#199) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
OR “This Civilian Life”
Directed by William Wyler
Written by Robert E. Sherwood. Based on the novella “Glory for Me” by MacKinlay Kantor.
Class of 1989
The Plot: Three WWII servicemen – bombardier Fred (Dana Andrews), platoon sergeant Al (Fredric March) and petty officer Homer (Harold Russell) – all return home to Boone City after the war. Each struggles in their own way to adapt back to their pre-war life. Al returns to his understanding wife Milly (Myrna Loy), but clashes with his employers at the bank about loans for veterans. Fred resumes his strained relationship with his materialistic wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), but finds himself attracted to Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). Homer lost both of his hands in the war and worries how his new prosthetics will go over with his fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell). Some food for thought about life for American veterans, plus Hoagy Carmichael in a key supporting role!
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “[a] moving and personal story” and praises the cast and cinematography. There’s also a detailed essay by English professor and William Wyler biographer Gabriel Miller.
But Does It Really?: “The Best Years of Our Lives” is an all-around fine film. Some of the entertainment value has been lost over the years, and its almost 3-hour runtime can drag in some places, but “Best Years” is expertly made, and the first major film to tackle the problems our veterans face head-on. It’s a wonderful ensemble, aided by a nuanced, grounded script, and photography that I’ll gush about later on. It wouldn’t make my first 25, but “Best Years” deserves to be on here, and still holds its own 70 years later.
Everybody Gets One: Despite a 50-plus year film career and five Academy Award nominations (with two wins), this is Fredric March’s only NFR appearance. Also along for the ride is Hoagland “Hoagy” Carmichael, who composed many a famous song, including “Georgia On My Mind”, “Up the Lazy River”, and “Heart and Soul”.
Wow, That’s Dated: Wartime boarding procedures, swing music, and the lost profession of soda jerk.
Title Track: No exact matches, but Marie does say that she gave up “the best years of my life” during the war.
Seriously, Oscars?: The hit of the year, “The Best Years of Our Lives” led the 1946 Oscars with eight nominations and seven wins, including Picture, Director, Actor for March, and Adapted Screenplay. Harold Russell was not favored to win Best Supporting Actor against four professionals, so the Academy gave him an honorary Oscar instead. When he did win, he became the only person to receive two Oscars for the same performance. This film’s sweep was deserved, but also meant that “It’s A Wonderful Life” went home empty-handed. And we know what that movie’s like when it gets depressed…
- Where is Gregg Toland’s Best Cinematography nomination? There were only two nominees that year, and he wasn’t either of them. See me after class, Academy.
- Perhaps this film’s smartest decision is that we never see what these men’s lives were like before the war. We are right alongside them trying to understand these familiar yet foreign surroundings.
- Homer and Wilma have names that were once commonplace but are now forever associated with cartoon characters.
- And then Al and Milly see each other from across the hallway and I’m crying. We’re only 20 minutes in, but I really felt for both of them in that moment.
- If I were an Oscar voter in 1946, I would have put Dana Andrews on my ballot over Fredric March. No knock against March, who gets more chances to grandstand, but Andrews is the glue that holds the film together. It’s an ensemble to be sure, but Dana Andrews is at the center of it.
- Al is offered $12,000 a year! Laughable now, but that’s about $150,000 in today’s money.
- So retail work has always been a living hell. Got it.
- This film is a waste of Myrna Loy. She nails every scene, but her moments in the spotlight are few and far between. I’m sure she recognized how important this film was going to be, but I expect more from the person with top billing.
- The powder room scene between Peggy and Marie is great to watch. It all happens in one take, provides engaging visuals, and proves my long-standing theory that the women’s restrooms are way nicer. All this being said, I’m pretty sure I saw the cameraman’s arm in one of those mirrors.
- But seriously, where is Toland’s Oscar? There is so much storytelling going on in every shot, thanks in part to Toland’s choice of deep focus. The “Chopsticks” scene alone is worthy of recognition.
- For being a non-professional actor, Harold Russell more than holds his own with his established co-stars. When he’s allowed to be warm and friendly, he’s perfect. When he has to be a little more dramatic, you can sense the assistance from Wyler and composer Hugo Friedhofer. They help carry some of the emotional weight for him.
- You can tell the seismic influence William Wyler’s time in the Air Force had on him. Compared to his earlier war film, “Mrs. Miniver”, “Best Years” is more realistic and far less sentimental. With this film, Wyler argues that the fight to return to the way things were is more challenging than the war itself.
- William Wyler followed this up by directing four more films that would end up on the NFR: “The Heiress”, “Roman Holiday”, “Ben-Hur”, and “Funny Girl”, like you do.
- The film was remade as the 1975 TV movie “Returning Home”. I can’t even find a clip of it on YouTube, so that bodes well for how good it is. Come on, Internet. No one has footage of Dabney Coleman and young Tom Selleck?
- Harold Russell took William Wyler’s advice and left show business to get his business degree from Boston University. He became a public advocate for the handicapped as well as veterans, and didn’t return to screen acting until 1980’s “Inside Moves”. Later in life he sold one of his Oscars at auction to pay for his wife’s surgery. If only crowdsourcing had been invented yet.
Further Viewing: “Diary of a Sergeant” is the 1945 instructional short that brought Harold Russell to the attention of William Wyler. Wyler was impressed with Russell’s natural ease in front of the camera and rewrote the role of Homer to accommodate Russell’s wartime experience.