in 1946 required them to stand by their men. The best were Myrna Loy as Frederic March’s wife in The Best Years of Our Lives and Donna Reed as Jimmy Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life. They were both wonderful but neither had the screen-time to really develop. My choice had all the time in the world to develop a character even if standing by her man meant being pushed into the bed of another.

Ingrid Bergman made her career playing women of virtue, like nuns and debutants, but for Alfred Hitchcock she would give her best performance as a woman who is none of those things. In Notorious, she plays Alicia Huberman, a hard-drinking, promiscuous woman, the daughter of a former Nazi who just received a 20-year jail sentence for treason. She’s a patriotic American, but she is a party girl with little virtue and little resistance to the bottle. The night after her father’s trial, she is throwing a party where the guests are quite sauced and eventually, so is she. The only person who isn’t drinking is a strange man she tries to flirt with.

Waking up from a hangover, she sees that very man standing in her doorway. Through bleary eyes, her scope of this man turns 180 degrees before he tells her that he is a federal agent, named Devlin (Cary Grant). Thanks to her reputation, and her patriotism, she has been assigned to go with him to Rio de Janiro where some of her father’s Nazi cronies are holed up. They are up to something and Devlin wants Alicia’s help to smoke them out.

She resists Devlin, she hates cops but she doesn’t have a choice and to her surprise, through some time spent in a hotel room in Rio, she falls in love with him. At the height of their growing passion for one another comes the next phase in the federal government’s use for Alicia. They want her to infiltrate the home of Sebastian, an old friend of her father’s who has loved her for years. It is easy to win his heart, she does and eventually she marries him. It is all part of the game but is, at its core, completely immoral.

The great irony of Notorious is that Devlin is the man who loves her but he pushes her into the arms (and bed) of another man, meanwhile Sebastian is an immoral man, a Nazi who trusts her beyond question and actually treats her better than Devlin ever did (at least until his mother pushes him to poison her).

Hitchcock has always had a strange perspective on women. He mostly cast blondes and then put them into a situation in which he zeros in on their physical looks. Note how he photographs Janet Leigh in Psycho and Kim Novak in Vertigo, we stand outside these women and see them from a male perspective. They are idealized and objectified and manipulated by men. In Alicia’s case, she is pushed into the arms of a man she does not love by a man who truly loves her.

Notorious gave me a perspective on Ingrid Bergman that I have never had before. I’ve always respected her as a lady of quality but I never thought of her as sexy. This movie, in which she plays a woman of little virtue, allowed me to glance at her in a new way. I never noticed how broad her shoulders were, I never noticed how full her lips were and I never before took notice of her formidable bosom. I think maybe because I had always been clouded by the fact that she was playing women of virtue, I just never looked for those things. She is a beautiful woman of course, but there are moments and angles of Hitchcock’s camera that allow us to see how stunning she really is.

She has moments that are unusual for her. She can play comic moments, like the one in which she is driving drunk and says, “I hate this fog.” before Devlin informs her “Your hair is in your eyes.” She plays drunk better than anyone I’ve ever seen and has brilliant moments of drunk-speak as when she tells a motorcycle cop, “People like you ought to be in bed.” She has moments of pure passion as in a very long kiss with Devlin in which she kisses him, then stops to talk without ever taking her arms from around him. In a very tight close-up they embrace and she kisses him willingly, never wanting to stop. This is the performance I did not know that Ingrid Bergman had in her. I wish the academy had noticed (she wasn’t nominated), because it was to be her last great performance, showing us what she is made of and showing us what multitudes this great actress had in her.

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