One of the most powerful films ever made about coming home from war
The power of cinema lies in its ability to affect us, and “The Best Years of Our Lives” is one of the most deeply moving films ever made. Produced just after World War II ended, this brilliant saga about three veterans who return from the war struck such a heartfelt chord with audiences, it quickly became the highest grossing film of the year, cinema’s second biggest moneymaker at the time (topped only by "Gone with the Wind"), and the highest-grossing film of the 1940s. Winner of seven Academy Awards including Best Picture (plus an eighth nomination), this film is as aesthetically artful as it is touching. The American Film Institute named it the 11th Most Inspiring Film of All-Time and the 37th Greatest. Movies really don’t get much better than this.
The film starts as WWII has ended and Air Force Captain “Fred Derry” is trying to get a flight back to his midwestern hometown of Boone City. This former soda jerk became a decorated captain who served as a bombardier, and he is returning home to “Marie”, a girl he met and married while in training in Texas less than 20 days before he left for combat. While waiting to get home, he meets Naval Petty Officer “Homer Parrish”, also waiting to get to Boone City, who was stationed below deck in a repair shop on a ship that was bombed and he lost both his hands. He was given mechanical “hook” hands and as he says, “They trained me to use these things. I can dial telephones, I can drive a car, I can even put nickels in a jukebox". He’s headed home to his family and intended fiancée, “Wilma”. The two soldiers board a B-17 bomber headed for home, where they find Army Sergeant “Al Stephenson”, who saw action during the war in Japan. A former banker, "Al" is returning to"Milly", his wife of over twenty years, their daughter “Peggy”, and son “Rob”.
The entire opening is, for me, one of the most moving beginnings in any film, and is indicative of what makes this film so powerful. Nothing happens per se as we watch these three men meet and fly home, yet what they say and don’t say has us empathize and identify with them and their tremendous apprehension about going home. There’s the casual conversation when “Fred” tells "Al" he feels the same as when he flew off to war, that it’s “just nerves out of the service I guess”. To which “Al” responds, “The thing that scares me most is that everybody’s gonna try to rehabilitate me”. “Homer” explains that everyone back home knows about his hands but "they don't know what these things look like... ‘Wilma’s' only a kid. She's never seen anything like these hooks”. And when the other two are asleep, there is a dramatic closeup of “Homer” looking out the window as tears well in his eyes. For a film dealing with emotions, “The Best Years of Our Lives” is surprisingly simple and understated, making everything much more real, honest, deeply touching, and incredibly powerful. Because we are completely invested in these three characters, the film’s two hours and fifty minutes fly by before you know it.
Not only has the war changed these men, but it also changed the home front, and “The Best Years of Our Lives” revolves around their readjustment to returning home. “Fred”, who was a high-ranking officer with an important job in the war, struggles to find work and realizes he married a woman he barely knew. “Al” returns to find a family he doesn’t recognize and a world that doesn’t understand the plight of veterans. And in spite of his disability, “Homer” longs to be treated like everyone else. As we watch them cope with bewilderment, embarrassment, pain, bitterness, and courage in adjusting to peacetime life, the film turns into a stirring statement about love and hope. There is no doubt it is the greatest film Hollywood produced about the psychological aspects of returning from war to civilian life, and it hits such truths about humanity it continues to resonate today, whether you're a veteran or not.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” was a blockbuster hit in the US and abroad, and the challenges faced by “Fred”, “Al”, “Homer”, and their families gave hope and comfort to a post-war world and nation, serving as a microcosm for issues millions were experiencing at the time. Even so, tackling the aftereffects of returning vets was controversial and the film was considered a very risky prospect. Many thought that after the war people wouldn’t want to be reminded of it, and that by the time the film would be released, soldiers would already have readjusted to civilian life. In spite of being warned by many not to make this film, one man stood by it and made it happen. That man was producer Samuel Goldwyn.
