Friday, September 07, 2018

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

USA, 170 minutes
Director: William Wyler
Writers: Robert E. Sherwood, MacKinlay Kantor
Photography: Gregg Toland
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Cast: Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Harold Russell, Cathy O'Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Gladys George, Roman Bohnen, Ray Collins, Ray Teal, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Gene Krupa, Michael Hall

At nearly three hours and with a large and impressive ensemble cast and three or more narrative threads intertwining and going simultaneously, The Best Years of Our Lives is ambitious, setting out to make a monumentally large statement in real time about the fallout and aftereffects of the end of World War II on the American home front. It might be the best American movie about World War II. It's set in a fictional medium-sized city named Boone City, which suggests the near-Midwest or border South region, Kentucky, Ohio, or Tennessee. But really it is Anytown. And the movie starts within months or weeks of the war's end, as three servicemen make their ways home: airman Fred Derry (Dana Andrews, one of the most familiar faces in '40s movies), disabled sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and middle-aged soldier Al Stephenson (Fredric March).

Not one of them is owner of a neat and tidy life. Fred is in a quickie wartime marriage fast going bad, Homer, whose hands were lost in the war and replaced by hooks, struggles with his disability, and Al is the most confusing character of all. He's a swank banker, a family man married 20 years with two nearly grown children. But he finds his identity more in his status as an army sergeant than in his big comfortable life, which he gave up to fight. He's also an alarming drunk by today's standards, and probably even then—regularly humiliating himself in what often appear to be blackout episodes. It gets even messier when the women are brought in. In short order Fred falls for Al's daughter Peggy (a brilliant Teresa Wright), Homer can't believe his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) still wants to marry him so he avoids her, leaving her hanging, and Al drinks at every opportunity, maundering about soldierly camaraderie. His long-suffering wife Milly (a perfectly cast Myrna Loy) seems to have faith he will dry out on his own sooner or later. Maybe most amazing, The Best Years of Our Lives is a feel-good movie that actually makes you feel good.

In 1946, a lot of attitudes about the war had not yet set in. For example, Al's son Rob (Michael Hall) is visibly unimpressed with the souvenirs Al brought home for him—a samurai sword and a Japanese flag, autographed by members of a Japanese troop, which Al evidently took from a corpse. Instead, Rob pursues a line of thought about how the A-bomb means the end of war for all time. At another point, Fred and Homer have an interesting encounter with a loud-mouthed America First type, who thinks the "Nazis and Japs" were OK, that the whole war effort was some type of global conspiracy con job on Americans. This ends up in a fistfight where Fred punches him so hard a department store display case is destroyed. But by 1950, these attitudes were so systematically scrubbed out of public discourse we were completely shocked when they showed up again just a few years ago, more virulent than ever.

One of the strongest points of this movie is the casting. Myrna Loy works so well as the urbane wife of a drunk probably because the popular Thin Man movies enabled her to work out all the fine points. For that matter, Loy and Fredric March bring a certain amount of poignancy as symbols of what in that moment were viewed as the more innocent prewar times of the '30s. Al's eagerness to serve in the army never fits entirely well within the frame of Fredric March, but it's plausible enough. They are of the past. Meanwhile, Fred and his swinging wife Marie (sizzling hot Virginia Mayo doing an anachronistic and remarkably convincing impersonation of Sarah Palin) are more like the present. They're not well off and they don't know yet that a massive postwar economic boom that will lift a lot of boats is ahead. Fred, especially, suspects that the return of Depression times is right around the corner. Marie does too, and hustles constantly against it.

The most famous bit of casting in The Best Years of Our Lives was Harold Russell, an amateur, as Homer. Russell really had lost his hands in a wartime accident. It's often awkward to watch him work the hooks to light cigarettes and such, which is underlined by the discomfort of so many around him (cast and crew too, no doubt). But the movie is frank and at ease with Homer—Russell is not a great player, but his warmth and inner-directed poise are always effective. Fred and Al bond with him and accept him instantly, of course, disability and all. For them it's all part of the war experience that the rest of the world doesn't understand well. But this is also early times after the war, and again by about 1950 disabilities, like America First attitudes, were mostly retired behind screens of vague shame and unseemliness in polite company. It didn't matter if they were earned honorably in war, disabilities were still best kept out of sight. Though Russell later appeared in a few random productions (an episode of the Trapper John, M.D. TV show in the '80s, and roles in 1980's Inside Moves and 1997's Dogtown), he was more the genuine amateur, and he represented a hopeful future. Trivia: Russell is the only person to win two Oscars for the same role (Best Supporting Actor and an honorary statue for being an inspiration to veterans).

