Thursday 11 March 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Director: William Wyler
Stars: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Theresa Wright, Virginia Mayo and Cathy O'Donnell

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

The Best Years of Our Lives was a timely picture for 1946, a gentle reminder that the impact of war didn't just take place overseas on farflung battlefields, it came home with the servicemen too. It was a plea for understanding, not for better treatment or special consideration but just for understanding, and it was the way that plea was made that led to its success. It became the biggest hit at the box office since Gone with the Wind broke all the records seven years earlier. It won seven Oscars out of eight nominations. It's a much beloved film even today, though it's almost three hours long and tweaks the heartstrings rather blatantly on occasion. And all this came through that most elusive of cinematic achievements, the ability to touch the right nerve at the right time and tap into the feeling of a nation.

It had plenty of opportunity to touch the wrong nerve, director William Wyler taking a lot of risks with the material. On top of dealing with the general plight of servicemen returning home and the changes in attitude that the country was going through as war became peace, it also took a good look at both alcoholism and infidelity, hardly popular subjects with the moral arbiters of Hollywood product. There are nods to what was on the horizon in the form of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which a year earlier had become a standing committee and a year later would begin its investigations into communist links in Hollywood. It even cast a double amputee as a lead character, the sort of approach that hadn't been taken since Freaks in 1933, an astounding film but one which effectively mangled the career of director Tod Browning in the process.

Most of all, the Second World War wasn't really what most audiences wanted to see a year after it had ended. Since the US had joined the war effort in 1941, Americans had been been deluged with war movies, often propaganda pictures that talked up the reasons for being in the war and promising a better life for all once it was over. After four years of war and hardship, albeit not to the degree that allies closer to the action like the UK and Russia had dealt with, they were more than ready for something different, especially as the hardship continued even after the war's end. However they had to wait until the backlog of war films was exhausted first. Studios like Warner Brothers were even delaying the release of new movies like The Big Sleep until this was done, fearing that audiences would soon be staying away from war movies in droves. So for Samuel Goldwyn to finance this major production independently in such an environment was seen by many as commercial suicide. I guess he had the last laugh.

Based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor which had been written in free verse, The Best Years of Our Lives focuses on the return to Boone City, a fictional version of Cincinnati, of three servicemen, one from each arm of the forces, who meet on the flight home. Fredric March is army, an infantry sergeant called Al Stephenson who used to be a banker at the Cornbelt Loan and Trust Company. Dana Andrews, who had been a memorable sergeant a year earlier in Lewis Milestone's A Walk in the Sun, gets to be an officer here, a highly decorated air force officer who dropped bombs out of a B17, though back in Boone he used to be a soda jerk at a drugstore. Both are excellent and March won his second Oscar for his work, even though his name was misspelt on the closing credits. His first was for his memorable double role as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1931.

Even though March and Andrews were highly recognisable stars in 1946, they were tasked with playing alongside someone who had never acted before, Harold Russell. He represents the navy, in the form of a sailor called Homer Parrish who had lost both his hands at war and who had been trained to use a pair of hooks instead. In the story he lost them to fire, having been trapped below decks when his ship went down to be hauled out unconscious. In reality he lost them to explosives when some TNT blew up in his hands while he was training paratroopers in North Carolina. Whichever way we remember it, the end result is startling and Wyler puts Russell to good use, though it did help that he was also able to be the epitome of the small town American boy.

William Wyler was known for his delicate touch, that and his staircases, but he outdid himself here, painting these three characters, and those that support them, with delicacy and depth. These three servicemen share many characteristics even though they come from completely different backgrounds. They all return home with troubles, though they want to overcome them. They all find difficulty adapting back to the lives they once had, though for different reasons. They all have problems dealing with those around them, though they overcome those problems to different degrees. Every major character in this film is given plenty of opportunity to develop, partly through the running time of nigh on three hours but also partly through the careful and thoughtful writing by Robert E Sherwood, who adapted Kantor's novel. Their initial return seems perfect, Boone City shown as a happy travelogue, a voyage of rediscovery, but the darker side soon bleeds through.

Al had been married for twenty years before he shipped out and returns home to a textbook family reunion, one modelled on Wyler's own return from the war to his own wife. Al is the career man with a loving spouse, a grown daughter and a son in college, for whom life is so perfect that he's even given Myrna Loy, who had been consolidating her status as the perfect screen wife since The Thin Man a couple of decades earlier, to play his. While the environment couldn't be better for Al, he's forgotten what life back home was like. He hardly recognises his kids because they've grown up while he was away and he even forgets his wife doesn't smoke. He's more like an amnesiac who's literally lost three years of his life and can't work out how to get them back. Unfortunately he tries to do it by hitting the bottle.

In many ways Fred is the mirror image of Al. Instead of twenty years, he hadn't even been married for twenty days before heading off to war. Instead of a heartfelt reunion with his family, he can't even find his wife, who had moved out of his parents' house to get a job in a nightclub. Instead of the mixture of love and concern that Milly Stephenson exudes, Marie Derry is just hot for the glamorous flyboy, his uniform with its string of ribbons and of course the pay that enabled her to live the highlife while he was off in his bomber. He has nightmares about burning planes but she just tells him to snap out of it, as if that's all it takes. It doesn't take long for him to find far more understanding, respect and love with Al's daughter Peggy than with his own wife.

