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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
AT THE END of hostilities in the Greatest Conflict in the History of
the World, Hollywood found itself in an all out War Production Mode.
From the beginning of American involvement (and dating to the period
before our Declaration of War), the Studios had done their part in the
area of "Morale Building."
OF COURSE THERE is another word for this particular; a word and practice that is widespread, universally employed by every nation in every time during all wars. In short, the practice is called "Propoganda"; which for some reason continues to take on connotative meaning of something evil. For after all, the word "Propoganda" is derived from the verb "to Propogate; which means "to breed or increase in volume of either plants & animals, or any inanimate objects or ideas."
THAT THE MOVIE Colony did its part in the War Effort truly goes without saying. But, just as the rest of the World would have to readjust itself toward a "Peacetime" Mode; so too would the Movie Studios. But before any state of "normalcy" could be achieved, the chapter about the multi-faceted Global Conflict would have to give way to a Post War, period of "Peacetime". But it is not unreasonable to portray life in transition.
OTHER THAN THE thousands of casualties accumulated during the years following December 7, 1941 to May 8, 1945 ( V E Day) and August 14, 1945 (V J Day), there was much to be considered. What of the walking wounded;being those who bore war caused physical and emotional scars, which they would have to contend with.
THE STORY OPENS up by introducing us to three returning Servicemen' all three headed home to the same town, Boone City; yet all three were strangers to each other, Each man is from a different part of town, a different station in life. The three strangers hitching a ride on board an Army Air Force transport plane are: Army Infantry Sergeant Al Stephenson (Frederick March), Army Air Corps Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Navy Seaman First Class Homer Parrish.
IN ADDITION TO their difficulties in returning to civilian life, the hitch in the Armed Forces of World War II; for each man has experienced the unintentional effects of a sort of social engineering. While being an accidental occurrence, the unrelenting dictates of the highly regimented military life remakes each man into whatever the whatever the War Effort demanded.
HENCE, WE SEE that Al Stephenson (Frederich March) appears to be the gruff,working class, middle-aged infantry sergeant. Back in civilian life, Al returns to his role as a banker, with a wife (Myrna Loy) and two grown children (including Teresa Wright). Al lives in an exclusive hotel residence, complete with all the trappings of wealth.
WHEREAS AL STEPHENSON seemed more gruff and working class, Air Force Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), the guy who appeared to have the most in rank, status,position, etc. As it turned out the fly-boy officer was from the poorest section of blue collar tenements. Adding to Fred's re-entry problems is his quickie marriage to flighty floozy, Marie (Virginia Mayo).
OUR LAST PRINCIPAL, Homer Parrish (portrayed by real life amputee veteran, Harold Russell) has to wrestle with his own inner self in coming to terms with living without his hands, and going on to marry his childhood sweetheart, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell).
PLOT COMPLICATIONS INCLUDE Fred Derry and Peggy Stephenson (Miss Teresa Wright) falling in love. As an act of poetic justice, the very shallow, scatter-brained Marie Derry (Virginia Mayo) announces her intention to seek a divorce; as she goes stepping out with old "friend", Cliffy (Steve Cochran).
EMPLOYMENT TROUBLES, IGNORANT know it all citizens (like the jerk portrayed by Ray Teal) in the Drug Store's Lunch Counter.
AT A RUNNING time of 172 minutes, the film does not seem to be at all excessively long, nor is it ever seem padded out. Nearly 3 full hours transpire, and there appears to be a hopeful, if not exactly "happy ending."
ONE THING IS sure, and that is that after over 60 years of being out there, be it on TV or at a Revival Theatre (such as Chicago's Music Box Theatre on North Southport Avenue), THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES was, and remains one of the greatest films of all time, period!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)' is one of the most powerful war
films I've seen, and yet its story begins after WWII had officially
ended. Too often in cinema, the end of the battle is considered the end
of the war: a sweeping camera movement, an upwelling of stirring music,
the hurrah of victorious soldiers, and suddenly everything is all
right. But war doesn't end when the guns stop blazing, nor when the
politicians put their pens to paper. War lingers for days, months, and
years. Returning veterans, even those who emerged from conflict without
a scratch, faced an uphill battle to reclaim their former lives, having
sacrificed their happiest years in service to their country. In 1946,
the issues faced by war veterans had only just come to public light.
1944 saw the introduction of the G.I. Bill, which allowed ex-serviceman
access to low-interest loans with which to rebuild their lives.
Post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers had previously only been
explored in the film noir 'The Blue Dahlia (1946).'
