By all rights, the 1946 homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives (Warner, Blu-ray) should have been another well intentioned film left to the dated dustbins of history, but World War II vet William Wyler (working from an original Robert Sherwood script) put more soul into this picture than anything else in his career. Clocking in close to three hours, the characters creep up on you: stiff Dana Andrews whose displaced working class joe can’t seem to find himself again, moral authority Fredric March as a family man and frustrated bank manager, and Harold Russell, a real life paraplegic war survivor as a kid dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of life without arms. They come from different services (Army, Navy, Air Force), different ranks, and different home life situations (upper class husband and father, middle class family son, working class newlywed adult), covering a lot of bases of experience. All they have in common is the same hometown and the same ride home. They get to know one another in the nose of a transport plane as they hop their way across the country. It’s enough to give them a camaraderie and a connection that even their loved ones back home can’t fill.
It’s easy to see the script designed as a “statement” about the experience of the returning veteran and the state of the nation after the end of the war, and there is something sturdy and square about the film, but it fits the subject matter and the gravity of the film. Wyler takes his time to let the characters out slowly, feeling their way back into lives they don’t quite fit into anymore. March won an Oscar for his witty portrayal of a man whose values have been knocked off-balance by the war. Though he’s the least scarred by the war, he’s the first to lubricate his discomfort at social gatherings, getting drunk to avoid facing serious emotional situations or distasteful business obligations. It’s not like he’s an alcoholic (or at least Wyler isn’t quite making that case) but it’s also not as cute as Nick and Nora at cocktail time. He’s getting drunk to escape in a way his buddies do not. And Russell won two Academy Awards for his debut as the easy-going, self-effacing vet who uses humor to deflect pity before it gets spoken but can’t help but feel like he’s come back less a man than he was – the only performer to ever win two Oscars for a single performance. But it’s Andrews who gets the everyman part, the confident American guy who made officer and commanded men under fire yet comes home to find nothing but the same dead-end service job waiting for him. He doesn’t want much, just a chance, and even that seems out of reach in the town the passed him by.
Wyler and Sherwood resist any temptation for flashback illustrations (the closest they get is Andrews’ recurring nightmare of a bomber crash, all noise and shadows under his cries) and Wyler is very tender with their experiences. We twice see Russell’s ritual of removing his prosthetic arms and it is a quietly humbling experience that, when it’s over, leaves him dependent on others. Russell exhibits no self-consciousness in the scene, no self pity. It’s about vulnerability, helplessness, trust, and his willingness to be so naked in front of the camera invests an otherwise amiable performance with a life that the movies only previously showed in terms of horror or tragedy. Here, it’s just life and it goes on.
Interestingly enough, Myrna Loy gets top billing for a supporting role (and frankly, she is given little else to do, though she does it with grace, humor, and mature sexiness so little seen in the movies in any era), and Cathy O’Donnell, who went on to become the quintessential fragile or broken innocent of film noir, gets “introducing” credit. And while Virginia Mayo gets a rare dramatic role as Andrews’ fun-loving wife disappointed to find the dashing officer she married now a mere working class civilian, it’s bubbly Teresa Wright as the headstrong daughter of March and Loy who takes a decisive role in their drama.
It won seven Oscars in all, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The Blu-ray debut is very handsome (Blu-ray can give black-and-white movies such visual depth!) and features a video introduction by Virginia Mayo and interviews with Mayo and Teresa Wright.
The Right Stuff (Warner, Blu-ray), Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed portrait of the original NASA astronauts, is *the* American epic of the last great frontier and a genuinely romantic take on the first generation of space cowboys. In fact, we know that Kaufman’s heart lays with test pilot cowboy Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard as a man who rides horses when he’s not punching a hole through the sound barrier. The three-hour-plus film, narrated by Levon Helm in a storyteller’s drawl as if recounting a myth, follows the story of the race to claim the skies from the competitive culture of the test pilots in New Mexico to the rush to beat the Soviets to the moon after they put the first man in space. The shift in national priorities (“You know what makes those ships go? Funding!”) and public attention left Yeager and the jet cowboys behind and gave us new American heroes: the astronauts. And while Kaufman clearly reveres Yeager, he celebrates the courage and the commitment of the original astronauts and gives them their own mythic resonance.
But what else sets The Right Stuff apart is Kaufman’s decision to favor the subjective over the objective when it comes to presenting the pioneering flights and space shots. It’s the opposite of 2001, which went for a clinically precise presentation of its space footage effects – a documentary of Kubrick’s imagined future – and instead takes an impressionistic approach to capture the wonder and power of flying out of the atmosphere or looking back from space for the first time. Experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson helped create those effects and they are beautiful.
