FILLED WITH ALL THE LOVE AND WARMTH AND JOY… THE HUMAN HEART CAN HOLD!
The premiere of The Best Years of Our Lives seemed to hit America like a ton of bricks. Coming the year after the end of World War II, the nation was grappling with a phenomenon it hadn’t worried about since 1918: the return of soldiers who had fought in a war. Some of them were psychologically and/or physically wounded and most of them were looking for a new future, a new life. There was not enough understanding from Americans who hadn’t fought in a war, and not enough help in the shape of money, medical assistance and job opportunities. William Wyler’s film got everybody talking.
Headed home to Boone City
After the war, Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is headed back home to Boone City, a town somewhere in the Midwest. As the long journey begins, he gets to know two fellow service members: the older Platoon Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and Petty Officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), who’s lost both his hands in the war. They become friends on that trip, which is a good thing because coming back home isn’t easy for anyone. Fred used to work as a soda jerk and married Marie (Virginia Mayo) shortly before the war; now he’s learning that his marriage isn’t so hot and that his efforts to find a better job are unsuccessful.
Al has a loving family, and his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) is delighted to see him again… but he drinks a little too much and has no interest in being a banker again. Homer maintains a positive attitude, but his family’s awkwardness when it comes to his disability is wearing him down and his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) doesn’t know how to get through to him.
Hiring a war correspondent
Perhaps the decades that have passed since the film’s premiere softened the impact to some degree. When we think of films addressing the issues facing war veterans we tend to remember those about the Vietnam War, because there was a big trend in the 1970s and ’80s, with several high-profile films and a general willingness in our society to talk about those issues. Back in the 1940s, it was a different story.
The project began with a desire to make a movie about veterans. Producer Sam Goldwyn hired a war correspondent, MacKinlay Kantor to write a script, but a novella is what he came up with. Robert E. Sherwood turned it into a screenplay and William Wyler was hired to direct. Kantor had contributed with his experiences from war, and so did Wyler, serving as a major in the Air Force, flying bombing missions over Germany and directing documentaries. He wanted an authentic touch, which was reflected in costumes and sets, but also in hiring Harold Russell to play Homer. Russell really had lost his hands in the war, in an accident while serving as an Army instructor teaching demolition work. He was not a professional actor, but fit the part of Homer to perfection, helped in most scenes by O’Donnell whom Wyler makes sure remains the emotional focus of those scenes.
The film also benefits from Gregg Toland’s cinematography; his deep-focus photography is both beautiful and relevant for the story in several scenes, and one of the film’s last moments, when Fred revisits the cockpit of an old bomber, is brilliantly staged to create the psychological effect on Fred. Loy got top billing because of her star status, but March and Andrews deliver the most memorable performances as two veterans who handle their challenges differently.
Soapy and long, the film nevertheless remains great because of its realism, capturing the angst and disappointments that are also part of coming home after serving in a war, the desire to find yourself and gain acceptance.
The Best Years of Our Lives 1946-U.S. 168 min. B/W. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Directed by William Wyler. Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood. Novella: MacKinlay Kantor (”Glory for Me”). Cinematography: Gregg Toland. Music: Hugo Friedhofer. Editing: Daniel Mandell. Cast: Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Harold Russell… Hoagy Carmichael.
Trivia: Alternative titles: Glory for Me and Home Again. Remade as a TV movie, Returning Home (1975).
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (March), Supporting Actor (Russell), Screenplay, Film Editing, Scoring; Russell also won a special Oscar for inspiring other veterans. Golden Globes: Best Picture; Russell was also awarded a special Golden Globe. BAFTA: Best Film.
Last word: ”This is the kind of picture I couldn’t possibly have made and done with conviction if I had not been in the war myself. If Sam (Goldwyn) had handed me this story five years ago I would have had to say, if I didn’t want to make a fool of myself, ‘Wait just a minute! I’ll join the Army and come back in three years after I get to know these characters.”’ (Wyler, The New York Times)