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Hollywood films about returning war veterans began a socially conscious wave in filmmaking that, despite being extinguished for a few years by the HUAC, has continued until the present day. Sam Goldwyn and William Wyler's polished The Best Years of Our Lives is the big hit that got the ball rolling, but there were also movies about blinded and handicapped veterans. Producers then discovered that audiences would respond to socially conscious issue films about racial and ethnic prejudice. Arriving before Best Years was RKO's Till the End of Time, a personal production by Dore Schary, a former writer and producer at MGM who would soon return there as a production head.
Wartime films often depicted young servicemen using their leisure time off duty to play ball, sing songs and receive boxes of cookies from home. Allen Rivken's screenplay for Till the End of Time sticks with Niven Busch's more realistic view of G.I.s in their early 'twenties returning to their middle-class family homes. Their years fighting overseas haven't prepared them for civilian life back home. Some have suffered physical and psychological damage. The parents that waited and worried are now making demands, even if they're not expressed directly. What's a guy to do?
Marines Bill Tabeshaw and Cliff Harper (Robert Mitchum & Guy Madison) muster out in Los Angeles. Bill has issues with a steel plate in his head, but says he's going straight back home to do some ranching. Cliff almost immediately meets Pat Ruscomb, a war widow his own age. She's just as undecided about her future as he is. Although Cliff's mother encourages him to date Helen Ingersol, the high school girl next door (Jean Porter of Cry Danger!), Cliff and Pat find a connection with each other's problems. Bill Tabeshaw reappears, having lost his money in Vegas. He wants Cliff to partner with him in the ranch. Together they check up on fellow Marine Perry Kincheloe (Bill Williams), who was badly wounded and is too proud to wear his artificial legs. Everything in the Army was planned out for these men, but now they must make their own decisions.
Social problem pictures seemed fresh to audiences of 1946. In The Blue Dahlia Navy officer Alan Ladd returns home to Los Angeles and immediately meets glamorous women and checks into swank resorts and night clubs. Cliff Harper's middle-class situation isn't nearly as glamorous. He mostly hangs around the neighborhood, dropping in at the malt shop or an ice skating rink. He gets up at night to get a beer from the fridge. He resists his mother's nagging about his apparent lack of drive.
For its year Till the End of Time is also fairly adult-oriented. Cliff and Pat catch sight of each other in a diner, and ten minutes later they're at her place, kissing. By the standards of 1946 this is highly immoral activity, technically low-life behavior. These are nice people, and there's already an anxiety in their lives, something's amiss. In their case the sexual attraction is given a chance to grow. They're too adult to act like kids; Cliff has fun dancing with pert Helen from next door, but he's an entire war removed from high school and in no mood to take on a bobbysoxer for a girlfriend. Pat works in an office and Cliff finally takes a job assembling electronic components. Will he recover the motivation to return to school, or to at least persevere at a job with a future? Will Pat find something beyond her present aimless pattern, and find a committed relationship?
The film's social conscience kicks in when Pat and Cliff start taking responsibility for each other. Seeing Pat's pain over her lost husband, he remarks that, "there should be Purple Hearts for war widows too". They encounter a young veteran in a bar (Richard Benedict) who suddenly starts shaking so hard, he can't hold his drink. Nobody yet has a word for it, but the guy is suffering from the effects of PTSD. Pat and Cliff know that the kid's terrified of making a scene, so they brace him and help calm him down. The tough and proud Perry Kincheloe is so bitter about his missing legs that he doesn't want to go out in public at all. Cliff breaks Perry of that by telling him he's needed, to help another mixed-up buddy. Perry puts on his prosthesis limbs, gets his crutches and comes to the rescue. The message in this 'radical' picture is that vets should be helping each other; Pat and Cliff would seem ideally suited to be social workers.
