Friday, November 1, 2013

The Best Years Of Our Lives (Best Picture 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives is the story of three veterans as they return to their hometown. Fredric March plays Al, the family man with a job at the bank he can go back to but isn't sure he wants. Dana Andrews plays Fred, a younger man with no education or job experience who was trained to drop bombs in Europe and now has no prospects on the home-front. And Harold Russell, an actual wounded soldier and amateur actor, plays Homer, a sailor whose hands were both burned off in an enemy attack. He has no prospects and he has no real will to live, either.
The three characters are introduced to us and to each other as they are all waiting to fly back to their hometown, "Anytown, USA" called Boone City. Al tells us he has a wife of 20 years. Fred tells us he has a wife of "almost 20 days" because they were married just before he shipped out. And Fred has a girl who has waited for him, but he isn't sure she will still want him in his condition. The three share an airplane ride and then a cab. Homer is dropped off first, and his new friends wait to see how he is welcomed. It turns out they had nothing to worry about. Then Al arrives at his home and surprises his family, including his wife Millie (Myrna Loy) and grown daughter Peggy (Theresa Wright). Lastly, Fred shows up at his parents' house, but his wife is not there. They tell him she left their place on the outskirts of town to live in an apartment in the city.  
Al is having some trouble interacting with his family, so he decides to drag his wife and daughter out bar-hopping. Fred spends a few hours trying to find his wife (checking her apartment then searching for a bar where she sings) and then gives up. They all meet up at a bar that Homer had mentioned; he is there already because he is already sick and tired of his parents' pity. The three men get drunk and the two women get a very small dose of what it must have been like for them to be "off duty." Peggy ends up driving Fred to his wife's apartment, but she is still not there so she and her mother take both the drunk men to their (Al's) apartment.
During the night Fred has a nightmare, and Peggy consoles him. The next day Fred finally meets up with his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). She is pleased to see him, but not too pleased to have to give up her night club act, which he insists she do.
Al takes his old job at the bank, but with a promotion and a raise. He is put in charge of all the loans that the bank hopes to give to returning veterans. At a reception in his honor, he drunkenly admits that all the soldiers who come back deserve all that society can give them because of all that they suffered and sacrificed. The bank managers begin to see his point, and he is given a heartfelt ovation.

Fred meanwhile can not find a good job so ends up taking his old job at a drugstore; he's hired in as the assistant to *his* former assistant, who has risen up in Fred's absence. The salary is low and the work is not something he wants to do. His marriage to Marie is also on the rocks, as it is becoming more clear that she was in love with the uniform, not the man inside it. To make it more complicated, Fred and Peggy are beginning to fall in love. Fred doesn't want to make Peggy "the other woman," and doesn't want to stay with Marie, either. When Homer visits Fred at the drugstore and another customer insults him, Fred stands up for his friend. When he is fired he goes home early to find Marie with another man. She tells him she wants a divorce, and he decides to take what little money he has left and leave town. While waiting for the next flight out, though, he comes across decommissioned airplanes on the field. He exorcises some of his war demons, then ends up getting a job with the building company in charge of the junk. He decides to stay.

Homer finally has to face his girl, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) because her parents are telling her to move out of town to get over him. She tearfully asks him one last time what it is he wants from her. In the strongest emotional scene of the film, Homer shows Wilma (and us) his nightly ritual with his amputated hands. It is the most intimate scene I've seen among Best Pictures yet. After Homer bares his stubbed arms to Wilma he explains, "I'm now as hopeless as a baby....All I can do is cry for help." Wilma doesn't reject him, and they cry together as he tells her "I love you" for the first time since he got back.
At Homer and Wilma's wedding Fred tells Al that he and Marie are getting a divorce and that he is staying in town. Al had threatened to fight him to "protect the honor" of his daughter, but Fred assures Al that that would not be necessary. At the very end, Fred and Peggy end up together. 

There's obviously a lot going on in this film! I like the idea of following three different veterans through the film, and they are all good archetypes. For example, Fredric March is older than Dana Andrews, but "Fred" was a bombardier, so he out-ranks the older "Al." Later, after they lose their uniforms and their ranks, Al takes more of a "big brother" tone to Fred, especially when it comes to Peggy. Also, the editing between the three stories is always good; just when you start to get tired of Homer's self-pity, for example, the story switches to Peggy and Fred. And the actors are all wonderful in their roles. I am not surprised to see that Fredric March won Best Actor and Harold Russell won Best Supporting Actor, although I am surprised Dana Andrews wasn't even nominated. Studio politics? Also, evidently the Academy did not think its members would vote for the amateur Russell, as they bestowed on him a special Oscar at the beginning of the ceremony. When he won out-right, he became the only actor to ever win two Oscars for the same role.
The film is fun to watch from a historical perspective, too. Fred comes back from the service and will not allow his wife to work, even though many women had to work and enjoyed working while the men were absent. She is a nightclub singer, and could have kept working except for his male chauvinism. It was interesting to note that his insistence was agreed to, but grudgingly. Things were changing. Also, I noticed that Al and Millie share one bed, not shown in separate beds which are often shown in older films. And when Fred stays over at Al's when he is drunk, when he gets up the next morning the first thing he asks Peggy is, "Where did *you* sleep?" The way she reacts makes me think that I'm not the only one who thought he meant he was too drunk to remember if he had had sex with her. Later, when Peggy confronts her parents about how it's different for her and Fred, Myrna Loy has a wonderful moment telling her daughter that she and her father were not always in love, even though they were married. She explains adult love in a way that I had never heard it explained in a movie before. It was a wonderful bit of writing and acting on her part. It's a shame she was not even nominated for an Oscar for this.
Besides Best Picture and the two Best Actors, this film also won Best Director for William Wyler. There are several scenes that I picked to comment on. First, when the three leads are flying back to Boone City, they are reflected in the glass of the bomber. Later in the cab, they are reflected in the rearview mirror. This is highly detailed work that did not go unnoticed. When Fred and Marie go out with Peggy and her boyfriend, there are several well-staged scenes of the two would-be lovers with their actual partners. And in the ladies' room Marie and Peggy are reflected in the mirrors as they talk about "getting men" in a parallel scene to the earlier scene with the men.

At nearly three hours the film is long; however, it only feels long in a few isolated scenes. Sure, it's a product of its time, but its message is valid and well-done. Overall it is one of the best, most entertaining films I've ever seen.
The Best Years Of Our Lives
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1946*
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Directed  by William Wyler
Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood

This is an interesting trailer, as it mentions several of the scenes and complications that I wrote about. However, it doesn't feature Harold Russell at all. I wonder if Studio people thought audiences wouldn't want to see a movie about a crippled veteran? Or maybe it's to make his handicap all the more dramatic when he appears? As I say, it's interesting...!
Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Henry V
It's A Wonderful Life
The Razor's Edge
The Yearling
I have never seen The Razor's Edge, although I have heard of it. I have a buddy who loves the book, so he probably loves the film, too. Anne Baxter won Best Supporting Actress for her role in this. And I know of the Bill Murray re-make in the Eighties, but I never saw that one, either. I did see The Yearling as a kid and hated it because it was such a tearjerker. And I have heard of Laurence Olivier's production of Henry V but have never seen it. This was not his and Shakespeare's year, and I'll leave it at that. And as much as I love It's A Wonderful Life, The Best Years Of Our Lives is the better film.

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