Best Years of Our Lives, The (1946) A
William Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” 1946′s most honored film, received the largest number of awards to date, seven legitimate and two Special Oscars; it was nominated for nine Oscars.
This social drama captured the mood of post-WWII America so effectively that even the harsher critics failed to recognize its flaws. Independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, who released the film through RKO, was inspired by an August 7, 1944 article in Time magazine, which recounted the homecoming story of war veterans.
Goldwyn commissioned MacKinlay Kantor to write a screenplay, which was first published as a book, “Glory for Me,” then adapted to the screen by Robert Sherwood. Released on November 21, 1946, “Best Years” was relevant and timely, as many Americans were still struggling with painful readjustment to civilian life after the War.
In his rave review, the film critic James Agee thought that “Best Years” was “profoundly pleasing, moving and encouraging.” Agee singled out its script, which was “well differentiated, efficient, free of tricks of snap and punch and over-design,” and its visual style, which was of “great force, simplicity and beauty.” Agee found William Wyler’s direction to be “of great purity, directness and warmth, about as cleanly devoid of mannerisms, haste, superfluous motion, aesthetic or emotional over-reaching.”
The movie was photographed by Gregg Toland in black and white, with long shots, deep focus, and crisp imagery. The acting was also superb, particularly by Fredric March, who won a second Best Actor for playing an anguished banking executive and ex-sergeant, who realizes that in his absence his family–and the larger society–have irrevocably changed.
The tale centers on three servicemen, Al Stephenson (March), Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), and Homer Parris (Harold Russell), who return to their hometown. All three, despite variability in social class and position, are still haunted by memories of the War and doubts about their future.
The most touching story is that of the sailor Homer, who comes home to his girl Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) with a pair of hooks instead of hands. Homer was played by Russell, the only nonprofessional in the cast, who lost his hands in training accident while in the service.
Middle-aged Al returns to his old banker job and his loving wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and children, one of whom is played by Teresa Wright, as the sensitive Peggy.
The most cynical subplot concerns Fred, who realizes that in his absence his spouse, Marie Derry (Virginia Mayo), has abandoned him and that he has few career prospects.
“I don’t care if the film doesn’t make a nickel,” Goldwyn is supposed to have said, “I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it.” Goldwyn’s colleagues thought he would lose his shirt, but “Bet Years” proved to be a smash box-office hit.
“Best Years” won the Best Picture Oscar over the British Shakespearean adaptation, “Henry V,” starring Olivier; Frank Capra’s spiritual small-town saga, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart; the stuffy adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” with a miscast Tyrone Power; and the old-fashioned Americana, “The Yearling,” with Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman.
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