Homer's problem is about acceptance. On the plane back to Boone City he demonstrates how well he can use his hooks by lighting matches and explains to his new friends that he knows he's better off than many who didn't come back at all. Yet he's deeply worried about what his childhood sweetheart will think when he gets home. She knows but she hasn't seen, and he can't help but panic about her reaction. Wilma Cameron turns out to be a rock who loves him regardless but Homer has trouble dealing with both their families who tiptoe as if on eggshells around him. They make him nervous because, as he describes it, 'they keep staring at these hooks, or else they keep staring away from them.' Yet perhaps because his problem is so easily defined, he has possibly the easiest time of it back home.

Homer also doesn't have to work, with a disability pension of a couple of hundred bucks a month, which makes life simpler for him than the more complex problems Al and Fred go through. Al isn't just hired back at his bank, he's promoted to vice president in charge of small loans. The reasoning seems to be sound, because with many servicemen applying for loans under the GI Bill of Rights he's in a good position to understand both their concerns and those of the bank, but really he's just put there to say no a lot, which he finds he can't do. He gives a speech that sums up the message of the film: 'We're going to have such a line of customers seeking and getting small loans that people will think we're gambling with the depositors' money. And we will be. We will be gambling on the future of this country.'

While he wants to take his time and look around, Fred quickly ends up back at the drugstore, finding it nothing like it used to be. It pays a third of what he earned in in the air force. 'The war is over, Derry,' his new boss says simply, before making him an assistant to Clarence Merkle, a weasel of a man who used to be Fred's assistant before the war. Worst of all, Marie, who enjoyed life while he was away on $500 a month from his air force salary and her job, is offended that she now has to make do on a measly $32.50 a week from the drugstore. Marriages can't survive on that amount or double it, she tells Peggy, who wouldn't care about the money and just wants the man. Their little battle is just one of many subplots that get an opportunity to play out in this film.

I watched The Best Years of Our Lives back in 2004 and remembered being really impressed, but it didn't leap out as a film that I wanted to rewatch. I was just as impressed here but I still feel no urge to come back to it again. For many though it's a favourite, perhaps because the picture really defines a world at a point in time and they're happy to be thrown into it, to work through the troubles with the characters they're watching. Certainly the romance between Peggy and Fred is an engaging one, not least because of the great performances of Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright, whose character really would have been a great catch. She provides great repartee, which is joyously delivered, and it's hardly surprising we see so much of her and so little of her screen brother.

Wright was appearing in her sixth and last film at MGM here, even though five had seen her loaned out to other studios. She had an unparalleled start to her career, still the only actor to be nominated for an Oscar for each of her first three movies. First there was The Little Foxes, which saw her play Bette Davis's daughter; then Mrs Miniver, something of an English companion piece to this film, which is what she won her Oscar for; and finally The Pride of the Yankees, where she played Lou Gehrig's wife. Film four was Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt and film six was this one, but from here it was sadly downhill, as the great roles she found as an engaging teenager didn't translate into adulthood. It's a shame, as she's superb here, somehow young and naive enough to still know everything but also old and knowing beyond her years.

All the supporting cast are solid, including Virginia Mayo as Fred's glamorous but selfish wife Marie. She's the epitome of the pinup girl that the guys overseas dreamed about coming home to. Fred got the opportunity but found that it wasn't worth it. Homer's uncle Butch who runs a bar and plays the piano in it is Hoagy Carmichael who even gets a couple of jokes. 'How about Lazy River?' Homer suggests, 'Remember that?' Well he should, as Hoagy Carmichael wrote it. Cathy O'Donnell, who landed her first credited role as Homer's fiancée Wilma, was well cast as the girl next door, something she'd play often in her short career, emanating innocence and inherent goodness. The short career was partly because she became William Wyler's sister-in-law a couple of years later, something that prompted Samuel Goldwyn to cancel her contract because he was feuding with Wyler at the time.

The other actor who went home with an Oscar though was Harold Russell, who actually won two. Given the timing and his circumstances, he was given a special honorary award before Oscar night arrived, 'for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.' It has been suggested that this award was given because he didn't have much of a chance to win a competitive award but he promptly won that too, leaving him still the only winner of two Oscars for the same role. He was good, far better than could be expected for a non-actor, and indeed it had to have been the natural feel he brought to the role that won him the most acclaim. He could play the part because he was the part and William Wyler played that up to no small degree.

He even found time to wrap the whole thing up in a decent story arc, with all the little stories taken care of in the meantime. When our three heroes fly into Boone City they see that the airport is full of planes lined up to be scrapped. When Fred returns to this scene towards the end of the story, we find the most striking images of the film in what can only be described as an airplane graveyard with its dead planes lined up in endless rows. These planes, some with markings to show how much action they saw, are as much war heroes as the men who served in them and the comparison is more than a little obvious. They're being scrapped, which is precisely what servicemen like Fred felt was happening to them, but we discover with him that they're breaking them up to turn into prefab housing. In other words while their old purpose is gone, they have a new life ahead of them in a new America, just as Fred's dad tells him: 'There's a need here for fellas like yourself that fought and won the war.' And it's that need that makes our movie.

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