When Goldwyn’s wife Frances ran across a 1944 article in Time magazine about the embarrassment and fears felt by a Marine Division returning home, she thought her husband could make a film about it. Originally opposed to the idea, after persistent urging from Frances, Goldwyn gave in and commissioned writer and war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor to write a treatment for a screenplay based on the Time article and his own war experiences, giving him complete freedom. The result was a novella “Glory for Me”, written in blank verse, along with a treatment of it for the screen. Goldwyn then asked playwright, screenwriter, and three time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert E. Sherwood (who was wounded serving in World War I) to adapt "Glory for Me" into a screenplay. Sherwood signed on to write it, but then had second thoughts, as seen in a letter to Goldwyn on August 27, 1945 in the book "Letters from Hollywood": “I should recommend to you that we drop it. This is entirely due to the conviction that, by next Spring or next Fall, this subject will be terribly out of date”.
But Goldwyn convinced Sherwood the idea was a good one, that veterans will be returning from the war for the next several years, and that approaching the story from the civilian point of view and with humor could make it an important film. Sherwood conceded and Goldwyn steered him in the right direction, telling him (as quoted in A. Scott Berg’s “Goldwyn: A Biography”) “I don’t want you to think of this as a Hollywood picture. I want something simple and believable”. It took Sherwood three months to write, and Goldwyn promised him the film would be shot exactly as written with no ad libs, additions, or deletions. Sherwood won a Best Screenplay Academy Award for “The Best Years of Our Lives”, his only Oscar win (he earned a previous nomination for writing Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”).
Goldwyn also took home an Oscar for Best Picture as the film’s producer, and was additionally awarded the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award Award for a body of work that reflected a consistently high quality of motion picture production. "The Best Years of Our Lives" is considered his crowning achievement in a long and illustrious film career.
Polish-born Samuel Goldwyn was one of the founding movie moguls of Hollywood. He began as one of the partners of the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, and made 1913’s “The Squaw Man”, regarded as the first feature-length film shot in Hollywood. That studio later became Paramount Pictures, though Goldwyn only remained on its board of directors. He then formed Goldwyn Pictures in 1916, which later merged and became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924 – and though he’s the "Goldwyn" in MGM, he was not involved with that studio. In 1923, he established his own production company, Samuel Goldwyn Productions, which made films and released them through other studios and distributors. Rather than churning out film after film like other studios, Samuel Goldwyn Productions generally made one film a year using the best talents and spending as much money and time as needed. Known to be ambitious, bad tempered, often making comical malapropisms (which came to be known as “Goldwynisms”), having an eagle eye for talent, and known for making quality films, Goldwyn had the most successful independent Hollywood producing career in film history.
In addition to his Oscar wins for “The Best Years of Our Lives”, Goldwyn produced seven other Best Picture Oscar nominated films (”Arrowsmith”, "Dodsworth", "Dead End", "Wuthering Heights", "The Little Foxes", "The Pride of the Yankees”, "The Bishop's Wife”). In 1957, he was awarded the Academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his outstanding contributions to humanitarian causes, and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1971. Other films from the 140 he produced include "The Hurricane", "Stella Dallas", "These Three", "Ball of Fire", "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", "Guys and Dolls", and his final, 1959’s "Porgy and Bess". He was married twice (his second and final marriage to Frances lasted nearly fifty years until his death). His son was film producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr., and his grandchildren include actor, producer, and director Tony Goldwyn, and film producer John Goldwyn. Samuel Goldwyn died in 1974 at the age of 91.
In 1936, Goldwyn put film director William Wyler under contract (occasionally loaning Wyler to other studios), and they made many great films together, including "Dodsworth", "Wuthering Heights", and "The Little Foxes”. Between 1942 and 1945, Wyler volunteered in the US Army Air Force, became a lieutenant colonel and directed war documentaries ("The Memphis Belle", "The Fighting Lady", and "Thunderbolt"). Wyler put his life at risk to make these films, flying on actual combat bombing missions over enemy territory, passed out at one point from a lack of oxygen, and suffered auditory nerve damage from all the loud noises while on a one-seat fighter plane rendering him nearly deaf (with partial hearing returning only to one ear with the help of a hearing aid). When he returned from the war, Wyler had one more film to direct under contract to Goldwyn and “The Best Years of Our Lives” was it.
