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The Best Years of Our Lives [1946 film]

by William Wyler (Director), Robert E. Sherwood (Screenwriter)

Other authors: Dana Andrews (Actor), Hoagy Carmichael (Actor), MacKinlay Kantor (Original novel), Myrna Loy, Fredric March4 more, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O'Donnell, Harold Russell (Actor), Teresa Wright (Actor)

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1133211,439 (3.75)4
Recounts the problems faced by three returning veterans of WWII as they attempt to pick up the threads of their lives. Captain Derry is returning to a loveless marriage, Sergeant Stephenson is a stranger to a family that's grown up without him, and sailor Parrish is tormented by the loss of his hands.… (more)

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Fredric March – Al Stephenson
Dana Andrews – Fred Derry
Harold Russell – Homer Parrish

Myrna Loy – Milly Stephenson
Teresa Wright – Peggy Stephenson
Virginia Mayo – Marie Derry
Cathy O’Donnell – Wilma Cameron
Hoagy Carmichael – Butch Engle
Gladys George – Hortense Derry
Roman Bohnen – Pat Derry
Ray Collins – Mr. Milton
Minna Gombell – Mrs. Parrish
Walter Baldwin – Mrs. Parrish

Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood, based on the novella Glory for Me (1945) by MacKinlay Kantor
Directed by William Wyler

Black and white. 173 min.


This movie was not at all what I expected. I expected (how stupid our expectations can be!) a sappy and tedious melodrama that pretends to be “inspirational” and “profound” without being either, something very much like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Not even close! There is little melodrama here, and even that is handled in a cool and mature way. In theory, a three-hour movie about three war veterans trying to cope with their civilian lives ought to be a slow and dull affair, not to mention badly dated in our progressive and gloriously peaceful times. In practice, the picture is anything but that. The script is a masterpiece of storytelling and characterisation, the cast is beyond praise to the last cameo, and Wyler’s direction makes the best of both. Only a few bits on the surface are dated. Everything else is timelessly relevant.

The only fault of this movie I can think of is Myrna Loy’s top billing. She is magnificent as the middle-aged wife of a damaged war hero and so are the younger members of the female cast whose characters must cope with similar predicaments. Even a non-actress like Virginia Mayo, perfectly cast as a bimbo with a cleavage bigger than her brains, gives a memorable performance. All the same, the movie belongs to the leading male trio. Scene after scene with these guys is nothing short of engrossing. They cover quite a range from light comedy full of harmless fun to stark drama tottering on the edge of tragedy. No matter how difficult the scene, they pull it off. I really can’t think of a single moment that falls flat.

Fredric March is, for me, one of the greatest actors of all time. I expected him to be fabulous as a frustrated banker who can hardly recognise his family after a few years of service. But he surpassed even my expectations. I do think he deserved the confounded Oscar more for his work in Man on a Tightrope (1953) and Middle of the Night (1959), both obscure movies for which he was not even nominated, but this role is one of his masterpieces, too. Al Stephenson is no ordinary war hero but a real, complex, complicated human being. One can be amused at his binge drinking in the beginning, but his meddling in his daughter’s affairs later is inexcusable. On the other hand, here is a man who actually learnt something about human nature in wartime and is ready to put his knowledge to a test in his civilian work. March is brilliant at all fronts. Watch out for the scene with the farmer asking for a loan and, a little later, the closely related meeting with the boss and the Collateral Speech at the dinner:

There are some who say that the old bank is suffering from hardening of the arteries and of the heart. I refuse to listen to such radical talk. I say that our bank is alive, it’s generous, it’s human, and we’re going to have such a line of customers seeking and getting small loans that people will think we’re gambling with the depositors’ money. And we will be. We will be gambling on the future of this country. I thank you.

This is fine writing. But it sounds far better coupled with terrific acting.

