Classic Movies: Three to Treasure

Ronald Colman

I don’t go to a great many films and, perhaps unfortunately, don’t rent many either. But this wasn’t always he case. As a result, I can recommend three very old films that continue to move me every time I watch them:

1. The Best Years of Our Lives

On most every list of the 100 best films ever made. A 1946 film starring Myrna Loy, Frederick March, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Theresa Wright, Harold Russell, and Roman Bohnen, among others. The film won seven Academy Awards. It tells the story of three WWII vets returning to home to their small town. One, a banker turned infantryman. Another, a “soda jerk” (someone who worked behind the counter making milk shakes and the like) turned bombardier; and the third man, a star high school quarterback engaged (literally) to the girl next door, turned into a sailor who did not quite go down with his ship, but lost both his arms in surviving.

The movie is touching and heart breaking in its effort to present a frank appraisal (for the time) of the costs of even a just war, as these three good men struggle to readjust to civilian life.

The newly returned banker (Frederick March) drinks too much and discovers that dollars and cents don’t have the same meaning to him as they did before he fought beside less well-to-do men of courage, loyalty, and integrity.

Dana Andrews, the Air Force captain, finds that the beautiful wife he impulsively married isn’t a good match for him now that he suffers from “combat fatigue,” a disorder that would be labeled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) today. Moreover, he must contend with the fact that the heroism that he displayed during the war doesn’t guarantee him a good job after his service has ended.

Harold Russell, a non-actor, gives an earnest performance as someone who cannot bear to be a burden on others now that he has primitive prosthetic arms, and does his best to discourage the young woman who still loves him, because he believes that her feelings are based only on pity.

For me, there are many extraordinarily touching moments in this film. I will mention only two: the moment that Frederick March first reunites with his wife after years away from home overseas, and Roman Bohnen’s understated, but oh so sensitive reading of the citation that his son (the Air Force Captain played by Dana Andrews) received for his heroism. That brief scene says all one need ever know about a parent’s pride in his child.

The film is long and slow-moving by contemporary standards, but the moderate pace allows more character development than usual. If you have the patience you will be rewarded.

2. The Prisoner of Zenda

First, a disclaimer. I love Ronald Colman. He was a now largely forgotten matinée idol of the ’30s and ’40s, as elegant, suave, and handsome (but in a more refined, cultured way) than the male stars of today. I forgive him the fact that he was not a great actor. But then Gary Cooper, John Wayne, James Stewart, Tyrone Power, and Alan Ladd, all contemporaries, were much, much worse.

Colman stars as a British citizen on holiday in a fictitious Eastern European country, who accidentally stumbles upon a cousin who is the crown prince. The catch? They look like identical twins (Colman played both parts, of course). And when the Prince’s evil step-brother Michael poisons his favored sibling so that he can assume the throne himself, the British cousin is asked to substitute for the king-to-be at the Coronation, until the real prince can recover and take the throne.

Things don’t go as planned and the charade continues on, long enough, in fact, for our British cousin to fall in love with the woman who is betrothed to the new king. This is an old style 1937 swash-buckler starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Raymond Massey, David Niven, Madeleine Carroll, C. Aubrey Smith, and Mary Astor (of Maltese Falcon fame). And, it too will touch you, as its ending is bitter-sweet.

The film is based on the popular novel of the same name by Anthony Hope. If you’ve already seen the movie or read the book, know that Hope wrote a less impressive sequel called Rupert of Hentzau (named after the character played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr).

Do avoid the much inferior color remake with Stewart Grainger and Deborah Kerr, as well as the later comedy adaptation starring Peter Sellers.

3. Lost Horizon

Another 1937 classic, this one based on a James Hilton novel, again starring Ronald Colman, along with Sam Jaffe and a very young Jane Wyatt (best known for her role as the mom in the ’50s TV series Father Knows Best, which also featured Robert Young).

This time Colman plays a disillusioned British diplomat who is kidnapped along with his brother and several recently rescued Brits and Americans, to be taken to a place called Shangri-La, a community situated in a temperate valley within the otherwise bitter cold of the Himalayan Mountains. Colman discovers something unbelievable there, a utopian community where people are not only tolerant and understanding, but are rumored to live unusually long lives.

Remember that this film was made on the verge of World War II and the character played by Colman reflects the contemporary sense of discouragement about continents on a collision-course, as well as a “this is  too good to be true” response to his new home. Of course, there would be no story unless Colman’s adjustment was less than perfect. He falls in love with Jane Wyatt, but also feels duty-bound to get on with the work in the outside world that is required by his career in His Majesty’s diplomatic corps.

To further complicate matters, Colman’s younger brother (played by John Howard) has fallen in love too, but with a woman who can’t wait to leave Shangri-La. What will Colman do? And if he leaves, will he ever return to take over administration of the community, as this was the reason he was kidnapped in the first place?

The movie is interesting for another reason. Some of the footage in the original version of this film was cut because it was thought that there was too much anti-war and women’s liberation sentiment. Indeed, the character played by Jane Wyatt is an astonishingly independent and intelligent female for her time, when most actresses where docile and deferential by today’s standards. Unfortunately, the seven minutes of the cut film were never recovered, but the sound track of that portion of the movie remained in tact. Thus, the videocassette and DVD releases have used “still” and publicity photos, cleverly manipulated to simulate some action, to replace the minutes where no movie film remains. But be careful not to confuse this classic with a 1970s remake in the form of a musical.

