The Archivist #131: Classic Hollywood, Real Issues [A PATCH OF BLUE & THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES]

A pair of timeless dramas which tackle their true-life subjects in eye-opening ways.

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and factory pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

When Jane Fonda gave her speech while accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes this past Sunday, she moved many watching as she talked about the importance of art and how it can help to open minds, change lives and move society forward. “After all, art has always been not just in step with history, but has led the way,” Fonda said. “So let’s be leaders.” The two-time Oscar winner couldn’t have chosen truer words, especially when it comes to the relationship art has with real life. Year after year, more films are made which touch on the real aspects of society and the world as a whole while opening up minds to the many different cultural perspectives and social experiences that exist beyond our own.

In this edition of The Archivist, we revisit such a pair of films (1965’s A Patch of Blue and 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives), both of which boldly spoke to the country’s zeitgeist and showed how the men and women in these stories tried to make sense of the changing worlds they found themselves in.

A Patch of Blue

Based on the acclaimed novel, A Patch of Blue stars a debuting Elizabeth Hartman as Selina, a young woman who has spent most of her life blind as the result of an accident. Selena lives a hard existence with her abusive mother Rose-Anne (Shelley Winters) and alcoholic grandfather Ole Pa (Wallace Ford) in a run down apartment where she’s practically a slave. When Selina is allowed to spend the day in the local park, she befriends the kind and compassionate Gordon (Sidney Poitier), who opens up her world through the kindness he shows her. Soon however, their friendship will lead to events which test Selina’s very will.

It cannot be overstated just how brave of a film A Patch of Blue was to make and release. The film’s look at abuse is a tough one with Winters so brilliant and monstrous as a woman totally resentful of her daughter, she’s determined not to show her one ounce of humanity or genuine kindness. Beyond that, it’s the relationship between Selina and Gordon which remains the most breathtaking aspect of the film. Seeing the way he introduces her to much of the everyday, including walking down the street and grocery shopping contains a special beauty that director Guy Greene captures magnificently. Made as the country was deeply struggling with race relations, the image of a black man and young white woman (the former being the more cultured of the two) sharing the world together and forming a bond on a totally human level was a symbol which couldn’t help but temporarily cut through the noise and chaos surrounding the real-life turmoil happening in the country. A Patch of Blue was a sizeable hit upon release and was nominated for seven Oscars (taking home one for Winters’ stirring performance). More than that though, the film signaled the fact that there was a real conversation to be had about the issue of integration and that many in the country were ready to have it.

The Best Years of Our Lives

The striking look of post-war life remains the masterpiece it always has been. When three G.I.s come home from WWII, Al (Frederic March), Fred (Dana Andrews) and Homer (Harold Russell) are all elated and eager to return to the homes and lives they left behind years before. But as Al attempts to understand the changes in his family, Fred tries to make a name and a marriage for himself and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) and Homer struggles to be seen as himself despite an accident in combat which left him with hooks for hands, the men lean on each other while trying desperately to adjust to the world they’ve come back to.

The Best Years of Our Lives remains something of an anomaly to me. On the one hand it’s the kind of sweeping golden Hollywood affair filled with rich black and white cinematography and beautiful stars (besides Andrews and Mayo, Myrna Loy and Theresa Wright are also on hand for some stunning performances). Conversely though, the film is a brutally frank depiction of the obstacles faced by the returning men who have served their country. Director William Wyler shows true bravery for not shying away from the grimness of the very real issues many returning vets faced. Homer’s determination to not be defined by his injuries in the eyes of his friends and family are made even more real thanks to Russell’s performance (a real-life soldier, Russell would later take home both the Supporting Actor prize and a special Oscar for his work in the film). Meanwhile, Fred’s first bout with the kind of nightmares which would lated be diagnosed as PTSD gives an instant sense of how haunted his soul is as the result of his wartime experiences. Made during a time when the country was deep in pro-war sentiment, The Best Years of Our Lives remains a universal story deep in poignancy that stands a testament to those who gave so much for the place they called home.

A Patch of Blue and The Best Years of Our Lives are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Warner Archive.

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