Wyler’s direction in “The Best Years of Our Lives” is exquisite. You can immediately witness it's power from the slow and steady pace in the opening, created by lengthy shots of the three men crammed in the nose of the plane casually interspersed with shots of the clouds and land below, against the steady hum of the plane’s engine. It feels like real time, and creates a quietly intimate mood that sets the tone for the entire film. And Wyler continues to include a multitude of details to reinforce a feeling that these are real people in a real world, such as having them share a cab and look out the windows at everyday life for the first time, or a quick knowing giggle between mother and daughter when they say goodnight to each other after the eventful evening when "Al" arrives home. It’s powerful stuff.
Because of his war experience and injuries, Wyler knew this material firsthand, which helped him tremendously. As he said in Berg’s “Goldwyn” biography: “I knew my subject. I learned it the hard way and… somehow when you get personally involved in the story, something gets on the screen that makes it human and real and improves the picture somehow, and you can’t put your finger on what it is, you know, but it’s the director’s personal involvement”. His exceptional work won Wyler a Best Director Academy Award.
After ten stormy years working together, as soon as he finished “The Best Years of Our Lives", Wyler never worked with Goldwyn again. He joined forces with Frank Capra and George Stevens and created the short-lived Liberty Films. A five-picture contract with Paramount Studios followed, after which Wyler went independent. “The Best Years of Our Lives” is often considered Wyler’s crowning achievement, which speaks volumes for a director who was nominated for twelve Best Director Academy Awards and two for Best Picture as a producer, and who directed many classics, including five already on this blog, “The Heiress”, “Funny Girl”, “Roman Holiday”, “Mrs. Miniver”, and “Ben-Hur”. You can read more about the life and career of William Wyler in those posts. Just click on the film titles to open them.
Greatly helping shape and beautify Wyler’s vision is cinematographer extraordinaire, Gregg Toland. Considered by many to be the best cinematographer in Hollywood history (and one of the greatest in the world), Toland’s compositions and lighting help create and maintain mood even in the simplest shots. Take the routine shot of “Al” coming home for the first time. He gets off an elevator and walks to his apartment door. But Toland’s perspective and lighting in showing the door down a shadowy hallway, makes the door seem ominously far away. The composition has us experience “Al’s” nervous apprehension. It's restrained and expert use of cinema, artfully compelling the audience to feel.
And Toland’s speciality with deep focus (keeping the fore, middle, and backgrounds in focus at the same time), lets us see action and reactions all at once and choose where we look in the frame. Used many times, it is most evident in the extraordinary shot in “Butch’s” bar when “Fred” gets up from the table and goes to call “Peggy” from a phone booth way in the back of the frame while the fore and middle ground action continue to play out. It is stunningly exciting cinema. You can read more about the incomparable Gregg Toland in my posts on “Citizen Kane” and "The Grapes of Wrath".
Filled with stars, “The Best Years of Our Lives” has an ensemble cast and everyone gets at least one moment to shine. That certainly includes top-billed Myrna Loy, who gives one of the best performances of her career as “Al’s” wife, “Milly Stephenson”. Her first scene, reuniting with “Al” is overwhelmingly moving. Though Loy is perhaps the most restrained actress I can think of, if you pay attention, she allows truthfully rich and complex emotions to seep out. If you watch the tearful look in her eyes as “Milly” sees “Al” for the first time in years, Loy somehow expresses the pain of being apart, her love, caring, and concern all at once, while uttering lines such as “I look terrible” and “Are you alright?”. In an instant her face shows all the years of married life, unstated love and hardships. This film, which thrives on subtext, is perfectly suited to Loy’s talents. Dubbed "The Queen of Hollywood", Loy was a top international movie star in the 1930s, and from her roles (particularly those opposite William Powell in "The Thin Man" series) she earned the moniker "The Perfect Wife". And as "Milly", Loy is the perfect wife and mother. Her portrayal earned her a Best Supporting Actress Award at the Brussels World Film Festival.
