Sunday, May 29, 2016

Is This the Greatest Speech in the History of Motion Pictures? Fredric March’s After-Dinner Speech in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)


Fredric March as Al Stephenson, in The Best Years of Our Lives

[Of related interest:

“Celebrate Memorial Day Weekend 2016, by Viewing the Greatest Motion Picture Ever Made: The Best Years of Our Lives! (Photoessay with Sound Clip and Music Videos)”.]

Re-posted by Nicholas Stix

A week or two ago, I perused the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 “Greatest Lines” spoken in a movie. In my book, only 54 even merited consideration. The rest? “Make my day.” “May the force be with you.” And so on.

“Make my day” was spoken by Clint Eastwood, in Dirty Harry (1971). Maybe a gifted actor, say John Wayne, could have wrung some power out of that line, the way he did with “That’ll be the day” in The Searchers, and with so many other lines in so many other pictures. I thought Eastwood was awful in Dirty Harry. Obviously, millions of other people disagreed. They were all wrong. (I liked Eastwood in Rawhide and Coogan's Bluff (1968), but it took him a long time to figure out movie acting, and he's been a much better movie director than actor.)

“May the force be with you” is from Star Wars (1977). It’s a nothing line, in any form, spoken or written, and I don’t think Laurence Olivier could have made anything of it. I have no idea what motivated AFI’s committee, probably sheer stupidity and tastelessness.

There was only one speech on the list, Marlon Brando’s monologue to his brother Charley, in the back of a taxicab, in On the Waterfront.

If there can be one speech, there can be more than one. Besides, for my money, Brando’s speech wasn’t even the best in Waterfront. Karl Malden, as Father Barry, who was based on a real Catholic waterfront priest, was better. I call it, “Christ in the Shape-Up.”

It’s a eulogy, really. Father Barry delivers it in the hold of a cargo ship, over the dead body of longshoreman Kayo Dugan, who has just been murdered for agreeing to testify against the mob running the waterfront. While being pelted by cat-calling, laughing mobsters with rotten produce, Father Barry tells the longshoremen that every morning in the shape-up, when they try to get picked for that day’s work, each man is not on his own—Christ stands there with him.

The speech from The Best Years of Our Lives is at least as good as Brando’s speech. (I was about to say that it was better than almost everything else on AFI’s list, but that would be faint praise. The vernacular English used in excellent movies of yore was such that you could watch one of those pictures, say True Grit, and hear one line or speech after another that was better than almost anything from AFI’s list.)

The idea for The Best Years of Our Lives came from Frances Howard McLaughlin Goldwyn, the onetime starlet who was the wife of independent producer Samuel Goldwyn. Late in The War, she’d read a magazine story about the problems faced by returning combat veterans readjusting to civilian life. Goldwyn liked her idea, and commissioned journalist/novelist Mackinlay Kantor, who had either covered the war, or served in it (different reports… differ) to write a screenplay. Legend has it that Kantor retreated to a cabin in the woods with a typewriter, paper, and a case of scotch, and a few weeks later, emerged with the manuscript for Glory for Me, a 268-page … poem?

Goldwyn was not amused. Glory for Me is a stunning work, but it was no screenplay. The producer commissioned Robert E. Sherwood, one of America’s greatest fiction writers (e.g., Abe Lincoln in Illinois), to turn Kantor’s poem into a script.

The smart set loved to make fun of Sam Goldwyn. The Jewish immigrant from Poland notoriously mangled the English language, such that some wag coined the phrase “Goldwynisms.” Cultured folk thought of Goldwyn as crude, but like his fellow Jewish immigrant movie moguls of the Golden Age, Sam Goldwyn had more taste in his little finger than all the aristocrats had in their entire bodies.

His awards page at the Internet Movie Database is worthless, because it lists not one picture of Goldwyn’s that was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, citing only three honorary Oscars the Academy gave him. In fact, he was nominated eight times for Best Picture, and won the Best Picture Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives, which won a total of seven competitive Oscars and one honorary Oscar.

One of the problems with Kantor’s poem, aside from its form, was its depiction of class warfare.


Ray Collins as Mr. Milton, "the old hypocrite"

Mr. Milton, the president of the Cornbelt Trust & Loan, has never served in war, and has contempt for the working-class men who did. Thus, he wants to turn down working-class veterans for loans, even though the men had sacrificed the best years of their lives fighting tyranny, and the federal government is guaranteeing the loans.

