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.
1. 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).
2. 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.
3. 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.
Russell 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.
Many 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.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)
Distributor: Warner Home Video
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