Loy was the biggest star in “The Best Years of Our Lives”, and Goldwyn and Wyler weren’t sure she’d accept such a small role, especially one playing the mother of a grown daughter (she was only twelve years older than Wright, who plays her daughter). But as Loy said in her autobiography “Being and Becoming”, “Those things didn’t trouble me at all. The story had won me in synopsis form – even before he [Goldwyn] had Bob [Sherwood] expanded my part into a beautifully realized character”. Knowing of Wyler’s reputation for doing incessant retakes and often being sadistic towards actors, she had reservations about working with him, but they had a fantastic working relationship which shows onscreen. This film lead the way for more peak performances from Loy, most notably in "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer" and "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House". You can read more about the wonderful Myrna Loy in my post on "The Thin Man". Be sure to check it out.
Starring as “Technical Sergeant Al Stephenson” is Fredric March in a bravura performance of extraordinary range and truthfulness. Though devoted to his job and family, “Al” has trouble relating to them after having served in the war. He turns to alcohol to cope, easing his way back by taking “Milly” and “Peggy” with him on a drinking binge the night he arrives. There are many colors in March’s performance as he expresses a myriad of emotions with words flying naturally from his mouth. He is completely genuine, with what feels like a mountain of sadness sitting just below the surface, whether speaking to “Fred” on the plane about going home, giving a speech at a banker’s banquet while inebriated, or lovingly embracing “Milly” as she brings him breakfast. His exquisite work won him a Best Actor Academy Award.
One of the most highly respected and acclaimed actors of his time, March’s Oscar win for “The Best Years of Our Lives” was his second, as he previously won a Best Actor statue for 1931's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde". He was a very respected leading man during the 1930s, going back and forth between films and Broadway into the 1940s. "The Best Years of Our Lives" saw his return to the screen after starring in a couple of Broadway shows, and it marked a change in his film career from romantic leads to character parts. He is often regarded as one of the greatest actors of his time. You can read more about the life and career of the ever so talented Fredric March in my post on “A Star is Born”.
Dana Andrews gives another of the film’s beautifully rendered performances as “Captain Fred Derry”, Andrew’s vulnerability, charm and genuine emotions make watching this decorated war hero's struggle with his wife, work, and trying to maintain dignity, heart wrenching. And that includes the film’s most famous scene, when “Fred” visits an airplane graveyard and sits in the nose of a B-17 bomber and realizes that like the airplanes, he is no longer important and is discarded. Andrews is not overly dramatic, but comes across as a real human being in very dramatic circumstances. His performance, and that moment is just one example of the countless moving moments that flood this film.
Mississippi-born Dana Andrews grew up in Texas, and while at a University studying business, he appeared in a play and his teacher told him to think about a career in theater. So after a year in a business career, Andrews hitchhiked to California to pursue singing and acting. He studied opera for five years and performed as an actor at the Pasadena Playhouse in 25 plays, which lead him to be signed by Goldwyn (who shared Andrews’ contract with 20th Century Fox). Andrews made his film debut in 1940's "Lucky Cisco Kid", and continued to appear in small and supporting roles in films such as "The Westerner", "The Purple Heart", and "Ball of Fire". He stood out in 1943's "The Ox-Bow Incident", and found stardom with the 1944 classic noir "Laura". A major leading man of the 1940's, many of Andrews’ best films and roles came during that decade, topped by “The Best Years of Our Lives”.
