Film Friday: William Wyler's 'The Best Years Of Our Lives' – An important look at life after war

By Daniel S Levine,

The Best Picture winner of 1946, the Samuel Goldwyn production of The Best Years Of Our Lives, remains as important today as it was then. It may have been made after World War II, but the story of veterans returning to a life much harder than they ever imagined is still relevant. Some try to rekindle a marriage put on hold by years of war. Another tries to find a steady job with his limited skills. And another deals with the pain of losing limbs.

The Best Years of Our Lives is the story of three veterans, who are each dealing with these problems and finding it hard to adjust back to civilian life. Al Stephenson (Frederic March), a sergeant in the Army, comes home to find his children grown up and wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), with a whole new set of friends. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), who flew bombing missions in Europe, discovers that the drug store he worked at as a soda jerk is under new management and will pay him next to nothing for his old job. Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor who lost both hands, sees his parents' and girlfriend's troubled reactions to his disability. The three veterans meet on the plane back to Boone City and stay friends, frequently encountering each other.

This is an epic of a different kind and one that only director William Wyler could pull off. As the second of his three Best Picture winning films (Mrs. Miniver [1942] and Ben-Hur [1959]), The Best Years of Our Lives is the best example of his work. A three-hour film with no action set-pieces, no battles or explosions may seem like a dull idea, but his direction makes this film a breeze to sit through.

It is an emotional roller coaster, thanks partly due to the wonderful acting Wyler brings out. One of the strengths of the Golden Age of Hollywood was the ability to have a great performer in every role, no matter how small and Best Years has stars in every role. Theresa Wright, who won an Oscar for Mrs. Miniver, brought charm to the role of Al's daughter, who falls in love with the married Fred. She's authentic in the role – we can see the pain and confusion in her throughout the film without dialogue. Virginia Mayo, who was best known for her comedic roles with Danny Kaye, gives a wonderful performance as Fred's wife. Never has a gold-digging wife been so annoying, especially when she's digging at someone who doesn't have any gold.

There's no way to discuss this film without touching the importance of the performances by the three leads. Frederic March, who won his second Best Actor Oscar for this film, proves why he is one of the best of his generation, even if we unfairly don't remember him well today. He has to do much in this film, playing everything from the drunk to the stern father to a romantic lead trying to fall back in love with his wife. March doesn't necessarily dominate scenes, but he fits in so well with his co-stars and knows how to play off them.

Dana Andrews was somehow not nominated for an Oscar, but he does well as a younger man who excelled as a bomber and yet can't get a job at home. His best scenes are with Mayo, of course, as they yell at each other, like a real couple under pressure. Andrews remains an underrated film star from the 1940s. If you only know him from Laura, his gutsy performance here is a revelation.

Harold Russell makes up the last of Best Years' trio. He was not an actor and some of that inexperience is visible throughout the film. Still, a real actor would have to act as someone dealing with a disability. Russell really lost his hands in the war and even though he is playing a character, it's impossible not to feel that he did have to go through the same issues as Homer.

One of the most important scenes in the film – and the one that secured Russell his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor – is the scene in the drugstore with a buffoon who dares to question this country's reasons for fighting the war. It must have seemed jarring to audiences to see someone do that less than a year after it ended and it still seems crazy. For a veteran to hear that, it must be even worse. Fred slugs the guy, but not until after Homer gives a stirring speech.

On Home Video: Many Samuel Goldwyn films are finally becoming more easily available on DVD and Blu-ray recently because Warner Bros. picked up distribution of the Goldwyn library last year. Thankfully, The Best Years was released on Blu-ray. The only bonus material is two short, old interviews with Mayo and Wright, but it's still wonderful to see this movie in high-definition. It's never looked this good.

The Best Years was the biggest box office smash since 1939's Gone with the Wind and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture (Goldwyn); Best Actor (March); Best Supporting Actor (Russell); and Best Director (Wyler). The film also earned two special awards. Goldwyn won the Irving G. Thalberg Award for his overall contribution to film and Russell won an award for being an inspiration to veterans.

There's a case to be made for The Beast Years Of Our Lives as one of the finest movies ever made. It is still one of the most important films about the experience of veterans when they come back from fighting. As long as veterans continue to struggle at home, The Best Years Of Our Lives will remain relevant. This is a movie that reveals more with each viewing and is the best of what Hollywood could do in the 1940s.

You can talk about this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

image: Amazon

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