The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
“Three wonderful loves in the best picture of the year!”
Director: William Wyler
Cast: Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy
Synopsis: Three WWII veterans return home to small-town America to discover that they and their families have been irreparably changed.
William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives marked something of a new high in Hollywood adult drama when it was released in 1946. After four years of gung-ho heroics in which Hollywood lionised the average fighting man, Sam Goldwyn put out this serious look at the real welcome home that awaited the same men after the war was won and all the ticker-tape parades are over. It’s a common theme for a movie, revisited after every major international incident it seems, but although The Best Years of Our Lives wasn’t the first to broach the subject, it was the first to present such a sobering examination. Today, it stands out more for its technical virtuosity than its content, but it still stands as a milestone in Hollywood’s slow journey towards a consistently adult cinema.
The story follows the lives of three servicemen immediately after the end of WWII, who share the journey home in the nose of a plane. Al Stephenson (Fredric March — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, A Star is Born), a sergeant in the army, returns to a life of relative comfort as the newly-promoted Bank Vice-President in charge of small loans. He has a loving wife (Myrna Loy —The Jazz Singer, The Thin Man) and two healthy, presentable children, Rob (Michael Hall) and Peggy (Teresa Wright — Shadow of a Doubt, The Rainmaker), but things have changed — family life has gone on without him, and his kids have grown into young adults. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews — Laura, A Walk in the Sun), a heroic bomber pilot, returns home to his old job as a soda jerk and a slutty young wife (Virginia Mayo — White Heat) he married in haste just before being drafted. The third serviceman is Homer (Harold Russell), a young sailor who has lost both of his hands. Homer’s fears that his loving girlfriend (Cathy O’Donnell) will reject him because of his injuries cause him to push her away, even though she accepts him as he is. Each men find it difficult to adjust to life as a civilian to differing degrees.
The plot of The Best Years of Our Lives is undeniably absorbing and well-written, but is essentially a well-written soap melodrama. While the acting is of a quality you’d expect from a Goldwyn prestige production — even Harold Russell, who lost his hands while training paratroopers in 1944 and had no previous acting experience, gives a passable performance — both Fredric March and Dana Andrews are too old for their roles; actually, that’s not strictly true: Andrews, at 36, was too old to be playing a character who the script suggests is only in his mid-twenties, while March, while arguably in the right age range at 48, simply looked much older. But the strength of their performances mostly overcomes this disparity.
While the melodramatic tendencies of the plot are artfully disguised as high drama by Robert Sherwood’s clever script, the audience’s eye is seduced by Gregg Toland’s crisp, cogent cinematography. Toland’s the one who brought the technique of deep focus into the cinematographer’s toolbox (even though he didn’t actually create it) with his use of it in Citizen Kane, and its use in The Best Years of Our Lives is just as innovative, enhanced by Wyler’s positioning of his actors within the frame so that we are sometimes treated to not two or three but four visual layers. Of course, the topics the movie covers are still as relevant today as they were back in 1946, but the style in which they are examined is inevitably looking a little dated. Nevertheless, Toland’s masterful camerawork still looks incredibly succinct today and always will.
(Reviewed 25th October 2014)