Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Best Years of Our Lives, The (1946)

Director: William Wyler
Starring, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Harold Russell

Academy Award for Best Editing
Academy Award for Best Screenplay (Adapted)
Academy Award for Best Score
Honorary Academy Award for Harold Russell
Golden Globe for Best Picture
Special Award Golden Globe for Harold Russell

After many years of fighting in a war abroad many American soldiers would return home to find themselves battling a new hardship, the readjustment to home altered during the war. This is the focus of the picture produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler, capturing the struggle of servicemen who left home and returned to greatly different circumstances. This passion project is full of heart that shares the strife of “heroes” who return to find themselves hindered for their service time and the emotional struggle of not quite finding a way to fit back into civil life. In the end, it was clearly a demonstrative product that garners great critical praise and features a unique look at outcomes of war.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a drama about three US servicemen who struggle to readjust to civilian life following World War II. Three servicemen from different branches of arm forces befriend each other on their travels home in a small All-American town, each with their own unique need to readjust to civilian life. Al (Fredric March), a middle-aged infantryman, returns to his loving wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) and good position at a bank, but must witness the injustice of servicemen struggling to find opportunities or investments in their war veterans. Fred (Dana Andrews) a decorated bombardier captain, returns to little respect from his young, attractive wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), who has more affection for him as a man of uniform than a civilian. His lack of discernible working skills from before the war and years lost to service keep him from finding a decent paying employment and respect in the work place. Homer (Harold Russell) a naval petty officer with mechanical hooks for hands after losing them in battle, struggles with his self-conscious because of his highly visible handicap, including questioning his relationship with sweetheart fiancée, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell).

Harold Russell, a double hand amputee brought authenticity to the picture's drama.
All three find new lows in what was supposed to be a happy reunion with life at home. Al spins into alcoholism, Fred the struggle for livable work and a divorce from his materialistic wife, and Homer falls into a great depression and consideration of breaking off his engagement. With their intertwined friendships, the three find new beginnings. Fred encourages Homer to confront his fear and marries the loving Wilma, Al family and friends aid in his emotional support, and Fred finds true love in Al’s daughter, Peggy, who truly loves and cares for him for the kind man he is.

Simply put, this picture was one of the more powerful movies of its day. Artfully constructed by one of the industry’s great directors, William Wyler, who had spent the war years working for the United States Army Air Force. Exploring the new issue of servicemen changed physically and emotionally battle, the social shifts in American culture leading to less than familiar reunions, this motion picture presents emotions many may not have understood or have thought of. Masterfully written, telling three distinct stories intertwined to deliver various angles, performed by a cast of renowned actors, The Best Years of Our Lives captures audiences with an emotional feature about the unexpected changes due to war service time.

For years, general audiences have heard stories and seen the glorified images of war from afar while their young men and women were off serving the cause. While at home they were urged to help support the effort by making their own sacrifices including the purchase of war bonds, rationing goods and food, and the reevaluation of the work force and home lives. For US audiences, further separated from the battles in Europe and the Pacific, war must have seemed even more distant. Now with the war won and the boys returning home from the front, people were looking to getting back to normal as soon as possible and are confronted with the issue that normal may never return as they wished.

Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Michael Hall portray the Stephenson family
When producer Samuel Goldwyn was inspired by a Time Magazine article about servicemen returning to civil life, commissioning a possible movie story idea, resulting in the publishing of the novella “Glory for Me,” and its adapted screenplay. Wyler was the ideal director for the job, with his résumé of noted Hollywood features, his most recent Hollywood being the war aware Mrs. Miniver. Following this 1941 picture Wyler served as an Air Force bomber pilot while producing documentary filmmaker for the war department, allowing him to see much of the war up-close. He brought his own experience and eye of a servicemen’s point of view to the production. For the production he made sure the film felt real, having the costume consisting of off the rack clothing and sets built actual size instead of costumes made costume and the more spacious sets common in Hollywood features.

With our three main characters we are presented three different type of men, and actors for that matter. The character of Al was an upper middle-aged man who has ripped from his comfortable life to fight, portrayed by Fredric March, a well-seasoned movie star from long before the war. Here he would win his second Academy Award for Best Actor, his first coming from 1932, portraying a man that saw the injustice for those now hindered by their great sacrifice.

Dana Andrews with Teresa Wright
Dana Andrews is probably the most relatable of their three male leads, portraying Fred, the ill-skilled every-man who makes good in combat, but returns to his lackluster life at home. Representing a great deal of returning men, Andrews was the benefactor of stardom from not serving during the war and becoming one of many new leading men in Hollywood during the war years. His performance as the clear nosed, do-well American male looking for a break resonated with a great many men.

The third leading male character was initially to be about a man suffering from war shock, but with Wyler’s casting of Harold Russell, a double amputee with no acting experience, the character was deepened with a new layer that could be seen, as well as heard. His portrayal of Homer, the all-American teenager athlete that joined the Navy only to return thinking he was now a helpless man, becomes the most sympathetic character in the picture. With Russell’s lack of acting experience, which can be detected at times throughout the feature, his performance becomes a bit more authentic with his lack of refinement. The shock of having a genuine double amputee would grab the attention of any audience, especially in 1946, something you just did not see in a polished Hollywood picture. With his inspirationl performance Russell was honored with special awards by both the Academy and the Golden Globes. On top of that Russell won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, a sentimental victory for the non-professional actor who was perceived as a long shot to win the award. He would be the only performer ever to win two Academy Awards for the same acting performance, his only true acting job as he never focused on acting in the future.

It may be noted that actress Myrna Loy was given top billing for the feature due in part that she was the biggest name attached to the picture. Being one of the Hollywood’s most successful actresses at the time, Loy was a major name to attach to the marquee. The 40-year-old performer had once quit acting to focus on helping with the war effort, making her return to the pictures in 1945 in her successful role in the Thin Man series of picture. This shifty reunited her to audiences, almost as if the actress had never left the business temporarily.

Goldwyn (left) with his Thalberg Memorial Award and Best Picture Oscar. Russell (center) with his two Oscars.
The Best Years of Our Lives opened to all around critical praise, easily becoming the most massively praised picture of the year. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director. On top of that was Harold Russell’s Honorary Award and Samuel Goldwyn receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Award, thanks in part to his prominence from this wildly successful picture. Along with numerous awards the film was a gigantic box office success both in America and the UK, becoming the top grossing picture of the of its time, second only to Gone with the Wind all-time for a short period. It was clear to see that this film’s message was well received by audiences of the post war period and it continues to do so decades later.

The Best Years of Our Lives continues to be noted on many top movie lists and is praised as one of the very best pictures in American cinema. Its emotional story, heartfelt message, and inspiration to those who have sacrificed resonates well beyond the post-World War II era. It continues to remind us that freedom is not free, sadly even well after the battle is won.

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