Dana Andrews is hardly less impressive as an ex-pilot suffering from PTSD and a stupid wife. I have seen a good deal of Andrews lately and I have come to regard him as an excellent, and sadly forgotten, actor within his fairly limited range. He was riveting as the public prosecutor in Kazan’s neglected masterwork Boomerang! (1947), but he is even better here. In fact, his is the most moving performance in the whole movie. Fred is a very decent and likeable guy who gets a very raw deal. He earned $400 a month in the Air Force, but he cannot keep a job even as a soda jerk in peace time; depressing situation, but he takes it pretty well. It’s a tough part that requires real acting, including the ability to project quiet intensity and resist the histrionic way out. Andrews is impeccable. He receives wonderful support from Teresa Wright (remember her in The Men with Marlon Brando?) in one of the most touching and least cringeworthy romances I can recall in a movie. Watch out for their hilarious encounter at the perfume stand and the rather more serious sequel at the parking lot.

Harold Russell, no actor at all but a real war vet who lost both of his hands, either played himself or was a raw talent of rare magnitude. He is jolly adroit with those hooks. Lighting a cigarette or signing his name is no problem for him; he can even play the piano four hands (two hands and two hooks, as it were). But he cannot button up his pyjamas. The two scenes in which Homer prepares to go to bed, once assisted by his father and once by his future wife, are among the most poignant ever put on the screen, and without the dubious benefit of lachrymose tirades. Harold Russell is also lucky with his lady (the superb Cathy O’Donnell), but it’s up to him to convey Homer’s good nature defeating the horrible affliction. He succeeds beyond all expectations. He fully deserved his double Oscar, one for Best Supporting Role (beating no less than Clifton Webb in The Razor’s Edge) and one honorary for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”. It is shameful that he is not even present on most movie posters.

It is hardly necessary to praise William Wyler, or the deep focus photography of Gregg Toland. If the latter makes the movie uncommonly beautiful to look at, I suspect the former has more than a little to do with the understated acting which keeps the whole thing from veering into sentimental hokum. Purely as a director, Wyler is not easy to beat, either. Note, for instance, the famous scene with Fred at the plane graveyard: visually striking, but no gratuitous spectacle; sharp insight into Fred’s character, yet, again, without any self-pity. An even better example is the crucial meeting between Al and Fred at Butch’s. Note how the camera moves towards the piano while keeping both of them, Al in the foreground and Fred in the background, in the frame. This is what I call great storytelling, great eye for detail, great grasp of character or, in short, great direction. The movie is full of such examples, most of them far more subtle than this one. But it would be tedious to describe them, and it would do no justice to Wyler’s organic and flawless work.

In short, if you haven’t seen The Best Years of Our Lives yet, you have missed something very special. Go see it. Now. Then again, this might be unwise if you listen too much to the masses.

What a shame this movie won seven Oscars at the time but today cannot even qualify for the august Top 250 of IMDb. Exactly the opposite happened with the vastly inferior It’s a Wonderful Life: it failed at the time but today is in Top 30. This only shows that the people today prefer sickly and superficial melodrama to genuine drama that probes far deeper in a far less obvious way. So much the worse for the people today! ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Jun 1, 2020 |
Three World War II veterans return home to small-town America to discover that they and their families have been irreparably changed. (IMDb) ( )
  DrLed | Nov 4, 2017 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wyler, WilliamDirectorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sherwood, Robert E.Screenwritermain authorall editionsconfirmed
Andrews, DanaActorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Carmichael, HoagyActorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kantor, MacKinlayOriginal novelsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Loy, Myrnasecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
March, Fredricsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mayo, Virginiasecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
O'Donnell, Cathysecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Russell, HaroldActorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Wright, TeresaActorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Recounts the problems faced by three returning veterans of WWII as they attempt to pick up the threads of their lives. Captain Derry is returning to a loveless marriage, Sergeant Stephenson is a stranger to a family that's grown up without him, and sailor Parrish is tormented by the loss of his hands.

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