WWII has just ended. Three military men, Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), and Sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), are all heading home to their families and loved ones in Boone City. Although they have never met, they carry the camaraderie of men at war and a shared hometown. All three are aware that, having lived through war, they see the world in a different way, and they worry how they will fit in. Homer has a high-school girlfriend who waited for him through the war, but he has lost his hands and is afraid to touch her with his "hooks." Fred got married just before shipping off and hasn’t seen his wife since. Al was a bank executive with a wife and two children. He’s more worried about how he’ll fit in with his family than he was while facing enemy fire. For all three men, the flight home is filled with apprehension, expectation, and anxious excitement.
From here, the story delves into the flood of feelings engulfing the main characters. Fred recognizes what a calamity his marriage to Marie (Virginia Mayo) has become and instead falls in love with Al’s daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright). Part of the problem is that Marie wants to party, but Fred is not rich and has no job prospects. After being a Captain, he has no taste to go back to his old job as a soda jerk. Homer can’t get used to the sympathy and pity he receives from his family and friends. Despite Wilma’s (Cathy O’Donnell) unconditional affection, he pushes her away. Al is worried about how he’ll fit in. Milly (Myrna Loy) finally convinces Al that the family is OK and that they still want and need him, but he can’t fashion going back into a mundane banking job after being a soldier. All of the men and women in The Best Years have to face their demons, just like the returning soldiers and their families.
Sometimes we need a mirror that reflects our best parts
They left as boys, but they came home as men, men who had been shot at and seen friends die. Families disintegrated without day-to-day contact. Jobs were scarce. By creating the three male leads, director William Wyler gave us a microcosm, a synthesis of what had happened to everybody. Some families lasted, others cratered. Some came back to jobs; some came back to poverty. Others came back maimed. The women didn’t know how the man returning had changed. Would he be loving and fun or morose and disheartened? In some cases, the man was a physically or emotionally damaged person. This movie reflected what the entire nation was wrestling with. But Wyler called it The Best Years of Our Lives. How could these be the best years? In a word . . . .courage.
When the soldiers went to war, they didn’t know what they were facing. Once they were confronted with the enemy, they had to be courageous or die. When they returned home, they had a different struggle to face. Again, those with courage kept moving forward. Each of the main characters has their own cross to bear, but by the end of the movie, we are encouraged by their valor in facing the struggle at home as heroically as they did on the battlefield. And these role models are just what America needed in 1946 as people faced the problems of readjustment. This is the best of what film can offer us. Wyler gave us a glimpse of ourselves as noble and brave, not unafraid, because part of courage is accepting your fear. You must be willing to keep trudging ahead, no matter how terrifying it might be. Each character in The Best Years of Our Lives embodies that courage for the audience, and we are better people for seeing it. How many movies can claim that type of power?
A perfect combination of talents
The Best Years of Our Lives ran away with the 1946 Academy Awards ceremony, winning seven of its eight nominations. Besides Best Picture, William Wyler won for Best Director. He was no stranger to acclaim. Wyler was nominated for Best Director a total of 12 times, winning three! Known as "92-take Willy," he sometimes befuddled his actors by doing take after take and never really explaining what he didn’t like about the previous attempt. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and one look at a Wyler film will be enough to convince the most spoiled actor to trust their director.
Another trademark for Wyler was his use of deep-focus techniques, where characters in both the fore and background are in ideal focus. A perfect example of a deep-focus scene also happens to be one of my favorite moments in all of film. Nineteen minutes into the film, Al rings the doorbell to his apartment. His son Rob (Michael Hall) answers and Al covers Rob’s mouth so he can’t say anything. Then he does the same with his daughter, Peggy. He asks where his wife Milly is. We look down a long hallway and hear Milly say, "Who’s that at the door, Peggy?" The camera cuts to a back shot of Milly, setting the dinner table. "Peggy, Rob, who was . . ." Milly stops and drops a plate she was holding. She slowly turns with a look of almost fervent anticipation. We cut back to the long hallway. Milly comes into the hall and sees her adored husband for the first time in years. They run to each other and hug, a long, slow loving embrace. Meanwhile, in the foreground, you see Rob and Peggy smiling, celebrating that Mom and Dad are back together. You’ll have to be a tougher man than I am to keep from tearing up at this scene. That hug had special significance to Wyler, too. It was straight out of his life. When Major Wyler returned from WWII to his wife Margaret, they had a similar experience.
The actors carry off the illusion of reality that you always hope for. Fredric March plays a straightforward and likeable character who uses booze to deal with unpleasant situations, but he will rise like a lion to protect what he believes in. He won the Best Actor Academy Award that year. Myrna Loy is the embodiment of the perfect wife. She is dedicated to her family, loving, understanding, and beautiful. Dana Andrews is totally convincing as a man searching for meaning and a way out of poverty. Special kudos go to Harold Russell, a man who had never acted before in his life. After losing his hands in an explosion, Russell had been fitted with artificial hands -- "hooks" he called them. His willingness to let Wyler explore his prosthetics and to play a man who learned to live with his hardships brought him two Academy Awards, one for Best Supporting Actor and a special award for "bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans." All of the actors give us three-dimensional characters. They come to life. I love being in their company, and after three hours, I only wish for more.
We are lucky that the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress has selected The Best Years of Our Lives as one of the films to be restored and protected. And we are lucky that we can have a DVD of that restoration. This black-and-white film looks and sounds as good as it did when it was released in 1946. Visually, it is beautiful. Cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, Wuthering Heights, The Long Voyage Home) was a master and this DVD clearly shows his skill. The sound is lucid mono. There are two releases available, one from HBO and one from MGM. They differ in the extras offered, and the HBO release must be turned over in the middle of the movie. When the original release came out via HBO, it included an interview with Terry Wright and Virginia Mayo, a trailer, and an isolated track where you could hear Friedhofer’s evocative and beautiful Academy Award-winning score without the dialogue. MGM came out with a cheaper version that got rid of the side turnover but did away with the extras. I bought both.
People are forever asking me, "What do you think is the best movie ever made?" I usually patiently explain that there is no such thing. Like dogs, all films have something to recommend them. Habitually, though, I start to open my mouth and say, "But if I had to pick, it would be The Best Years of Our Lives." Luckily, I’m just barely smart enough to button my bodacious lips before that comes out. Is it the greatest movie ever made? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it is certainly one of only a handful of movies good enough to be considered for that high a level of praise.
. . . Wes Marshall