1940s, 4/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, Review, William Wyler

The Best Years of Our Lives

Born of William Wyler’s desire to help tell the stories of the men he served with when he filmed from a bombardier during WWII, The Best Years of Our Lives is a tender, heartfelt, and honestly quite beautiful look at combat servicemen readjusting to civilian life. Telling the story of three men coming back to their small midwestern city, one of whom is played by a non-professional actor, William Wyler showed his extreme cinematic acumen in every frame, using his command of framing to effectively tell the emotional tales. This is one of the best movies that the Academy decided to award Best Picture.

Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Al Stephenson (Fredric March), and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) fly home from the war in the same military aircraft. They’d never met before that flight, and they bond over their shared combat experiences and hometown. The most obvious wound they’ve come back with is Homer’s hands that were lost while serving on a naval vessel and have been replaced by hooks, which he has become very adept at using and also obviously very self-conscious about. They return home to their families. Fred has his club singing wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) whom he can’t find the first night. Al has his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and children, most notably Peggy (Teresa Wright). Homer has his parents and the girl next door, his girl Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell).

The film is the story of how the three men learn to readjust to the lives they knew. For Fred, that’s a hard adjustment in several ways. He was a soda jerk before the war where he became a captain and bombed cities. His wife married him because of his uniform, and there’s early and obvious tension between them as he wants to adjust, isn’t entirely opposed to a more modest lifestyle, but she very much is. She had lived well on his salary while he was flying combat missions, and the idea of having to eat in instead of out angers her. Things get complicated on the first night when Fred meets Peggy, the bright, innocent, and pretty daughter of the man he just met, and through the drunken fog there emerges a connection, especially when Fred spends the night, has a nightmare intimately tied to his combat experiences, and Peggy calms him down.

I must say that I’m really surprised that this film passed the Hays Board. There’s blatant drunkenness, especially with Al who is probably just a straight up alcoholic (an interesting contrast to The Lost Weekend from the year before), and there’s a lot of heavily implied infidelity. I mean, there’s the dialogue between Rhett and Scarlett in Gone with the Wind that’s kind of unmistakably sexual in nature, but masked, and then there’s the heavy implications that Fred and Al cheated on their wives in the war (Marie directly accuses Fred of it at one point) while Marie cheated on Fred while he was away.

Al’s issues stem from his going back to the bank he had worked at before the war. He’s given the small loans department, in particular around the GI Bill’s efforts to get loans to veterans. He has to balance his fiduciary duty with his desire to help build up the men whom he served with, even if they hold no collateral. This comes in the form of a conflict with his boss when he approves a six-thousand dollar loan to a former serviceman who wishes to start a farm but has no security to balance out the risk. But, Al saw in the man the kind he could rely on, and that was good enough for him even if it wasn’t good enough for his boss and Al had to fight for it.

The surprising emotional core of the film is Homer. Pushed to the side for long stretches as the drama around Fred, Peggy, and Al (once he finds out about the affection between the two younger people), Wyler perfectly uses the non-professional actor, Harold Russell. Homer isn’t called to many large moments, though the scene where he pushes his hooks through some windows at a few gawking kids counts (though that’s accomplished more with the violence of the action rather than his performance). However, the performance he delivers is a quiet, wounded one. In the face of love from his family and girl, he can only recoil. The only people he’s comfortable around are his fellow servicemen and his uncle, Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) who teaches him a routine on the piano of his bar. He has the best scene in the film when he finally breaks down and reveals his truly vulnerable physical state to Wilma, showing how he can remove his hooks but can’t get them back on. Wilma still accepting him afterwards is one of the most affecting things in the film, and Russell plays the moment small. It’s not a grand moment of ACTING. It’s a small moment of emotional truth, and that was surely done at the behest of Wyler, knowing exactly how to use him.