Playwright Shepard made a name for himself as an actor playing the laconic, leathery Yeager (and helped turn the then-unknown pioneer into a revered American hero) and Ed Harris broke out with his portrayal of the charismatic boy scout of an officer John Glenn, but they are merely two excellent performances in a great cast that includes Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, and Lance Henriksen (the astronauts), Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Mary Jo Deschanel, and Kathy Baker (the wives), Barbara Hershey, and Kim Stanley. Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer provide a whimsical through line as Mutt and Jeff recruiters and Donald Moffat is Lyndon B. Johnson.
Along with the newly-remastered Blu-ray of the film is a DVD with the supplements (taken from the previous DVD special edition): the feature length documentary “John Glenn: American Hero, the featurettes “Realizing the Right Stuff” and “T-20 Years and Counting” (on the production), and “The Real Men With The Right Stuff,” (on the real life astronauts), 13 deleted scenes, an interactive space exploration timeline with archival NASA footage, and “The Journey and the Mission,” which amounts to 24 minutes of intermittently interesting, not-very-scene-specific commentary, with one track carried by a dozen or so of the stars (plus Chuck Yeager), and other with director Phil Kaufman, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, composer Bill Conti, and visual effects supervisor Gary Guterrez. The Blu-ray book package has 40 pages of notes and photos and a letter from Philip Kaufman.
Years before Sybil there was The Three Faces of Eve (Fox, Blu-ray), the 1957 study in multiple personality disorder starring Joanne Woodward in an Oscar-winning performance and based on a rare, real-life case of woman known only as “Eve White.” As Woodward transforms from the timid, quiet housewife Eve White to the brazen, confident, sexually aggressive Eve Black and back again, and her entire body seems possessed by these two (and, later, three) broken pieces of a fractured personality. Alistair Cook was enlisted to narrate the story and provide a voice of authority to the medical backdrop, but it’s unnecessary, thanks to the seriousness of Lee J. Cobb as a psychiatrist who, quite refreshingly, struggles to understand the illness, and the anxiety under Woodward’s incarnations. Features commentary by film historian Aubrey Solomon and Movietone Newsreel footage from the Academy Awards ceremony.
Cinerama Holiday (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) and South Seas Adventure (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD Combo) continue Flicker Alley home video presentation of original Cinerama productions, which were mostly glorified travelogues designed to showcase the first high definition theater format. These films were shot on three separate cameras, calibrated to capture a single, nearly-seamless picture when projected via three synchronized projectors and Flicker Alley offers the complete experience, with overture, intermission, and entr’acte, and presented in “Smilebox” format, which flairs the image wide at the edges to simulate the visual quality of the wraparound big screen image. Cinerama Holiday (1955) is the second Cinerama production and South Seas Adventure (1958) the fifth and final Cinerama three-panel travelogue feature. Both are stunning – the image is amazing, the color impressive – if narratively thin, but then the format was all about the image, and each two-disc combo set features new and archival supplements and an accompanying booklet that reproduces the original program.
Intolerance (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) was D.W. Griffith’s response to critics of Birth of a Nation, a diatribe against prejudice spanning spans centuries and continents. Intercutting four stories from different epochs into a montage effect years before it’s time, this 1916 production was even more ambitious and demanding, and it flopped with audiences. It’s elephantine and downright Victorian in its melodramatic approach, but it’s also a sprawling epic with astounding sets and production design, scenes of incredible beauty and moments of heartfelt drama, all pulled together by a sophisticated use of thematic editing. This edition brings it to Blu-ray for the first time and features a running time of 168 minutes and a score composed and conducted by Carl Davis. Supplements include an interview with silent movie historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow and the feature versions of two segments, which Griffith later pulled out and re-edited as separate films: The Mother and the Law and The Fall of Babylon, both with scores by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Also comes with a booklet with two essays on the film.
James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner, Blu-ray) offers the Blu-ray debuts of all three films starring James Dean in a leading role: East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Giant (1956). Each film is also available singly with all of the supplements of their previous DVD special editions. (The set did not arrive in time for review but I hope to get to it this weekend.)
Twilight Forever: The Complete Saga (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) collects all five Twilight features (including the extended version of Breaking Dawn: Part 1) with all of the previously-released supplements and a few new ones, including unreleased behind-the-scenes footage.
Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room (Milestone, DVD) is a documentary on the original child actress superstar and the story of her exploitation by the studios and her own family before she remade herself into a successful author and activist. Comes with the 1924 Baby Peggy feature Captain January and three shorts.
My Name is Nobody: 40th Anniversary Edition (Image, Blu-ray), the tongue-in-cheek 1973 spaghetti western with Terence Hill and Henry Fonda, lists Sergio Leone as producer only but his fingerprints are all over this film.
Guys and Dolls (Warner, Blu-ray)
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (Disney, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)
Winnie the Pooh: A Very Merry Pooh Year (Disney, Blu-ray+DVD Combo)