With the 1950's, Andrews' career began to wane, as did the quality of his films. He continued in film, on television (since in 1958), and sporadically on stage, and became especially known for appearing in film noir and for playing emotionally tortured characters. His other films include "Where the Sidewalk Ends", "Fallen Angel", "State Fair”, "Curse of the Demon”, "While the City Sleeps”, “Boomerang!”, and his final, 1984's "Prince Jack”. Andrews struggled with alcoholism for much of his adult life, and after he became sober in the late 1960s, served on the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and filmed a public service announcement on the subject in 1972. In the 1970s, he also began to work in real estate. Married twice, his first wife died a few years after their marriage (the same day she gave birth to their child, who also died), and his second marriage was to actress Mary Todd in 1939, to whom he remained married until his death. Andrews' brother was actor Steve Forrest. Dana Andrews died in 1992 at the age of 83.
Teresa Wright is captivating as “Al” and “Milly’s” daughter “Peggy Stephenson”, who falls in love with “Fred”. "Peggy" goes through an emotional ride, and Wright delivers each emotion with clear, authentic, and infectiously bittersweet feeling, such as when she tells her parents they forgot what it's like to be in love during a fit of anger and upset, or tenderly comforting "Fred" with concern when he has a nightmare, or falling in love with him while sitting in a car. She is always genuine and filled with a winning youthful spirit.
Like Andrews, Wright was under contract to Goldwyn, who discovered her. Her first film was Goldwyn’s "The Little Foxes”, directed by Wyler and shot by Toland, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Her second film, "Mrs. Miniver”, earned her an Oscar statuette, followed by a third nomination for her third film "The Pride of the Yankees" (making her the only performer to receive Academy Award nominations for their first three film performances). Wright appeared in four Goldwyn films, and shortly after starring his 1948 film “Enchantment" which flopped, he dropped her contract. Though a very talented actress, like Andrews, the 1940s contain the best films and roles in her long movie career. You can read more about the life and career of Teresa Wright in my post on "Mrs. Miniver”.
Yet another actor under contract to Goldwyn in “The Best Years of Our Lives” was Virginia Mayo, who plays “Fred’s” wife, “Marie Derry”. Known for her beauty and for appearing in comedies and musicals (often as eye candy opposite one of Goldwyn's biggest stars, Danny Kaye), her role as the money hungry "Marie" was Mayo's first dramatic film foray, and it established her as a serious actress. She is deliciously wretched, wants "Fred" to keep wearing his uniform, often looks in mirrors, fixes her hair, or figures out the sexiest way to wear a Parisian scarf. And then there's her powerhouse scene in the Ladies Room, where she talks a mile a minute about money to “Peggy" while applying lipstick and powdering her face. Mayo's physicality and superficiality let us know exactly who this broad is in all her despicable glory. It’s a sublime performance.
While making "The Best Years of Our Lives", Mayo was simultaneously filming Goldwyn's comedy, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" opposite Kaye. Another Goldwyn-Kaye-Mayo film followed, the 1948 musical "A Song is Born". Shortly after, Warner Brothers took over her contract from Goldwyn and Mayo became one of Warner's biggest box-office moneymakers. You can read more about the life and career of Virginia Mayo in my post on "White Heat". Please check it out.
A standout in “The Best Years of Our Lives” is the performance of Harold Russell as Petty Officer 2nd Class "Homer Parrish”, the sailor who lost both hands in the war. In Kantor’s novel, the character of “Homer” returned from the war as spastic, having convulsions and drooling. Worried how that would look in a movie, Wyler and Sherwood visited veteran's hospitals to better figure out the character of "Homer" for the film. Wyler then remembered seeing the Army documentary "Diary of a Sergeant", which featured a sergeant who lost both hands during the war and was fitted with and taught to use hooks for hands. Taken by the man’s positive attitude towards his disability, Wyler thought he’d be great for "Homer". The man was Harold Russell. So Sherwood altered the script for "The Best Years of Our Lives" to make “Homer” a double amputee, just like Russell.
