3 Things I Love About THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

Harold_RussellConfession: I was bored and unmoved the first time I watched THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.

Before you start penning your hate mail, I was in my early twenties at the time, and my idea of a “war film” was BUCK PRIVATES (1941), the 84-minute Abbott and Costello romp in which the draft looks like an invitation to musical comedy summer camp. All the guys are in spiffy uniforms! The Andrews Sisters sing! And free cigarettes for everybody!

Good news: my taste has matured in the last two decades, along with my hairline and waist size (not such good news on the latter two, but whatever). Today, William Wyler’s Academy Award-winning tale of World War II vets coming home to a changed world is high on my list of favorite movies of all time. It’s certainly one of the most important films of the Studio Era; a groundbreaking masterpiece that is both anti-war, but devoutly respectful of the men who fought.

Ironically, what I didn’t like about THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES as an uninformed young punk are the things I most appreciate about it as a slightly-more-informed forty-something punk. I was reminded of this when I watched the new Blu-ray from Warner Bros, released under license from the Samuel Goldwyn Company.

dana-andrews-teresa-wright-best-years-of-our-lives1. The Length. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES clocks in at 172 minutes, far longer than the most films of the 1940s. Twenty years ago, I found the film overly long and – may Robert Osborne forgive me – almost impossible to get through. Today, at the end of the film, I feel like it’s not long enough; I want to spend more time with these characters, to be further immersed in their lives. The protracted running time allows screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood (working from MacKinlay Kantor’s novel Glory For Me, commissioned by Goldwyn) to fully explore the lives of our three protagonists: men at different stages of life, united by a common bond of service and vulnerability.

In the opening minutes we meet the returning heroes on their way back to the fictional Mid-Western metropolis of Boone City: middle-aged platoon sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a banker coming home to a wife (Myrna Loy), a grown daughter (Teresa Wright) and a college age son (Michael Hall); Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a decorated Army Air Forces captain and bombardier welcomed back by the two-timing temptress (Virgina Mayo) he married during training; and Homer Parrish, a high school football star who lost his hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk, but hasn’t yet told his childhood sweetheart (Cathy O’Donnell, in her first role).

Cast2. The Pacing. “These scenes go on forever!” I remember thinking, the first time I watched. As someone who spent his first decade as a classic film fan almost exclusively watching peppy comedies, I found Wyler’s pacing entirely unfamiliar. Today, this is perhaps my favorite aspect of the film, as each moment is allowed to develop with a sense of unrushed, organic naturalism. Favorite examples: the lengthy sequence in which Al drags his good-natured wife and daughter on a bar-hopping bender the night he returns; Derry’s visit to the aircraft “boneyard” where he recalls past glories and horrors; and Homer’s awkward welcome-home party, which includes a beautifully-composed, nearly two-minute-long wide shot. Like the film’s many other deep focus tableaus from cinematographer Gregg Toland, this shot of Homer’s family and prospective in-laws is both homey and horrifying.

harold russell & hoagy carmichael - the best years of our lives 19463. Scenes That Are Hard to Watch. Speaking of horrifying, I found every scene with Harold Russell exceedingly difficult to watch when I was young. And not surprisingly, the trailer included on the Blu-ray doesn’t even mention the character, or the actor, preferring to sell the film as, “The love story of today that will live with you through all your tomorrows!”

Shame on me and shame on the Goldwyn or RKO marketing department, because the Canadian-born Russell, who enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor and lost his hands in an explosive accident, gives one of the most distinctly memorable performances in classic film. Wyler never seeks to minimize Russell’s real-life disability; rather, he highlights it at nearly every opportunity. The director discovered Russell in an Army training film and was struck by how unaffected he was on camera. Oscar voters felt the same way about his work in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, awarding Russell both a Best Supporting Actor statuette and a special Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans,” two of the nine Academy Awards the film received.

armsRussell often outshines his far more experienced co-stars with an unadorned performance that sets the tone for every other actor. Despite his ninth billing, this is Russell’s film, and Wyler makes that clear early on with a scene in which the three men travel home together, and Homer uses his hook hands to light the soldiers’ cigarettes. Later, he defends the War and his fellow servicemen to an isolationist loudmouth who blames American involvement on “Limies” and “Reds.” And finally, in the film’s most enduring sequence, he brings his girl to his bedroom to demonstrate how he removes his prosthetic arms before bed each night. It’s a sequence that made me cringe as a young man, but one that I find today to be extraordinarily powerful, and more heartbreakingly romantic than many love scenes. And once again, Wyler and Toland shoot it in a simple, realistic style, with much of the action staged in a wide shot in a low-ceilinged room.

dana andrews & virginia mayo - the best years of our lives 1946Many of the scenes that made me uncomfortable years ago involve the depiction of the abject vulnerability of these men: Homer’s shame at his disability; Derry’s struggles with what we now call PTSD; Al’s desperation to make a difference in his post-war life. Today, as a mature adult who faces my own daily struggles, I treasure these scenes for their honesty. I can only imagine how healing they must have been for returning soldiers, each encountering their own demons.