Three soldiers from different social classes, returning to their home- town after years of conflict, are united in their desire to rekindle their former lives. But things will never be the same as before. Homer Parrish (true-life war veteran Harold Russell) lost his hands in battle, and fears that his faithful girlfriend (Cathy O'Donnell) remains with him only out of pity. Working-class pilot Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) finds that, despite his distinguished achievements in war-time, he still lacks the necessary experience to assimilate into civilian life. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to children he barely recognises, but finds consolation in "the perfect wife" Myrna Loy. The intertwining journeys faced by each of the veterans are often uncomfortable to watch, sometimes shameful and embarrassing, but the overriding message is one of hope: whatever adversities these men must confront, they can be sure to rely upon the support of their family, friends and the grateful United States government.
Gregg Toland's crisp deep-focus photography is excellent, but the major strength in William Wyler's drama are the characters themselves. Harold Russell, who actually did lose his hands in combat, was hand-picked from a military documentary on rehabilitated soldiers, and his performance works so well because it's genuine. Russell is clearly an amateur next to the neatly-balanced dramatics of March and Andrews he even flubs his characters' wedding vows but the emotion is authentic, and his pain heartbreaking. Fredric March won his second Oscar (after 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)') for his role as a banker who lost his commercial hardness in the trenches. A little disappointingly, his character doesn't figure prominently in the film's second half, his role somewhat reduced to that of a vector facilitating Andrews' melodramatic, but satisfying, romance with Teresa Wright. I would have liked the film to have more thoroughly explored Stephenson's detached relationship with his children, but evidently there were time constraints to be considered having said that, though, the 172 minutes flies by effortlessly.
Why is this story so great? Because it is lean and thorough in revealing the numerous layers of personality to our three key characters, piece by piece, which makes them so real in a paced and timely way that sets up scenes to punctuate and surprise as it allows us to fully appreciate the depth of their individual struggles that must be overcome. IT is a great example of character development; portrayal within the given story context; and resolution delivered in a surprisingly believable way. It does this without any violence (except one scene of a man being duly punched); without any overt sex, and without any profanity. Merely the use of human interaction to all the key emotions of personal suffering, tragedy, fear of the unknown, pride, dignity, love and hope, as well as empathy and sympathy framed in the simplest but most memorable locations that harvest such believable dialogue which pulls us along with each of their lives until all three resolutions come together.
It is incredible to believe that tens of millions of 18-35 year old men(single and even many family men) left their home to travel thousand of miles away for many years to fight a war that affected the Continental USA not at all and Europe, Asia, and Africa far more. They gave up jobs(not that it was a booming time), girls, and family to fight and in 400,000 cases die, without complaint and in many cases never living to see what we consider normal life passages. Frederic March looks a little too old to have fought, but his presence and family provides a window into the business and romantic world of the post World War II era. Dana Andrews is a little old but still fantastic as the guy who gets kicked in the teeth but in the end prevails. Harold Russell is as natural as a new snowfall- most people at that time talked in a simple monosyllabic manner. Teresa Wright is magnificent, and I agree with Larry King that the ending kiss is the most romantic ever; probably a function of the time. Everyone else plays their role to a T; Andrew's father and (I guess) stepmother smoking like chimneys while sitting in a shabby apartment reading the citation from General Jimmy Dolittle with their voice cracking is incredible(I imagine that would be like getting a letter from Tom Brady or Simon Cowell now). And don't forget about the airplane graveyard sequence Corny, yes but maybe it was a corny time. If you have a chance please watch this- it is 3 hours well spent. It is hard to believe that EVERYBODY from this movie is dead now.
As a disabled Veteran myself, I can totally relate to this film. I first saw it 3 years ago and cried my eyes out. I have seen it twice since then and have cried every time. I read one comment where somebody said that the war doesn't end on the battlefield and that is so true. For millions of veterans the haunting memories experienced during any war remains with them until they die. I have my own nightmares and flashbacks but feel sorry for those that are worse than myself. This movie needs to be remade with the same realness of the 1946 movie. Updating it to the Iraq war just might bring to light the problems that veterans face trying to readjust to the "Real World" after what they have done and seen. Everybody has to see this movie in order to understand what is being said, and you really need to see it more than once to really understand everything that happened.