Russell is sensational in his simplicity, and his presence alone can’t help but pull at one’s heartstrings. We know in some way Russell feels, has felt, or will feel like “Homer”, as he faces all the same challenges. And from the start, Russell brings humor and strength to “Homer” when he has to fill out a form and because of his hooks someone says “I’ll do it for you”, to which “Homer” smilingly jokes, “What’s a matter? Think I can’t spell my own name?”. Russell has a sweet sincerity at all times, including all his interactions with “Al” and “Fred”, when angrily frustrated at being gawked at by kids, or in the emotional scene trying to let “Wilma” know what it would be like to live with him and his disability. Russell’s powerful performance earned him a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, making him the first non-professional actor to win an acting Oscar. And because the Academy didn't think he'd win, they also awarded him an Honorary Oscar for "bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans through the medium of motion pictures", making him the first and only performer in history (thus far) to win two Oscars for a single performance.
Canadian-born Harold Russell grew up in Massachusetts, and worked in a food market. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted and became an Army instructor. While training paratroopers at Camp MacKall in North Caroline, TNT exploded in his hands, causing him to lose them both. The Army gave him hooks and trained him to use them. He then studied business at Boston University, where he was approached to be in the "Diary of a Sergeant" documentary. Wyler loved Russell's unaffected acting style, and when he heard Goldwyn was sending him for acting lessons, stopped Russell from attending them. Russell appeared in two more movies (1980's "Inside Moves" and 1997's "Dogtown") and two TV shows ("Trapper John, M.D." in 1981 and two episodes of "China Beach" in 1989). After "The Best Years of Our Lives", Russell did much work with veterans, serving three terms as National Commander of AMVETS, as vice-president of the World Veterans Fund, Inc., and as chairman of the President's Commission on Employment of the Handicapped. He wrote two autobiographies, "Victory in My Hands" in 1949, and "The Best Years of My Life" in 1981. He was married twice. Harold Russell died in 2002 at the age of 88.
A mention of one more actor under contract to Goldwyn who briefly appears in “The Best Years of Our Lives”, and that’s Steve Cochran who plays “Cliff”, “Marie’s” friend. He began acting in films in 1945, and “The Best Years of Our Lives” was his seventh film appearance in less than two years and “Cliff” was a role inline with Cochran's being typecast as a sexy bad boy. Like Mayo, Warner Brothers took over his contract from Goldwyn around 1949, after which he began to appear in large and leading roles (often as villains). If you’re watching the films on this blog, he should be a familiar face, for he had a prominent role in the 1949 gangster film noir “White Heat”, and you can read more about the life and career of Steve Cochran in my post on that classic.
Along with Oscar wins for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay, "The Best Years of Our Lives" also won Academy Awards for Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell) and Best Music Score (Hugo Friedhofer). Gordon Sawyer was nominated for Best Sound, but didn't take home a statue.
Because Wyler wanted to generate a feeling of realism, he instructed costume designer Irene Sharaff (who you can read about in my "Meet Me in St. Louis" post) not to design costumes for the actors, but instead take them to department stores where their characters would shop and have the actors wear the purchased clothes for a few weeks before filming began.
The Motion Picture Production Code was in place at the time of this film and they wanted changes made, including a new ending. But Goldwyn would have none of it, and decided to release “The Best Years of Our Lives” the way he wanted it, and that’s why you may notice some unusual situations and lines of dialogue for a Hollywood film made while The Code was in place, including the fact that “Al” and “Milly” share the same bed (you can read more about The Code in my “Red Dust” post).
Another interesting aspect of “The Best Years of Our Lives” is how it gives insight into post-war America, with scenes touching on rising fears about the Cold War, class issues, women’s roles, and opposing views about the war which someone in the film calls “Americanism”. It’s a fascinating look at 1940’s America, and surprisingly still relevant.
A fantastic classic that is often overlooked today but should not be missed, this week’s film is assured to surprise, inspire, and fill you with emotion. It’s one of Hollywood’s truly great creations. Enjoy “The Best Years of Our Lives”.
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