On top of all this, The Best Years of Our Lives has one of the best finishes in all movies. Really, it has to be seen to be believed, but I'm so excited about it at the moment I'm going to give you the blow-by-blow. Spoiler warnings. It takes place at the wedding of Homer and Wilma, where Fred is standing up as best man. He and Peggy are seeing each other for the first time in a long while. He's divorced now. They lock eyes. The spotlights hit them (kudos by the way to cinematographer Gregg Toland who is excellent as always). They have a moment they have waited for and long deserved. Now it is upon them. Almost comically, Fred walks over and kisses her nearly as soon as Homer has kissed Wilma after they are pronounced husband and wife. Fred then makes this speech, which Peggy takes in with joy: "You know what it'll be, don't you, Peggy? It may take us years to get anywhere. We'll have no money, no decent place to live. We'll have to work, get kicked around." THE END

Top 20 of 1946
1. It's a Wonderful Life
2. The Best Years of Our Lives
3. My Darling Clementine
4. Notorious
5. The Big Sleep
6. Paisan
7. Morning for the Osone Family
8. Courage of Lassie
9. From This Day Forward
10. The Postman Always Rings Twice
11. Beauty and the Beast
12. Duel in the Sun
13. Decoy
14. A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven)
15. The Killers
16. Canyon Passage
17. To Each His Own
18. The Stranger
19. Bedlam
20. Gilda


  1. Been a long time since I saw this, and my #1 memory is how impressed I was with Myrna Loy ... she was the perfect wife/mother. Not sure if that would hold today. Meanwhile, great minds think alike ... my three fave 1946 movies are also in your top five.

  2. A friend of mine (and a friend of his) were confused by my comparison of Virginia Mayo with Sarah Palin, and wrote to ask for an explanation. As the following satisfied them, I'm adding it here in case anyone else was thrown. I knew it was a reach!

    That's a good question about Sarah Palin and Marie / Virginia Mayo, and I did worry some about whether it made sense. It's possible this is all related to the high profile of John McCain's recent death, as Palin has been coming up again in the news more frequently. But the last time I watched Best Years, a couple weeks ago, something familiar about Marie kept nagging at me and I finally realized she was reminding me of Palin in a number of small ways. Her fetishizing the military and its glories by showing off Fred in his uniform with the medals and then pouting when he wanted to put them away was one thing. Her loyalty only to herself and her financial well-being was another. One of the most amazing things about Palin to me is that her political career lasted less than three years. She didn't even finish out her first term as governor (her only real political office), but broke for the wingnut welfare big money as soon as she could. That seemed like about Marie's level of loyalty too -- certainly they are both equally avaricious. But I think the main thing was something about the way they talk -- it is chirpy and friendly and upbeat, always in the high register, but has some edge of hostility or malevolence seemingly at random. You know there are things you can't bring up, you just sense it -- like say school shootings in Palin's case, or a dinner of cold cuts at home in Marie's (Fred could not have been surprised by that). Also, of course, they are both attractive women (the "sizzling hot" is probably what I regret most in that sentence!). Marie has none of Palin's religiosity, but that religiosity is so phony I think of her more as a con artist than true believer (many evangelicals are loathsome but I believe they believe -- not her). Marie is also pretty much a phony -- she adores the medals, but has no respect for or even concept of what it took to get them.

  3. I've seen 4 of your top 10; 9 of your top 20. Add the ones I haven't seen to the exponential pile of movies I need to see (not to mention books I need to read or music I need to listen to), divided by the severely rationed time I have for such pursuits, it might take me several lifetimes but I'm on the job. Best Years sounds like a must.