The Motion Picture Academy honored the World War II era with Best
Picture honors for films that explored unique perspectives of the war
each year from 1942 through 1946 (with the exception of 1945). In 1942,
it was "Mrs. Miniver", about a family surviving on the home front. In
1943, "Casablanca" dealt with the seedy underbelly of the black market,
and how it was used to transport people persecuted by Nazi Germany to
the United States. In 1944's "Going My Way", it was more indirect; a
young man seemingly goes half-cocked, marries a singer, then leaves for
duty. And finally, we have "The Best Years of Our Lives", a tribute to
veterans and what became of their lives once their tours of duty were
Dana Andrews stars as Fred Derry, a captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps who is returning to his hometown of Boone City. On his way, he meets a sailor named Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) and an infantry sergeant named Al Stephenson (Fredric March). Each man has a different perspective of their home town, as well as unique experiences from the war, even though all three served in the Pacific Theatre. And all three men bear their own scars of the war.
Though, like most films from Hollywood's so-called "golden age", this movie does have a "Hollywood ending", it isn't contrived here. The script by Robert Sherwood works well, and the performances by all the cast not only express the torment of men trying to fit back into their old lives, but also of their families and how they coped (or didn't cope) with them.
This movie is among William Wyler's best, and it would be the second of three Best Picture winners that he helmed in his career ("Mrs. Miniver" and "Ben-Hur" were the other two). It stands as a testament of among the best films Hollywood has to offer. As I have said already, the entire cast worked well together in this movie, one of the best examples of ensemble casting I have ever seen. But I give a special salute to Harold Russell, who plays the disabled sailor who just wants to be alone. Russell never considered himself a professional actor, and he had very few dramatic roles (mostly after 1980), yet the Academy deservedly bestowed him with not one, but two Oscar statuettes for his portrayal of Homer Parrish. I will not mince words here: Russell's performance is quite moving.
"The Best Years of Our Lives" is a film of rare breed. I say this because not many films explored the lives of military personnel after their experiences in war. There have been a few more recent examples, like "Coming Home" and, in a lesser sense, "Courage Under Fire", but this was among the first. It is a moving example of film-making at its best.
A truly fine picture. So good the real question is, where to begin its
praise? First, look at the talent, Wyler as director, a Robert Sherwood
script, Myrna Loy and Fredric March as leads? Right there you have the
'A' team. The results should not be surprising.
The script is just right. Without illusions but without cynicism. It shows hard truths and true love. It is tight and well paced.
The directing is outstanding. The pace and tension of the scenes are spot on. And many of the shots were superb, Wyler getting the camera angle just right, focusing in the key element yet keeping the rest of the scene in play. His control of the lighting is equally good yet so subtle is his command you are hardly aware of it.
The acting is first rate. Like any great movie, all characters gave strong performances, although Myrna Loy and Frederic March were superb. Altogether, even in the smaller characters like Fred Derry's parents or 'Spikey', were perfectly cast. Even Hoagy Carmichael, a professional musician, gave a strong, believable performance.
This is a very fine picture that remains fresh, meaningful and undated to this day. The sensitivity and deftness with which Homer Parrish's lost limbs are handled is itself a great achievement in both art and humanity. It was a good balance of not only the acceptance of his loss by others, but also the acceptance of himself. And his final belief that others saw and accepted him as he was and not what he had lost.
See this film. You won't be disappointed. Only the most callous and hardened heart would fail to appreciate it.
Being "moved" is one thing. Crying might be another. Happiness, et
cetera. But I am convinced that there is a particular physical reaction
that can only be provoked by our best friend and our greatest fear --
the movies. It is that little wobbly apparatus that lays dormant in
your throat until something so pretty, so perfect, and so manufactured
flashes in front of you. I rarely feel it. Rarer still is a tear.
Though there were no waterworks, I got the Wobble twice in my first
viewing of The Best Years of Our Lives, a 1946 film directed by William
Wyler that addresses civilian readjustment for three soldiers after
World War II.
Because the Wobble is so elusive, I am always forced to reconcile it. Impossible is locating a Wobble worthy moment that was not processed, packaged, and delivered precisely for that purpose. Here, there are three noteworthy contributors to the immortality of this film and its undeniable place in any Pantheon. They are Gregg Toland, Hugo Friedhofer, and the performing ensemble.
Toland has been lauded as history's cinematographer par excellence. His contribution to The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, and Citizen Kane is marked legendary and when Orson Welles decided to share his credit card with Toland, it cemented his status forever. People still talk about how he practically invented the deep-focus lens and pioneered many lighting techniques that would one day congeal into something called "film noir." I would never doubt the second and I don't know enough about lens history to argue with the first, but one thing is absolute -- he adapted better than anybody else. His career is littered with plenty duds next to a couple spikes of unreachable perfection. Though, even on marginal pictures like Come and Get It, his photography is unmistakable - not for deep focus - but for the bold contrasts, the intelligent integration of cinematic and emotional mood, and the marvelous employment of natural light whenever possible.
