Coming home after the war has been a common topic for movies. The rude awakening that one’s simple competence, upon which men relied upon in fatal situations, is no longer sufficient to live comfortably. This is something we at once understand so well and not at all. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) takes up that topic in the aftermath of World War II with incredible honesty and maturity. I, like many, have the tendency to buy into the nostalgic nonsense that “times were simpler back then” and because they wouldn’t put a toilet on screen meant that people were somehow different. Of course, they weren’t any different, they were just depicted differently. The year we had Cinderella (1950), there was Sunset Blvd. (1950) and while Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), Humphrey Bogart was after The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). War scarred then much as it does now. In 1946, two such films were released, The Best Years of Our Lives and The Razor’s Edge (1946). Both had some considerable star power, but it was The Best Years of Our Lives that just about swept the Oscars.
Three men from the three services are on their way home to Boone City. Capt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) of the Air Force is coming home to his war bride. They met while he was training in Texas and got married after about twenty days. Sgt. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) served in the infantry and had a rough time and he’s a little nervous coming back to his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), and two kids Peggy (Teresa Wright) and Rob (Michael Hall). Homer Parish (Harold Russell) was a Seabee who lost his hands when his ship was sunk. He’s coming home to his girl Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), but, obviously, he’s the most nervous of them all since he now has a pair of movable hooks to maneuver with. The three become friends and have to adapt themselves to civilian life while the civilians have to do what they can to understand these changed men.
It’s kind of astounding that this movie could fall out of public consciousness after winning seven competitive Oscars. I suppose there is a limited amount of room for black and white movies such that they must be beloved to survive. Putting universal devotion to one side, you would expect to find this in any number of DVD collections or re-releases rather than this one DVD in print. Perhaps it has to do with the terrifically inappropriate advertisements that make it look like a screwball comedy, selling their pretty stars rather than the quality of the movie. Even this newest DVD cover, though understated, pushes the shallowest of the relationships in the movie (though, clearly, the most “Hollywood”) with only a small graphic in the corner reading “Winner of 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture”. My guess is that none of these stars, not even Myrna Loy who is always terrific, has much in the way of name recognition. Until today! Who am I kidding?
I’ve given the highlights: it’s mature, honest, and an early example of a common setting. I might add that it is a definitive example of the coming-home story in that it begins with the journey home and ends with everyone finding their place. I never said it was completely honest. But hey, this guy has hooks for hands, let’s give ‘em some credit. My favorite relationship, and I tipped my hand a bit earlier, is between Fredric March and Myrna Loy, the older couple that pleasantly tolerate each other. It’s like the Charles’ from The Thin Man (1934) are a little older and a little wearier (and William Powell wasn’t available). I like to hang around with them, but the real drama is happening between Homer and Wilma. With the popular acceptance of PTSD and the story of people returning from battle, Homer’s angers and anxieties are familiar—he feels people looking, purposely looking away, annoyed at their help, wanting to be with others and wanting to be alone. It feels too real for black and white, but there it is, in…in front of me.
All four of those performances are notable. March (Best Actor winner) and Loy are just grand and never miss a beat. Harold Russell, as Homer, was doing a training film when an explosive device went off and took his hands. So, for that level of acting experience, he’s exceptionally good. Better than Claude Rains in Notorious (1946)? Possibly not, but the content of the role was big enough to justify the win for Best Supporting Actor. It certainly required more range. Russell also won an Oscar “For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.” That sounds pretty corny and cynical, but in the context of this movie, it’s perfectly genuine. Virginia Mayo as the horrible wife of Dana Andrews was notably good, though I found Andrews to be more charming than complicated. Teresa Wright was very good in conversations with her parents, but there were a few too many shots of her looking lost in her love for Fred.
Director William Wyler really put this thing together. It’s a great piece of work and easily deserved an Oscar for Best Director. Put it this way, it was better constructed than Notorious and moved the camera with greater control—cinematography by Gregg Toland (of Citizen Kane (1941)). It also won an Oscar for Best Score (Hugo Friedhofer), Editing (Daniel Mandell), Sound (Gordon Sawyer), and Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood). Sherwood adapted a novella by Mackinlay Kantor, so how much credit Sherwood deserves for the spot-on dialogue of these soldiers is unclear, but it’s there and well presented. What Sherwood almost certainly provided was those necessary moments of levity that kept the tone of the film bright. Yeah, life was hard, but the characters seemed to keep a good perspective on events (even if they couldn’t control their emotions towards those things).
Here’s a line that you might enjoy from a banker in the movie: “We have to remember that it isn’t our money we’re doling out, it belongs to our depositors. We can’t gamble with it.”