IMDB #188 The Best Years Of Our Lives

We're getting very familiar with war at this point, but today we explore what happens afterward for the first time in the postwar classic The Best Years Of Our Lives.

A Best Picture winner (and six other Oscars besides), it was the hugest success since Gone With The Wind back in 1946 (we're talking like Shrek-level money). Will it live up to the hype? And at a staggering 2:42 in length, will I stay awake the whole time?

The Key Players:

When William Wyler isn't making romantic comedies, he makes really long epic-type movies.

The film focuses on three soldiers, played by Frederic March, a multiple Tony and Oscar winner (A Star Is Born, Inherit The Wind); Dana Andrews (Laura, The Ox-Bow Incident); and Harold Russell, who never any other major roles for reasons soon apparent.

In support are screen legend Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, once again playing a small-town sweetheart.

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The Story:

Three GIs return home to Boone City, a midwestern town in an unamed (I think?) state. Al (March) is a middle aged sergeant returning to a life as a banking executive with a family. Fred (Andrews) is a younger soda fountain clerk who had just married when he shipped off. And Homer (Russell) is a pink-faced sailor who unfortunately lost both hands in an explosion at sea, though he's handy as all get out with the hook protheses that replaced them- Harold Russell was a real-life veteran amputee, a non-professional actor that lost them in a training accident.

There are some joyous but awkward reunions to start: Al's family, including his wife Millie (Loy) and grown daughter Peggy (Wright) are overjoyed to see him, but he's edgy and decides to take them out on the town. Fred can't find his wife, who's found work at a nightclub downtown. Homer's family and young fiance are happy to see him, but have trouble treating him regularly- either staring at his prothetics are obviously avoiding looking.

Fred runs into Al and co. out on the town (Boone City somehow has a remarkably happening nightlife), and both soldiers end up so plastered that Millie and Peggy take them home and put them to bed. In the morning Peggy makes Fred breakfast and gives him a ride the work, the two seeming to get along well.

Al goes back to work, but approves a risky loan for a fellow veteran to his boss's chagrin. Later he gives a rousing, half-drunk speech at a dinner in his honor about the future of the country and his willingness to bet on it (or something). It's a small wonder he doesn't get fired.

Fred meanwhile, is falling for Peggy they share a chaste kiss, but her father and Fred's conscience intervene to call it off- even though Fred's wife is a shrill, materialistic woman that he realizes he hardly knows.

And Homer starts to push Wilma away in self-pity and despair. Fred gets fired from his reclaimed soda-fountain job, and Al starts drinking all the time. What's a soldier to do?

The Artistry:

I have to say, I started the film, and a little later checked the length- 2:42! What? No way could I watch it all in one sitting.

Or so I thought. Afer a slow first hour or so, the mechanics of The Best Years Of Our Lives really picks up, owing especially to the love triangle and Russell's strong performance- one the Academy saw fit to reward with an honorary Oscar, even though he was up for Best Supporting Actor.

The chemisty between Wright and Andrews might have been my favorite part- it's one of those rushed romances that might be hard to buy (like when boring detective guy falls for her in Shadow Of A Doubt), but their energy together sold it for me. And the film doesn't go out of its way to paint his wife as a shrew- he forces her to stop working, so her complaints about his lack of income are pretty legit. They're just not right for each other. The moment when Wright tells her parents "I'm going to break that marriage up!" I totally pumped my fist- that seems like a bold thing to get an audience to root for in 1946 after all. Consider the deathly seriousness that A Brief Encounter treated the very idea of infidelity with a year earlier.

March and Loy have a fittingly complex relationship, but you can see why they'd love each other- there's a great scene where they explain to their daughter how much loving someone can be a struggle when she claims they've had it easy all their lives.

And I have to mention Gregg Toland's cinematography- there's a standout scene near the end when Andrews relives flying in a bomber that simulates a takeoff with camera-movement that stands out- though Hugo Friedhofer's score helps immensely- when it's not being typically 40's bombastic.


Al keeps drinking, but measuredly- Wilma gets it through Homer's think skull that she loves him no matter what, and Fred's wife up and divorces him.

He runs into Peggy at Homer's wedding, and it ends with a kiss. Aw.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Higher. Not emphatically, but I liked it a lot more than I would've guessed. It's not an extensive psychodrama (PTSD wasn't a commonly accepted disorder until post-Vietnam), but it has elements of that "never the same again" feeling (I think the title is supposed to be ironic), and it's a compelling drama on its own.

The Legacy:

Seven Oscars: Picture, Director, Editing, Score, Screenplay, Actor (for March) and Supporting Actor for Russell- who with the honorary took home two for the same role. Also NFR, AFI, and so on, not to mention box office reciepts that would be plus $400 million in today's money.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

"I've made up my mind."
"To do what?"
"...I'm going to break that marriage up!"

Leftover Thoughts:

-Not clear to me why Virginia Mayo (Andrews' characters' wife) is on the poster despite being the smallest role in the ensemble.

Coming Up...

Tue, June 1st: 187. The Exorcist

Fri, June 4th: 186. Kind Hearts and Coronets

Tue, June 8th: 185. Children Of Men

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