The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) RKO Radio Pictures/Drama RT: 172 minutes No MPAA Rating (mature themes, alcohol abuse, disturbing images, a few racial epithets) Director: William Wyler Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood and MacKinlay Kantor Music: Hugo Friedhofer Cinematography: Gregg Toland Release date: November 21, 1946 Starring: Dana Andrews, Fredric March, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, Teresa Wright, Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Roman Bohnen, Gladys George, Ray Collins, Minna Gombell, Walter Baldwin, Steve Cochran, Dorothy Adams, Michael Hall. Box Office: $23.7 million
Over the past decade, movie audiences have stayed away from the dramas depicting soldiers coming home from the Iraqi War and having troubles readjusting to civilian life. Films like Stop-Loss, Home of the Brave and In the Valley of Elah haven't attracted much commercial success and one could explain this fact by saying that it's still a sore subject and it's just too soon. It's a reasonable argument, but then how does one explain the success of the 1946 drama The Best Years of Our Lives?
It was released only one year after the end of World War II and the American public was still licking its collective wounds. It seems unlikely that people would want to pay the price of admission to watch a three-hour drama about three WWII soldiers and their difficulties as they try to readjust to civilian life. Well, not only did The Best Years of Our Lives become a commercial success (over $23 million at the box office!), it was also a major critical success and it won seven Academy Awards- Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Score- as well as a special honorary award for Russell, a real life WWII veteran who lost his hands in the war. It happens to be one of the finest films dealing with this sensitive subject, it ranks alongside such works as The Deer Hunter and Coming Home. It's a pretty bold move of Wyler's part to make a movie that shows the negative aftereffects of a war that almost every American citizen supported. Those who fought and survived are heroes, there's absolutely no question about that. But what about the personal and psychological war that many soldiers fought upon returning home? For many, it was a very dark time as they struggled to find their place in society while battling various personal demons. Their story needs to be told, the public needs to understand that these men are much more than symbols of heroism and victory. That's where the greatness of The Best Years of Our Lives lies, it dares to be realistic in the post-WWII era, a time when people tried to be optimistic about the future and leave the dark days of the war behind them.
The three main characters of The Best Years of Our Lives first meet on a flight back to their hometown of Boone City (a fictional Midwestern city) after the war. Al Stephenson (March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) has a wife, Milly (Loy, The Great Ziegfeld) and two grown children, Peggy (Wright, Mrs. Miniver) and Rob (Hall), waiting for him. The oldest of the trio, Al was a loan officer at a bank before the war. Now that he's back, his boss asks him to return to his old job and deal with the former soldiers attempting to secure small loans by way of the GI bill. Despite all of these positive things, Al has difficulties and starts to drink heavily. Fred Derry (Andrews, Laura), an unskilled drugstore soda jerk before entering the service, returns home and learns that his wife Marie (Mayo, White Heat) has moved out of his parents' home and taken a job as a nightclub waitress. It takes him more than a day to track her down and let her know that he's home. Fred only knew Marie for a short time before marrying her and he idealized her over the years, naturally he finds it difficult to accept the reality of his unhappy domestic situation. In short, she's a floozy! Due to his lack of skills, Fred has to take a job at his old place of employment for a small weekly salary. He wants a quiet life of sitting at home with his wife, Marie wants to go out on the town every night and eat at fancy restaurants. Fred and Peggy start to fall in love and this makes her father very unhappy, especially when his daughter announces her intentions of destroying Fred's marriage. The most compelling story concerns young Homer Parrish (Russell), he lost his hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk and he has to use mechanical hook prostheses. He doesn't want to be a burden to anybody and tries to push away his fiancee Wilma (O'Donnell, Ben-Hur), she can't understand why he suddenly doesn't want to marry her anymore and he's not saying much of anything to her. Throughout the film, the guys periodically meet at Butch's, a bar owned and operated by Homer's cousin (songwriter/composer/pianist Carmichael).
Although The Best Years of Our Lives runs nearly three hours, the viewer will hardly notice this as the film never gets boring, it succeeds at holding the viewer's attention because of the everyday struggle of the three main characters. In one memorable scene, an obnoxious customer at the drugstore starts shooting off his mouth about the war and how the soldiers fought against the wrong enemy. It ends with a physical altercation with Homer and Fred, the latter punches out the jerk and loses his job in the process. It's a powerful scene as it represents that small segment of the American public who came out against the war. They say that the US shouldn't have gotten involved in WWII, but one wonders if they're factoring in the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor? In any event, the filmmakers took a great risk when they depicted such a scenario, it flies right in the face of the overall sense of American patriotism to have somebody say these things in a movie. One of the best things about The Best Years of Our Lives is that the writers provide fully realized characters, there's not a single cliche in the bunch. On top of that, the actors deliver tremendous and powerful performances all around. Fred suffers from nightmares due to his experiences as bombardier with the Air Force and, in another powerful scene, he sits in the nose of a B-17 at an aircraft graveyard and starts to have flashbacks. He's dealing with these issues on his own as Marie doesn't care about him at all. Andrews makes the character very believable as his attempts to hold his marriage together prove fruitless and ineffectual, the slow realization that he made a terrible mistake in marrying this horrible woman and the pain of trying to deny his feelings for Peggy make for one complex character. Virginia Mayo makes Marie one of the most hateful females ever depicted in the movies, she's a heartless and selfish tramp, it makes me wonder if my ex-wife ever saw this movie, they both have so much in common. In one of his few film appearances, Harold Russell shows that he has a real gift for acting, he completely understands the pain and embarrassment of being handicapped. He needs help getting ready for bed at night and one can she the shame and anger written all over his face as his father helps him button his pajamas.
One of the best supporting performances comes from O'Donnell, she's one of the most sympathetic characters that I've ever seen in a movie like this. In one touching scene, she helps Homer get ready for bed and assures him that she won't mind taking care of him because she loves him. If that isn't love, then I don't know what love really means. March delivers a great performance as the more mature veteran who seems to have everything going for him. Readjusting to civilian life proves to be a major obstacle and he starts showing signs of alcoholism. The three main characters in The Best Years of Our Lives each come from a different social class- upper class (Al), middle class (homer) and working class (Fred)- yet the armed services makes so such distinctions, so it's difficult for the men to re-enter a society that places such an emphasis on class structure. Greg Toland's deep-focus cinematography in this movie represents some of his best work and adds an element of realism to the picture. What is "deep-focus" cinematography? Simply put, it means that each of the three planes (foreground, middle-ground and background) are simultaneously rendered in sharp focus. It's meant to enhance the movie's sense of realism, it works beautifully here! Given that the action of the movie takes place in the 40s, one might assume that the movie would be hopelessly dated, that it wouldn't translate to 21st century audiences. That would be an incorrect assumption, a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives is timeless, the idea of soldiers returning home from combat to a changed society is as relevant now as it was about 67 years ago. Like I said, it's one of the best movies ever made about the subject and it doesn't feature some deranged maniac going on a violent rampage. Wyler keeps everything grounded in reality and delivers a very powerful drama that absolutely deserved its Best Picture award.