Friday, March 18, 2022

#2,725. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) - The Men Who Made the Movies


William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was the big winner at the 19th annual Academy Awards, taking home seven of the eight Oscars for which it was nominated: Best Picture, Director (Wyler), Actor (Fredric March), Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood), Editing (Daniel Mandell), and Score (Hugo Friedhofer). Throwing a spotlight on the difficulties World War II veterans faced when returning home, The Best Years of Our Lives is a dramatic, deeply moving motion picture, as well as one of the best Hollywood movies of the 1940s.

Three veterans return to their home town of Boone City. Air Force Bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) is anxious to reunite with his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), who he met and married only a few weeks before shipping out. Army Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) worked as a banker before the war, and lives in a posh hotel suite with wife Milly (Myrna Loy), adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), and teenage son Rob (Michael Hall). Naval Petty Officer Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) lost both of his hands during the war. Though he’s become an expert with his new prosthetic hooks, Homer worries that his fiancé Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) will be turned off by his handicap.

All three men have trouble readjusting to civilian life. Fred has a hard time finding work, and accepts the only job he can get: a counter clerk at the local pharmacy.  This doesn't sit well with Marie, whose insistence that they go out every night and paint the town red is more than Fred can afford. To complicate matters, Fred is falling in love with Al’s daughter Peggy, who also develops feelings for him. 
As for the others, Al accepts a promotion at the bank, though drinks heavily as a way of coping with his wartime experiences; while Homer withdraws emotionally, and loses his temper at the drop of a hat whenever someone treats him like a cripple.

The three former soldiers do get together occasionally at a local bar owned by Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael), but each feels alone in this “new world”, and struggles to keep up with a society that seems to have left them behind.

The Best Years of Our Lives sets the dramatic bar very high in the opening 20 minutes, when the vets reunite with their loved ones. Each is hesitant to return home, with Al going so far as to say seeing his family again was as nerve racking as “going in to hit a beach”. All three actors do an amazing job in these early scenes, especially Harold Russell, who prior to this film had no acting experience. Russell was chosen for the role because he actually lost his hands during the war. 

The supporting cast is equally strong, especially Teresa Wright as the lovestruck Peggy and Virginia Mayo as the selfish Marie, When Fred first returns home, his father (Roman Bohnen) informs him that Marie moved out a year earlier, and took a job at a night club. An entire day passes before Fred can even track her down!

Where The Best Years of Our Lives really works its magic, however, is in its depiction of the hardships faced by veterans, and how difficult it was for many to leave their wartime experiences behind. Though a successful banker, Al is dissatisfied with his career, which just doesn’t seem important anymore. Despite the support of his loving wife (played superbly by Myrna Loy), Al deals with his frustration by drinking… a lot! His first night back, he drags Milly and Peggy from one club to another, finally landing at Butch’s bar, where he reunites with Homer and Fred, both of whom also needed a drink to unwind. Along with the performances, credit must also go to director Wyler and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood, who did their part to make each and every character in The Best Years of Our Lives feel 100% genuine.

In addition to its success at the Oscars, The Best Years of Our Lives won both the Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Picture, with the National Board of Review choosing Wyler as the year’s Best Director. The film was also one of the first selected for preservation by the National Film Society, and in 2007 the AFI ranked it the 37th Greatest American film ever made.

Watch The Best Years of Our Lives and I’m sure you’ll agree it deserves every damn one of these honors!
Rating: 10 out of 10

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