From Goldwyn Studios
Directed by William Wyler
If one is looking for a valid reason to include this film in our Good 40s Films segment, let's consider it was the top-grossing film of the entire decade. Quite an accomplishment considering the remarkable films released during the 1940s. When one considers the number of films dealing with servicemen returning to civilian life, there is none finer. And the artists in front of the camera and behind represent some of Hollywood's creme de la creme. Take another look at that cast! And it doesn't get any better than to have William Wyler as the director or Robert E. Sherwood as the writer or Gregg Toland as cinematographer. And Samuel Goldwyn was just the right man to bring this lovely piece to the screen. I suppose it's obvious I am a fan of this very fine film.
It opens as an Air Force captain scrambles to hitch a ride to his hometown as WWII ends. He meets up with a sailor who has had his forearms amputated and an army sergeant, none of whom previously knew one another and all of whom are going to the same small town, (fictional) Boone City.
The exquisite writing allows us an in-depth look at the three men... their apparent nervousness upon re-entry into their former lives, the fears that they won't know what to do and how to act and that their families may try to rehabilitate them. We feel their plight at the sound of the first word.
The three share a cab and Homer (Russell), the disabled sailor, is dropped off first. He would rather go drink in his uncle's (Carmichael) bar than face his family and girlfriend, Wilma (O'Donnell), who lives next door. He had promised to marry her when he returns but that was before he lost his arms. He more than ably handles his prosthetic hooks, as he calls them, but he is nearly catatonic over the thought of being fussed over. He has no clue as to what he'll do for work and he would rather just hibernate and not think about it.
Al (March), the army sergeant, is the oldest and the only one with job prospects, a bank loan officer, which he is reluctant to return to. He is nervous about returning to his family, his wife, Milly (Loy). daughter Peggy (Wright) and a son. He is concerned that his children are now grown and that he doesn't know them very well. Despite being the most financially fixed of the three and the most secure by most standards, Al prefers to drink and tell awkward jokes although in his sober state he would like to make a difference in returning soldiers' lives.
Fred (Andrews), the Air Force captain, not only has job problems (he resists returning to his old job as a drug store soda jerk) but nightmares of his war experiences and a wife who's only interested in him for the things he can buy her. When his meager savings account is depleted, the trouble begins.
Fred has been courting trouble in another area as well... he has fallen for Al's daughter, Peggy (much to Al's chagrin), and she falls for him. Their relationship is a beautiful one to watch unfold but we have to wait til the end of the three-hour film to find out the results. The same can be said for Homer and Wilma.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a beautifully-realized film, laid out to perfection as a whole but also containing remarkable gems of individual scenes. First and foremost is the reunion scene for Al and Milly. He rings the doorbell and his son answers and Al quickly shushes him as he does Peggy who also comes to the door. But Milly is in a room at the end of the hall and calls out to her children, asking who was at the door. When no one answers her, it takes a moment for all to register. She enters the hallway at the far end from Al and they scurry to one another for an embrace as their children's eyes well up. Yours probably will, too. Myrna Loy said this single, touching scene was her favorite from all of her 127 films.
Another heartfelt scene is when Peggy tells her parents in their bedroom that she is in love with Fred and is going to break up his unhappy, loveless marriage. Al is especially appalled that his daughter would do such a thing but it's all wrapped up in the fact that perhaps he just doesn't know her very well. With Loy, the perfect wife, so said Hollywood, her Millie tries to find a middle ground so as not to rile husband or daughter.
Homer and Wilma's big scene unfolds when she nudges him a little more on the status and future of their relationship. He invites her up to his bedroom and shows her his procedures for removing his prosthetic limbs. He attempts to show her how difficult life would be for her as his wife but she is not dissuaded. It was such a lovely scene.
Finally there is a stunning scene of Fred visiting a graveyard for bombers and fighter planes. To see what looked like miles and miles of used-up planes, damaged, dismantled, imaging what they have all been through as we watch Fred work through his emotional trauma was tender. Today we would say Fred had PTSD.
William Wyler, the director's director, was an enormously talented man who was a perfectionist and could be downright cantankerous when things didn't go his way. He had worked for Sam Goldwyn for years but their relationship just got worse and worse as time went on and was at its zenith on this film. It would be the last time they would work together but Best Years started promisingly for both. It was Wyler's first picture after serving in the military and he was hot to do it. The original story came to Goldwyn's attention and he passed it on to Wyler as the man who could bring it all about.