By the time The Best Years of Our Lives rolled around, Toland was secure in his technique and did little to challenge the picture. However, his impeccable style and clarity only required slight adjustment to combine brilliantly with William Wyler's organizational fixation. When Al returns home and so timidly walks into his own home (after ringing the doorbell, no less), he embraces his wife about 20 feet away from the camera, down a long hallway. They are nicely in focus. So are their children standing 5 feet away from the camera. This is to be expected of Toland, but what wasn't expected was the Wobble. By comparing Toland's use of deep focus in this film with something like Kane, we begin to notice how his gift wasn't all in this lens crap, it was in his wisdom of when and how to use it. With Wyler, Toland used the device to synchronize with his organizational instinct and his obsession with neatness. Welles, on the other hand, encouraged deep focus to occupy a component of Kane's megalomania, to follow him down the barrel of the gun. Same method. Two wildly different results.
Friedhofer's score epitomizes Hollywood music at the peak of its restrained decadence. So many refer to this idealized style as "invisible" or "mood music," whatever that means. The truth is, audiences have visceral responses to good musicianship no matter where they hear it. Here, Friedhofer exploits the broad, emotional material by basing most thematic material around a simple, proto-Bernsteinian motive of three notes. We attach ourselves to those three notes and with ample suspension and tension being released at important moments... Wobble. It's a wonderful piece of music that isn't invisible, but a prime component to the visual context.
I forgot to look at who casted this film. In all likelihood it was the studio. Whoever was responsible deserves a pat on the back. So many actors and actresses underacting and underactressing in one place is a beautiful sight to behold. Understatement and repression is baseline and their faces can traverse miles of thought in meditation. The performances control the (ec)static nature of the film, the collaboration is so propulsive. They all contribute to The New Wyler Order and tidy up the scenes with restraint. If you don't pay enough attention, they might fool you into seeing the shadow of Realism, the greatest danger at the Movies. Of course, Wyler needed his Order, his technical and moral exactitude. How else would anything that even tried to question American values sneak past Goldwyn?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Some months ago, a co-worker and I were discussing our favorite movies,
and his happened to be "The Best Years of Our Lives". I had certainly
heard of it before, and knew it ranked highly on the IMDb and AFI lists
of all time top movies. Up till now though, it had remained low on my
radar, but I requested it through my local library system and got a
chance to see it today. The film has to be one of the best ever in
dealing with the return of military soldiers to civilian life,
certainly the best regarding servicemen from World War II. It wisely
stays away from battle scene flash backs to concentrate on the human
drama of three ordinary men thrust back into a world they have to
familiarize themselves with all over again. Their experiences range
from the happiness of friends and family to have them back home, to the
wrenching adjustments they must make individually as befits their
respective situations. Perhaps the most heart wrenching is the personal
ordeal of sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a real life veteran
who lost his hands in an accident while training paratroopers at Camp
MacKall, North Carolina. You would never know Russell wasn't an
accomplished actor of his own accord, and for his effort in the film,
was recognized as the only actor in history to win two Oscars for the
same role in a picture (Best Supporting Actor and an Honorary Award for
bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans).
All of the performances by the principals are uniformly believable and consistent, with Fredric March and Dana Andrews rounding out the wartime trio who hook up by chance for a flight home to Boone City, a fictional city set in the Midwest. Young viewers probably won't believe the visibility offered by the nose of a B-15 bomber, just like I couldn't get over it when I saw the real thing at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. There, the cockpit and nose section of the Enola Gay (actually a B-29 bomber) is on display, and seeing it, I earned an even greater appreciation and respect for the combat fliers who went to war for their country.
Watching the film today, it's surprising how daring director William Wyler was in executing the story. The first example of course was using Harold Russell in a lead role, but you also have themes that were downright shocking in the 1940's. When Peggy Stephenson (Teresa Wright) declares that she's going to cause the divorce of Fred Derry (Andrews) and his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), you can almost hear the gasps of movie patrons back in the day. And even though it's played for laughs, I had to wonder about the scene when Fred and Al Stephenson (March) were bundled up in the back seat of the family car in a drunken stupor. Speaking of which, stay attentive to the scene at Butch's tavern; Al introduces Fred and Homer to his family using each other's names. Of course by that time he was already a bit pie-eyed, so if it was a mistake, at least it was a credible one.