In any case, the feature remains a worthy one. Its portrayal of a better world, not on heaven, but heaven on earth, is attractive. To paraphrase one of the lines in the movie, let us hope that we all find our own Shangri-La.

The photo above is of Ronald Colman, sourced from http://www.meredy.com/

After Life

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The subject of religion is a dangerous one. Many people have strong opinions for and against. It makes little sense to trying to persuade someone that God does exist, or that he/she doesn’t.

At the risk of offending you, I’m going to offer a few random thoughts on the subject, with particular focus on the question of whether there is a life after death and what it might consist of. I don’t claim to be strongly attached to all of these thoughts, but I do find them interesting; you might as well. If, however, you are 100% certain of the validity of your own opinions (or that of your faith or lack of faith), I’d suggest that you don’t read further.

So, if you are still with me…

When I was a kid, an athlete who hit a home run or scored a touchdown generally didn’t make an enormous deal of it. Today athletes are much more demonstrative, not a bad thing in itself. However, a good number of them point to the sky, presumably to heaven, to give thanks. In some cases it represents the same “Gott mit uns” attitude, an essentially tribal view, that some countries adopt in and out of war-time: “God on our side.” In other cases, the jocks state that they are giving thanks simply for the good health and ability that they believe they have been given by God. Well, first of all, I sure hope God has better things to do than to side with one team or another. But there is actually a pretty funny story about this, in W. P. Kinsella’s collection of short stories, The Thrill of the Grass. The story is called The Last Pennant Before Armageddon and its about the Cubs winning the pennant.

On the subject of heaven, it seems that we all want to go there, but we don’t have a really clear idea about what it consists of. Many references are made to deceased loved ones looking down on us and looking after us from beyond the grave. But think about that for a moment. What if heaven does consist of people who do care, and care a lot, about what is going on back on this mortal coil? How can they be living in never-ending happiness? Seeing all the unhappiness, the accidents, injuries, and disappointments of life is heartbreaking and tough enough when you live here. To think that the dead are suffering with us from afar doesn’t sound like my idea of a better world.

On the other hand, let’s assume for the moment that “the dead don’t care,” a refrain in Thomas Lynch’s book Undertakings. (Lynch is both a published poet and a professional undertaker, so he has a rather interesting vantage point on death). If our parents and loved ones no longer care about us (and assuming that they reside in heaven), they must be quite different creatures than they were on earth. And I can’t imagine the petty jealousies of life, the hunger, the (at least) occasional insomnia, the worry, and so forth, being the lot of those in any heaven worthy of the name. So, if people actually do go to such a place, I doubt that we would quite recognize them as being very much like they were on earth. And, frankly, one would be so transformed in transit to heaven as to have difficulty recognizing oneself.

A number of people commented on how the recent death of Farrah Fawcett was overshadowed by the death of Michael Jackson. A few of my patients expressed the fact that they felt sorry for Farrah that the media didn’t attend more to her passing. It is a touching sentiment. But, if Thomas Lynch is correct, Farrah wasn’t bothered by it.

I recommend that you watch a Japanese movie of several years ago, After Life. It depicts a group of recently deceased people who assemble at a sort of transit station on the way to whatever is beyond. They are told that they will have several days to decide on their own version of eternity, which will consist of living forever in whatever single moment they choose from their just-ended life history on earth. They are each assigned a counselor of sorts, to assist them in the choosing process. To live “in the moment” necessitates that they give up that part of themselves that, like all humans, allows them to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever large or small single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings attached only to that slice of time rather than to thought, analysis, worry, reflection, or concentration on other things, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, each person in the movie struggles with giving up all of their other memories, relationships, and daily preoccupations in return for an eternity of living within a single instant in time with a single focus.

To me, it sounds like a heaven worth wishing for, one that would really be wonderful, assuming that one would choose a particularly joyous or exciting or touching instant of one’s life. And it raises an interesting question: what moment would you choose?

Do we fear death or dying? Just asking. Shakespeare’s Hamlet clearly worries about the afterlife not being so much fun. If you haven’t read his famous soliloquy in a while, the one that starts “To be or not to be…,” you might want to take a look at what thoughts about death ultimately stopped him from taking his own life:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Another film on the subject of life and afterlife is called Defending Your Life. Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep star as two forty-something, recently deceased Yuppies who meet in the place you supposedly go after you die, Judgment City. There, you are subjected to a sort of tribunal where it is determined whether you learned enough and accomplished enough in your earthly existence to win you a place on the next higher level of existence, presumably something like heaven. Streep’s character was a brave, generous, and loving person in life, so there is no question that she will go on to the next level. For Brooks’s character, however, things aren’t looking too good. He never overcame his fear of a great many things on earth, so he might just get sent back, reincarnated without memory of his past, in the form of a new-born little boy. And, if this happens, the love affair that has begun in Judgment City between him and Streep’s character will end. I won’t spoil the rest of the film for you, but it is a very funny, entertaining, and wise movie about the need to learn and progress and grow throughout our lives, and to be brave in facing whatever is difficult for us.

And, who knows, maybe there is something like a Judgment City ahead for all of us.

The above image is Stratocululi. Source: German Wikipedia, original upload 3. September 2004 by de: Benutzer. Living Shadow. Courtesy of Wikimediacommons.