Although Al Stephenson was raised upper-middle-class, and is the grandson of a pioneer banker, he went into the Army as an enlisted man, killed men in combat, and watched his own men die, and separated from the service as a sergeant. Al is very sympathetic to the enlisted men who come to him to apply for loans. He hates Mr. Milton, “the old hypocrite,” with every fiber of his being. But Mr. Milton’s his boss.

Kantor depicts the class hatred in jarring scenes that Goldwyn surely recognized could not be put on the screen—Fred Derry, the protagonist of the poem, decides to rob the bank, and is about to do just that, when Al spots him (not knowng what Fred has planned), and talks him into leaving the place with him for a drink or two. Shortly thereafter, Al quits his job at the bank, to become a gardener with a G.I. whose loan application he’d okayed, over Mr. Milton’s objections. (The relationships between the men are amazingly portrayed, both in the poem and the picture, though in the picture relations between the men with each other, and the men and the women, are the most powerfully written and performed I’ve ever seen. We see how good people help each other stay on the straight and narrow, whether they are friends or spouses.)

Sam Goldwyn must have realized that Mac Kantor’s scenes of class struggle could not be portrayed on the screen, but Bob Sherwood still sought to write class conflict into the script, in sublimated form, which I believe he succeeded at brilliantly. The most successful such scene was Al Stephenson’s speech at the dinner honoring him, celebrating his return and promotion, and at which he comes a hair’s breadth from talking his way out of that promotion and that job.

After-Dinner Speech in The Best Years of Our Lives

Al Stephenson's After-Dinner Speech on Collateral and the Cornbelt Trust & Loan

MP3 Clip of the Speech

Mr. Milton, the bank president: Our country must stand today where it has always stood: the citadel of individual initiative, the land of unlimited opportunity for all.

It is peculiarly appropriate that we meet here tonight to honor one who has valiantly fought for that freedom. Ladies and gentlemen, we greet our friend, our co-worker, our hero, Al Stephenson. (C'mon, on your feet, Al, on your feet.)

Stephenson: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm very happy to be here. In fact, I'm very happy to be anywhere. In fact, I'm, I'm very happy. (To Waiter: Perhaps it would be a good idea if you just put that bottle right down here in front of me – save yourself quite a number of trips.)

[Millie is carefully counting Al’s drinks by scratching lines into the linen tablecloth with the tine of her fork. At this point, if memory serves, she’s up to eleven.]

Milton: [laughing] Good, ole Al.

[In the next line, Al’s mocking them—none of them served.]

Stephenson: I'm glad to see you've all pulled through so well. As Mr. Milton so perfectly expressed it, our country stands today where it stands today, wherever that is. And I'm sure you'll all agree with me if I said that now is the time for all of us to stop all this nonsense, face facts, get down to brass tacks, forget about the war and go fishing. But I'm not gonna say it. I'm just going to sum the whole thing up in one word. [Probably "hypocrisy"; Millie clears her throat.] My wife doesn't think I'd better sum it up in that one word.


Fredric March as Al Stephenson, l, Ray Collins as Mr. Milton, and Myrna Loy as Millie Stephenson

I want to tell you all that the reason for my success as a Sergeant is due primarily to my previous training in the Cornbelt Loan and Trust Company. The knowledge I acquired in the good ol' bank I applied to my problems in the infantry. For instance, one day in Okinawa, a Major comes up to me and he says, "Stephenson, you see that hill?" "Yes sir, I see it." "All right," he said. "You and your platoon will attack said hill and take it." So I said to the Major, "but that operation involves considerable risk. We haven't sufficient collateral." "I am aware of that," said the Major, "but the fact remains that there's the hill and you are the guys who are going to take it." So I said to him, "I'm sorry Major. No collateral; no hill." So we didn't take the hill, and we lost the war. I think that little story has considerable significance, but I've forgotten what it is.

And now in conclusion, I'd like to tell you a humorous anecdote. I know several humorous anecdotes, but I can't think of any way to clean them up, so I'll only say this much. I love the Cornbelt Loan and Trust Company. There are some who say that the old bank is suffering from hardening of the arteries and of the heart. I refuse to listen to such radical talk. I say that our bank is alive, it's, it's generous, it's, it's human, and we're going to have such a line of customers seeking and getting small loans that people will think we're gambling with the depositors' money. And we will be. We'll be gambling on the future of this country. I thank you.

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