If you never saw the credits for the movie, I think you'd be hard pressed to rank the actors in the story, so good are the performances and the screen time shared by the leads. To my mind, Harold Russell and his story are the standouts, but one could make as good a case for Dana Andrews and his conflicted relationship with wife Marie and the love he finds with Peggy. I'd have to surmise that Myrna Loy and Fredric March are top billed because they were the biggest names at the time, but that takes nothing away from their roles either, ones in which they attempt to rekindle a marriage following the strain of war and separation. You know, there were times that Myrna Loy seemed to have a devilish look in her eye like she was itching to go into a Nora Charles characterization, but had to restrain herself for the more sedate role she had. She probably should have had a scene where she could cut loose, but that wasn't the mission so to speak. You've also got Hoagy Carmichael aboard for a few musical numbers, which leads into the wedding march that helps close the story.
It's hard today to try to imagine the kind of things returning servicemen had to endure returning to civilian life. The story helps set that tone with the men attempting to get back into the work force. I found it to be quite a disparity for Fred to be employed as a soda fountain clerk at $32.50 a week, while Al goes back to his bank with a promotion and a raise to twelve thousand a year, roughly two hundred fifty dollars a week. When Al took sympathy and a chance on a loan for a deserving veteran, it leads to some wonderful dialog about the kind of collateral a man brings to the table, the kind that can't be measured in money and property, but the kind that comes from the hands, the heart and the guts. That's what the true spirit of America was once, and is still if you can find it underneath all the garish headlines and muck that passes for news today. "The Best Years of Our Lives" works because it portrays everyday heroes doing courageous things off the battlefield, where for most of us, that's where it really counts.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What more can be said about this movie that hasn't already been said?
"The Best Years of Our Lives" is William Wyler's masterpiece about
soldiers returning home from World War II, and their struggles to
adjust, along with the struggles of the women they love. Fredric March
won the Oscar for his portrayal of Al Stephenson, an upper-middle class
banker returning home to his lovely wife (Myrna Loy, who actually gets
top billing despite being in a supporting role), good apartment and
job, and two lovely children. Although March does a fine job, he's
actually not at his best here: although Stephenson has been changed by
his war experiences and seeing working-class people, his character's
adjustment is fundamentally less difficult than that of Andrews' or
Russell's characters. March's Al Stephenson is written as if he's being
filmed through a softer lens than the other characters; he doesn't have
nearly the sort of conflict and rough edges that March portrayed
excellently in a whole range of other movies (eg. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde", "A Star is Born", ""Inherit the Wind", and even a lesser movie
like "The Young Doctors").
The Best Actor Oscar really should have gone to Dana Andrews, who puts in a stunning performance as Fred Derry, a man literally from the wrong side of the tracks, who returns home to find that he lacks the skills to fit into the new world. He got married just before leaving for the war to a woman he doesn't really love (in fact being in love with Wright's character), and can't cope with either this or his inability to get a good job, being forced and humiliated into going back to his old job as a soda jerk.
Finally, we come to Harold Russell, who plays Homer Parrish, a navy man who lost both his hands when his ship was bombed by the Japanese. Russell, who had had no previous acting experience, does an outstanding job, portraying both the eternal American spirit of optimism (eg. In his comment about being lucky that he still has his elbows), as well as the conflict of trying to adjust not only to having lost his hands, but to the fact that the people around him treat him differently. Deep down inside, he still loves his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell), but doesn't want to be a burden on her. This conflict creates some of the most heartbreaking scenes in the movie, such as the scene in which Homer's father puts him to bed, and the key sequence in which Homer shows Wilma what she'd really be getting into if she married him.
As for the supporting performances, they're all wonderful, too. Myrna Loy hits all the right notes as the wife Al Stephenson comes home to (and the rest of us would like to come home to); Teresa Wright suitably captures all the emotions in her complex relationship with Fred Derry, from sympathy when he's having a nightmare, to the piteous nature of her intention to break up his marriage ("with an axe", as her father humorously suggests). Virginia Mayo does well as Derry's wife, the nightclub singer who still wants to live a high life despite having a husband who can't adjust; and Cathy O'Donnell plays off Harold Russell beautifully. Finally, Hoagy Carmichael provides light relief as Butch, the piano-playing bar proprietor uncle of Homer.
Gregg Toland handles the cinematography, and once again shows his mastery of deep focus, particularly in one scene where Andrews is breaking off his relationship with Wright via a phone call in a booth way in the background, while Homer, Al, and Butch are at the piano in the foreground; and another scene where Andrews and Wright meet again at a wedding. The only minor quibble I'd have is that sometimes one gets the impression that Toland is doing these scenes just to show off how well he can do deep focus.
"The Best Years of Our Lives" runs some 170 minutes, but it's one of the very few movies much longer than about two-and-a-half hours that doesn't feel as though it could benefit significantly by having scenes pared down. "The Best Years of Our Lives" is one of the ten great American movies, and rates a 10 out of 10.
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