Most of the film's dramatic situations are believably low-key and realistic, although it has few crisis moments to match the gripping scenes in The Best Years of Our Lives. Wyler's movie indulged its share of liberal political jabs, and Till the End includes a subplot about Fascist politicos recruiting disaffected veterans for their bigoted hate organization. That cues the film's one action scene, a brawl in a cafe. The need to please the audience with a rousing fight seems a compromise. Best Years gave audiences a graphic eye-opening reveal of the maimed Harold Russell, but Dore Schary sticks to 'good taste' and never shows us Perry Kincheloe's artificial legs. Care is also taken to avoid upsetting political apple carts. The Veterans Administration is shown to be 100% on task; Marine Sgt. Watrous (William Gargan) shows up from time to time acting as a personal counselor / den mother to the boys. Special mention is made that Mitchum's Bill Tabeshaw needs to be more careful with that plate in his head, instead of continuing to get into fights. 1
David O. Selznick plucked Guy Madison from the crowd because he looked like sure-fire box office girl bait. As his acting skills were limited, the likable Madison found a home in westerns and action films. But he and the experienced Broadway actress Dorothy McGuire generate beaucoup chemistry in that tight clinch on the sofa in her sunny Southern California apartment; sex between them seems a real possibility. The attractive McGuire communicates the conflicted, hurt feelings of a girl made a widow, robbed of the man she had wanted to be hers forever. Till the End of Time is too socially conscious to be a film noir, but it is about disillusion in broad daylight.
Robert Mitchum jumped to star status after a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Story of G.I. Joe; a still of him chucking a grenade in that film was an iconic image that stuck in people's minds. Mitchum is still playing an all-American galoot, and doesn't quite know what to do with the distress scene after he's hurt in a brawl. But in just a few months he would find his career-lasting hipster image as a noir detective in Out of the Past. Bill Williams is very good as the Marine without legs, conveying prideful anger that doesn't scream 'pity me'. He's worth tracking down in his starring noirs The Clay Pigeon and Deadline at Dawn.
Providing a morale boost (and dancing up a storm) is Jean Porter's amusing Helen, who keeps ditching her age-appropriate boy friend to tag along with Cliff, a dreamy older man'. Poor Helen's big romance is not to be, but we can tell she'll recover. Her kind prematurely ages fathers everywhere; without a single word her teasing eyes and smile communicate a 'green light' signal to any boy who comes within range. Ms. Porter married her director Edward Dmytryk not long afterward, and they stayed together for over fifty years despite his political problems.
Dmytryk became one of the most well known of the Hollywood Ten and its only director. He survived the blacklist by recanting before the Committee, regaining the ability to work again but also helping the witch hunters to perpetuate their hold on Hollywood. Till the End of Time most likely dated quickly, but becomes relevant every time a war comes along. Our present culture is dealing with its own surfeit of damaged veterans, if only by exploiting them as a political wedge, or a marketing theme. Cliff, Bill and Perry had less publicity but probably got more helpful attention. 2
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Till the End of Time is a clean copy of this nostalgic but non-glamorous look at the muster-out blues; it's a tribute to good direction and acting that McGuire and Madison click as an on-screen couple -- or do guys as good-looking as Madison attract every kind of woman? The image has no damage and the audio is in fine shape as well.
Most of the film's Los Angeles locations are now unrecognizable. The broad street visible at the end of a residential lane in Palms (West L.A.) might be Venice Blvd. The ice rink is something called the Westwood Ice Gardens, which certainly was gone by the time I arrived in 1970. Cliff and Pat frequent a diner and work near the intersection of Wilshire and Western, which has changed as well.
Based on a Chopin melody, the romantic title tune saw a lot of radio play back in the day. It's not sung in the film (if I recall correctly), but here's the popular Perry Como cover version.
The song predated the movie by a year. I'm not sure exactly how well the lyrics apply to the movie, as they now seem to be mildly ironic. Cliff and Pat may be headed to a committed future, but under the circumstances I don't think even they would call theirs a timeless or everlasting romance. This is 1946, you know -- if The Bomb doesn't get them, the rate of inflation will.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Till the End of Time DVD-R rates:
1. Did I miss any mention of the G.I. Bill with its generous college benefit? That was a godsend to a multitude of vets. Unless Cliff was a total doofus in high school he should take engineering classes and stay at home for a while. The 'fifties are coming and Eisenhower will be building an entire national infrastructure -- highways, bridges, dams, a power grid. Man stuff. Or he could become a teacher and coach like my namesake Uncle Glenn, who was a Marine at Guadalcanal. That good man had a happy life.
2. It's not just a coincidence that Till the End of Time calls out an alarm against bigoted/Fascist organizations that hide behind a patriotic front; the opportunistic forces behind blacklisting used the exact same strategy. The next year's Monogram release Violence also focuses on a postwar political group seeking to profit by stirring up hatred among disaffected veterans. Were there many bogus patriotic groups around, or are all three films surreptitiously pointing a finger at The American Legion? That organization had the power to dictate who could and who couldn't work in Hollywood, and extended its reach to keep a few exiled blacklistees unemployed in France and Italy as well.
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T'was Ever Thus.