The Warner Bros. Blu-ray, released on November 5, features a pristine, restored transfer that makes the Samuel Goldwyn production look better than it has since its original 1946 release by RKO. (Since I wasn’t there, this is obviously an informed assumption.) The single disc includes no commentary track, and the special features are limited to a trailer, a ninety-second intro to the film from Virginia Mayo, and a seven-minute interview with Mayo and Teresa Wright, originally recorded in the 1990s and ported over from previous releases. (Mayo and Wright died within months of each other in 2005, and the date of recording is not indicated on the clips.) One note: Warner Home Video also released the film on DVD in January of 2013, and that version appears to be an earlier, unrestored transfer. That same transfer is included in the Best of Warner Bros: 100 Film Anniversary Collection DVD box, also released in January of 2013.

Finally, Turner Classic Movies will present the theatrical premiere of the restoration of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES at the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival in April. I’ll be there, anxious for a chance to spend more time in Boone City.

Best

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)
Distributor: Warner Home Video
Format: Blu-ray
Quantity: 1 disc
Aspect Ratio: 1.37.1 Full Frame
Release date: November 5, 2013
Special Features: Theatrical trailer, Introduction by Virgina Mayo, Interview w/ Virginia Mayo and Teresa Wright

poster-best-years-of-our-lives-the_021

About willmckinley

Will McKinley is a New York City-based writer, producer, reporter, radio host, and #OldMovieWeirdo. He’s been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by host Robert Osborne), Sirius Satellite Radio and the official TCM podcast. Will has written for PBS and Slate and his byline has appeared more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News.
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28 Responses to 3 Things I Love About THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

  1. kimalysong says:

    I tend to not like long movies but this is definitely an exception to that rule. I am actually surprised there were never more “coming home from war” films but I suppose it would be hard to beat this one. A richly deserved Best Picture winner.

    • willmckinley says:

      Kim, I don’t like long movies, as a rule, and I usually don’t like war movies, especially ones that are heavy on combat. What makes THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES so powerful for me is how the war is so strongly felt, but never shown. And you make a great point about other “coming home” films. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES did huge box office. Why weren’t there more films like it?

  2. Elise says:

    Am I wrong or is the cover art, from the wedding scene, toward the end of the movie? Seems odd a nice girl like Wright would wear red to a wedding. I always pictured that dress pastel pink. Why do they colorize the covers??? So annoying. But glad you are enjoying this movie now, Always one of my favs.

    • Not only did they colorize the cover-photo, but I don’t remember Fred wearing a military uniform to the wedding (others correct me if I’m wrong here.) I think this is dramatic license to show ‘war film’ & ‘love story’ on the cover.

      • Elise says:

        You’re right. He wore a regular suit in the wedding. Whatever….

      • willmckinley says:

        Also, he makes that speech to Virginia Mayo about not wanting to wear the uniform anymore. But can we talk about the chemistry that Mayo and Andrews have? It’s way hotter than his chemistry with Teresa Wright, in my opinion.

    • willmckinley says:

      Elise – Isn’t it interesting that everyone complains about colorizing movies, but nobody complains about using colorized pictures to sell a movie? Why do they put a color picture on a box? Because they think it will sell better. That’s dishonest, I think.

  3. Excellent write-up, Will.

  4. Peter Gong says:

    Excellent, Will. I saw this as a young person–my teens. However, I loved then and grew more in-love with it more now. I must have been a very strange teenager; well, I was in art classes and literature and languages. The scene that is the most effective for me was when Al came home through the door and he had the kids hushed up. And instinctly Myrna Loy’s character knew it was HIM–she stopped and turns; well, my eyes were wet with tears. This is the movie that most played during Memorial Day.

    I cannot wait to see it at the festival with an audience to have communal experience of this film in the darken theater. The joys, the horrors, and the tenderness that is life after a war. What happened when Johnny came marching home. I thought this was Dana Andrews definitive role of his career as Fred Derry outside of his star-turning role as Mark McPherson in Laura.

    Thanks for the heads up. I shall check it out again.