However, Goldwyn often interfered with his directors and this was one director with whom one avoided doing that. Goldwyn wanted some scenes changed, insisted on some rewrites. He wanted non-actor Harold Russell to be trained in some actorisms while Wyler angrily insisted he remain natural. Wyler was against hiring Virginia Mayo but as a Goldwyn contractee, he had no choice. Luckily, Wyler thought Mayo did a good job.
Actually the entire cast was letter-perfect. However, there are some points worth a mention. Loy's role was more of a supporting role and yet she was top-billed. It was a business decision because she was the top female movie star of the day and her name at the head of the cast would be a good thing. Dana Andrews, billed third, was really the star of the film. I always thought he and especially Fredric March were a little long in the tooth to be playing these roles.
Harold Russell was truly a disabled soldier. He had never acted. Wyler met him during the war, already knowing he would return to work in Best Years. In the screenplay, Homer was disabled in some other manner but it was changed to losing his forearms when Wyler met Russell. Russell is the only performer to ever get two Oscars for the same role. He was nominated for best supporting actor but the Academy didn't think he would win so they awarded him an honorary Oscar, citing him for bringing hope and courage to veterans. Then he ends up winning the supporting award as well.
He would only make three theatrical films.
Also making her film debut in a credited role was Cathy O'Donnell. She was under contract to Goldwyn and he found her aura of innocence to be perfect for Wilma and he was right. But two years after the film's release, she married Robert Wyler, William's older brother. But because the director and Goldwyn were mortal enemies by now, Goldwyn sabotaged her career. Interesting that of the 18 films she appeared in, she started and ended with Wyler. Her last role was as the sister of Ben-Hur (1959).
Teresa Wright was perfect as Peggy. She was basically the good girl (never mind that home-wrecking scene) in stark contrast to Mayo who when she wasn't doing musical-comedy, was a great tramp. Another example of being a little too old for the part... Wright was just 13 years younger than her screen mother, Loy.
|Hoagy Carmichael serenading the main cast|
It was always fun to see songwriter Hoagy Carmichael in a movie. Here he plays a bar owner who also happens to play the piano. When Homer asks him if he knows how to play Lazy River, it was an inside joke because Carmichael actually wrote the tune.
It was also a pleasure to see so many character actors used so effectively here. Quite a number would be ones with familiar faces and unknown names. Wyler so was right to employ them to give this film its needed homey feel.
Wyler, always a stickler for details, was more determined than ever to get this one right. Having just left military service himself, his passion to tell this story so that it honored those who served and acknowledged the sacrifices of those at home. Many of his key folks behind the scenes were WWII vets who helped give the film its documentary-style realism. In his quest for a non-glamorous look, Wyler asked his cast to wear their own clothing and to buy outfits off the rack. Cincinnati, Ohio, would do its part in standing in for Boone City.
Featured is a breathtaking array of indoor and outdoor photography as seen through the professional eye of Gregg Toland. He was responsible for the look of such classics as Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, The Little Foxes and the benchmark for all stunning movie photography, Citizen Kane. The look here is another journey through Toland's glittering lens. There are some shots that deserved to be on postcards. Much discussed was his use of deep-depth-of-field-focus photography in which objects both close and far in the same scene are kept in sharp focus.
Seven Oscars were bestowed. The film itself won, of course, as did Wyler for his exquisite direction. In addition to Russell, March copped his second best actor Oscar. Sherwood rightly won for his tender screenplay. Editing and musical score also won. A side note to the music win for Hugo Friedhofer was that Wyler was furious about the win. He wanted Friedhofer's score taken out but was again overruled by Goldwyn. Some sources say the film won nine Oscars instead of seven but the truth is they were awarded two more because of Russell's special Oscar and Goldwyn was also singled out for a special honor.
The crusty New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther chirped at the time... It is seldom that there comes a motion picture which can be wholly and enthusiastically endorsed not only as superlative entertainment but as food for quiet and humanizing thought. In working out their solutions, Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Wyler have achieved some of the most beautiful and inspiring demonstrations of human fortitude that we have seen in films.
In 2007 the American Film Institute declared this was the 37th best film of all-time. Whether that ranking is what it should be depends, I guess, on who's making up the list, but there is no doubt this is one of the great American films and with one of the finest ensemble casts. There was a great deal of chatter about this masterpiece when it was first released. It is decidedly one for movie lovers everywhere.
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