William Wyler: The Best Years of Our Lives (winner)
David Lean: Brief Encounter
Frank Capra: It’s a Wonderful Life
Robert Siodmak: The Killers
Clarence Brown: The Yearling
Given the option to name the five nominees myself, I’d find it difficult to remove more than one of those given a nomination. The first year after the war proved to be a very strong one, though, and so naturally there were some snubs. Topping the list for me is the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in A Matter of Life and Death, a truly engaging and beautiful movie. I think Jean Cocteau deserved a nod for Beauty and the Beast as well. I could see arguments made for Howard Hawks’s work on The Big Sleep, Charles Vidor for Gilda, Alfred Hitchcock for Notorious, and even Lewis Milestone for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. I think it’s also worth saying that Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis was a 1945 release. However, it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay in 1946, which would qualify it here. Even if not nominated, Carne deserved some sort of recognition for realizing a film of that much beauty under the conditions he did.
Weeding through the Nominees
5: I said above that I like four of the nominations. The one I have the most trouble accepting is Clarence Brown’s work on The Yearling. There’s nothing particularly wrong with The Yearling; it’s just the movie I like the least, and it’s the one where I see the least interesting work from the director’s chair. Frankly, I think it’s an overrated movie in general. We all know where the damn thing is going from the start. Part of that is the fault of the screenplay, but Brown didn’t manage to keep the movie from telegraphing the ending in the first 30 minutes.
4: If I can fault Brief Encounter for anything, it’s that the film is too timid. This is David Lean learning the craft of being a director, and a lot of the lessons he learned with this film show up in his grand, sweeping epics a decade later. There’s a lot to like with Brief Encounter, and it’s a film I’m happy to recommend. But there’s not enough David Lean in this to make it fully work for me. I like the nomination—Lean was already showing a lot of what would make him the director he eventually became, but there’s not enough here to move this to the top position.
3: The Killers may be my favorite screenplay from 1946. This is a film that took a very short story, gave us the entire short story in the first 10 minutes of the movie, and then built an entire backstory around that opening to present the film. The main character from Hemingway’s tale is here only for the first few minutes. It’s gutsy and one of the great noirs of its time. And I like Siodmak’s direction here and like what he was able to do with the tale. But the things I like best are the tight script, the tragic Burt Lancaster, and remembering that this is the first time I really liked Ava Gardner.
2: I go into Frank Capra films with a bit of a ready cringe, knowing that he can turn on the corn and the sap at will. I don’t do that with It’s a Wonderful Life, though, because this is Capra firing on all cylinders. It’s rare when someone that immersed in producing things so emotionally cheese-filled hits all of the notes so perfectly that we accept everything that happens. Capra did that with this film, and I wouldn’t have minded terribly had he won here. This is a textbook example of how to play with an audience’s emotions and how to make a huge chunk of exposition interesting. It’s fine work and deserved a nomination. I just wouldn’t give him the win.
1: This leaves us with William Wyler and our ultimate winner, The Best Years of Our Lives. I think this is a film that has a problem or two, most notably being a little too long. But I accept that Wyler let things run a bit to tell a story that needed to be told for a time that needed to hear it. This could have very easily become maudlin and soupy, and instead it remains honestly emotional, balanced, and touching without cheating. Any tears this brings out it deserves and never cheats on the story it’s trying to tell. I like other movies from this year better, but Wyler did the best work, and the win was deserved.