    • willmckinley says:

      Peter – Trust me, I was a strange teenager too! I think many classic film fans were. I think the difference for me was, I grew mostly on classic TV and movie comedy, which is a totally different pace. I watched a few dramatic films with my father – THE AFRICAN QUEEN jumps to mind – but those were the exception, not the rule. As for long dramatic films, I had no interest.

      I’m excited to see it at TCMMF. I think the group emotional experience will be extremely powerful.

      I also love Andrews in LAURA, but actually prefer him in WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, where he is a bit more of a villainous hero.

      Thanks for commenting.

  5. Max Fraley says:

    Will, Thanks for your assistance in filling my bill for the 2014 TCM Festival. Hope there are plenty more of that quality and vintage scheduled to be available for viewing.

  6. Vienna says:

    Great review. Thank you. What a thrill to see it on a cinema screen.
    It really is a perfect film.

    • willmckinley says:

      Thanks Vienna. I’m really looking forward to seeing it at the TCM Film Fest. This is the kind of movie that cries out (no pun intended) for a group viewing experience. I suspect there will be lots of Kleenexs at work during that screening.

  7. This is one of themovies that I watch each decade…why every ten years? Because of everything you just said about the movie…my psyche couldn’t take it to watch it more times than that…

    • willmckinley says:

      Sandi – Yes. It’s an emotionally exhausting film, especially if you allow yourself to be truly immersed in it. I actually find it easier to be immersed when watching a Blu-ray than I do with a TV broadcast. With a Blu-ray you’ve bought the thing specifically to watch a certain movie, and, perhaps most importantly for me, there are no other people watching and commenting on-line to distract me.

  8. Thanks for the review of the film and the DVD, Will. I’m looking forward to see this in a packed house at the 2014 TCMFF. There won’t be a dry eye in the house throughout much of the film.

  9. I didn’t say this in my biography of Dana Andrews but many years ago, before I ever thought of writing about him, I also thought the film was too long and plodding. I think some younger viewers might still think so. But Wyler knew what he was doing, producing, in effect, a novel on film.

    • willmckinley says:

      Carl, thanks for the comment. Do you think Wyler would have been given the freedom to do that if he had made the film for a major studio? Or do you think working with Goldwyn allowed him to take risks he wouldn’t have been able to elsewhere?

      • Goldwyn was not easy to work with. He could be as interfering as the major studios. One reason he was an independent was because nobody wanted to work with him. But he made the decision early on that the Best Years of Our Lives was going to be his crowning glory. So in that sense Wyler probably did have more latitude. I don’t recall Goldwyn every complaining about the length of the film, for example, although he and Wyler had plenty of argument while doing other pictures. Wyler wanted to show Dead End in the slums of New York. Goldwyn refused permission. He said he could build a “very nice” slum for Wyler on a Hollywood lot.

  10. When I shared this film with my daughter during her teen years I could sense her watching it with an air of “doing mom a favour”, but could see Wyler working his magic and drawing her into the story of the lives of these people. At the movie’s end she looked at me with bright eyes and simply nodded before leaving the room. A movie that truly deserves to be known as a masterpiece.

  11. “Confession: I was bored and unmoved the first time I watched THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.” Same here, Will. Same here. However, after reading this, I should definitely give the film another go.

  12. The first time I saw this movie I thought it became too melodramatic towards the end. However, when I watch it now, I wouldn’t change a thing. Such a marvelous film.

    My favourite scene is when Dana Andrews visits the plane “graveyard”. I think he is perfect in this scene, and Wyler’s direction is extraordinary. In fact, I think it’s one of my favourite scenes, period, of any film.

    I like what you said about Harold Russell. He really brings soul to the film. We know the others are actors (and very good ones) but Russell makes us believe this story.

  13. Lisa Mateas says:

    A great appreciation for a great film, one of my favorites. Such honesty, with all the characters evolving — learning, loving,maturing — over the movie, with the civilians catching up with where the soldiers had ended up after being in combat. A very different mindset, more human, more forgiving, more adult, was their destination. I think this is a tremendously “adult” movie in that it depicts very complex man-woman relationships that require going beyond the typical norm. What a tremendous movie, with wonderful roles for everyone and all of them done to perfection. And who can forget Hoagy Carmichael, being the piano philosopher and prophesizing humanity’s inhumanity? It’s amazing that Sam Goldwyn backed off enough to let them create this masterpiece.

  14. Great write up! I’m not ashamed to say that I cry every time I watch this movie (same with “To Sir WIth Love”). I do remember thinking, the first time I saw it, that the airplane graveyard scene was too long. Now, I’m with you – I want it to go on. I know you know (having read your post) how difficult it is to choose what to see at the festival. I don’t think I’ll be missing this one.

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