The largest plot thread is the nascent romance between Fred and Peggy, and it’s where the most interpersonal drama is. Another mark in William Wyler’s favor is how he managed a good performance out of noted plank of wood Dana Andrews. It’s not the best performance in the film or anything, but it’s solidly good as he navigates his unloving wife, his burgeoning love for another young woman, while also trying to figure out how he’s going to manage to make a living in the world he’s returned to. There’s an obvious degradation when he has to return to his old job as a soda jerk, his former assistant now his boss, a guy who never went to war himself. The rupture between Fred and Marie is harshly blunt as the opposition between what Fred can deliver and what Marie wants comes into stark contrast and cannot be denied.

At 170-minutes, the film is a long one, but it never feels it, which is kind of amazing when you consider the type of film it is. It’s a character-based drama without much of a plot. So, it’s not a series of fast paced events, quick cut to give it energy. Wyler films in a lot of long takes, and we intercut between three stories of men going through similar journeys. And this is a fantastic example of how Wyler uses his preternatural ability to fill a frame expertly and effectively. The standout example is the scene in Butch’s where Al tells Fred to stay away from Peggy. Fred disappears into the background to use the phone near the entrance while Homer plays on the piano with Butch and Al listens, but Fred is always in the corner of the frame using deep focus. There are many more examples of Wyler’s ability to fill a frame, keeping characters precisely but naturally positioned so that they stay in focus and in shot while allowing different dynamics to play out. Crowd shots, in particular, are really well handled with it never difficult to identify the key characters within the crowds, done with subtle lighting and positioning that slightly highlights the characters we should be focusing on while tending towards turning all other characters’ faces away from the camera as the key characters’ faces tend to be faced towards the camera. That requires real precision, and it’s a great example of how Wyler was able to make such sophisticated visual experiences.

The quiet emotions of men rediscovering really their humanity after a time of war, returning to a place that hadn’t seen the ravages of conflict and the people who might not be able to understand but want to help despite that gap, is what really makes The Best Years of Our Lives fly. Finding consistently strong performances from veteran actors like Fredric March and Myrna Loy to less experienced ones like Teresa Wright and, in particular, Harold Russell, William Wyler expertly crafted a restrained but emotionally rewarding tale of adjustment and assimilation back into the civilian world. It’s not easy, and not everyone can do it well, but these are still men, wounded men, who must find a way.

It really is a great film.

Rating: 4/4


6 thoughts on “The Best Years of Our Lives”

  1. All time great Hollywood movie, although I get the feeling not many people feel that way, it never makes any of those type of lists. One great scene after another. Also interesting is how it captures, presumably, the attitude towards the returning servicemen – Thanks for winning the war, now get to work.

    You are a little tough on Dana Andrews, I think he’s turned in some good performances. Check out Canyon Passage some day.

    Here is Billy Wilder if you haven’t stumbled over this quote before.

    “This is the only thing I’ve ever seen where the picture started and three minutes later I was dissolved in tears, and I cried for two hours plus after that. That was the opening sequence in The Best Years of Our Lives. The moment that that guy without his arms was standing there with the back to the camera and the parents came out, I was gone. And I’m not a pushower, believe me [pause] I laugh at Hamlet.”

    Billy Wilder

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It doesn’t get highlighted that much that way, does it? Of course, it’s in the middle of William Wyler’s filmography, and that guy has Ben-Hur to his name. It’s going to get overshadowed, unfortunately because The Best Years of Our Lives is a quietly devastating little film that stands very proudly among the other Best Picture winners, Wyler’s filmography, and film of the time (and any other time).

      I have added Canyon Passage to my IMDB watchlist. I’ll keep my eyes out for a copy, but at least I won’t forget the recommendation.

      I’d never seen that Wilder quote before, and it’s wonderful. Wilder was a mixture of a cynic and a romantic, and it’s nice to see what could really open up his heart so fully.


      1. Canyon Passage is out there on Daily Motion, maybe not the ideal way to watch it, don’t know if they do those random pop up ads the way YouTube does.

        Liked by 1 person

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