Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The Best Years of Our Lives on a budget

A movie that I recorded when Robert Mitchum was TCM's Star of the Month in January is getting another airing now in early Feburary: Till the End of Time, tomorrow, February 7, at 4:30 PM. So, I sat down to watch it in order to do the blog post just in time for the TCM showing.

The movie opens not long after V-J Day ended World War II. A bunch of Marines who served in the Pacific theater of the war are getting demobbed, which is a fairly involved process since the government has to move a massive number of people and make certain that none of them end up not getting properly listed which, as in Identity Unknown could get you declared a deserter. There's also the adjustment back to civilian life and the fact that after close to four years a lot of the old jobs have changed.

Two of the Marines getting demobbed are Cliff Harper (Guy Madison, whom RKO was grooming for stardom) and William Tabeshaw (Robert Mitchum, who of course would become the big star at RKO). Cliff was a college boy before the war, having taken one semester at school before Pearl Harbor and his voluntary enlistment in the war. He's got middle-class parents in the Los Angeles area, and Dad is convinced that the place is going to grow in the years following the war. As for William, he had been working as a ranch-hand in New Mexico, and he's hoping to take his saved-up money and buy some land back in New Mexico to start a farm or ranch of his own. But he also likes to party and gamble. And he's got a steel plate in his head as a result of his war injuries.

Cliff gets home and finds his parents out for the day, and finds that he's got new neighbors who moved in during the war. They've got a high school-aged daughter Helen Ingersoll (Jean Porter), who immediately develops a crush on Cliff because in the World War II days, who didn't like a man in uniform? Cliff humors her, but doesn't really care for her as anything more than a friend.

Someone possibly more up Cliff's alley is Pat (Dorothy McGuire), a woman he meets at what in the Andy Hardy days would have been an ice cream parlor but became a bar during the war. Cliff falls for Pat until he sees her husband's picture. Except that it's her late husband, having been shot down over France. Now, she goes on flings with one guy after another.

Cliff can't quite decide what he wants to do, except that he wants to do something different from what he was being groomed to do before the war. This really pisses off his parents (Tom Tully and Ruth Nelson), who want to go back to life the way it was but don't want Cliff to dwell on his having been in the war, something that seems really mean on their part. And, after all, there are a lot of people who can't forget what happened in the war. We see this in one scene where Pat and Cliff run into a man who served and wound up with PTSD and a severe case of the shakes as a result. There's also a subplot involving Cliff and William's friend Perry (Bill Williams). He was a boxer before the war. But he lost both his legs, so he certainly can't box. He's got a kid brother, and damn if he isn't going to take his own broken dreams and put them on his kid brother, trying to train the kid to become a boxer.

It's difficult to watch a movie like Till the End of Time and not think about the Oscar-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives. However, Till the End of Time was released first, about four months before the better-known picture. It really feels like one of those movies that RKO was trying to make into a prestige picture, except that RKO never really seemed to be able to put together the sort of budget necessary to make the prestige movies that other studios could. So there's a bit of a shabby feeling here.

This isn't to say that Till the End of Time is a bad movie by any means. It has an ensemble cast of pretty good performances. Mitchum feels underused, although part of that is because he wasn't the big star yet that he'd become not long afterwards thanks to noirs like Out of the Past. McGuire is quite good, as are several of the supporting players, especially Selena Royle as Perry's mother.

It's understandable that Till the End of Time would be eclipsed by a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives. But it still stands on its own as a pretty darn good movie, and one that you should definitely catch.

No comments: