The Best Years of Our Lives – An Appreciation

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I’ve been wrestling with this realization for a while now, so I think I need to just come out and admit it.

The Best Years of Our Lives is my favorite movie.

It wasn’t always this way, which is why this confession is so difficult. For the last decade or so, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) has held the top spot, and for that time it’s been pretty much immovable. But no more. After re-watching Best Years afresh last a couple of weeks ago, I’m ready to come to terms with the idea that Wilder’s romantic dramedy – which, make no mistake, is a magnificent movie and should be seen by everybody – has been usurped. Times change, people change, and I guess I’ve changed. All things must pass away.

I’m not really sure how this happened. The first time I saw William Wyler’s 1947 masterpiece (also about a decade ago) it didn’t make much of an impression. It was just after I had gotten hooked on classic movies (somewhere in my late teens/early 20s) and I was trying to fill as many gaps in my knowledge of the established Hollywood canon as possible. This was a Best Picture Oscar winner and highly regarded, so I figured I should see it sooner or later, but at just under three hours and with no real action to speak of it felt like something to be endured rather than enjoyed. And sure enough, this story of World War II veterans struggling to adjust to life at home didn’t grab me immediately like some of my favorite classics – say, the Hitchcocks or the Wilders – and never spurred the kind of passion they did.

And then something funny happened. Years passed and something about it stayed with me, something I could never quite put my finger on, and whenever I remembered it I felt a kind of warm affection. So I watched it again, and again, probably three or four more times over the years. And every time it grew deeper and more resonant, to the point where just thinking about it was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Watching it again recently on blu-ray, it finally dawned on me. This is my favorite movie and I’m not ashamed of it. The truth has set me free.

With this year’s Oscars upon us, I thought I might use the opportunity to take another look at Best Years and examine why I consider it to be one of the Academy’s best-ever choices for its highest distinction. While so many other Best Picture choices now look curious if not downright head-scratching (especially more recent ones like Gladiator and The Artist), The Best Years of Our Lives is a jewel that just won’t tarnish, and feels as fresh and alive as it ever has.

Much of the film’s power is due to the disarming and, I think, deceptive simplicity of its storytelling, which adds in layer after layer of emotional complexity almost without the audience realizing how completely invested we are in its story and characters. This is a deliberately paced movie but never an inert one, and every scene is pulsing with real human feeling. It opens inauspiciously, introducing us to three returning war veterans – Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) – as they nervously await their journey back to their loved ones. Fred, though excited, barely knows his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), as they met in the days before the outbreak of the war and married hastily, as many couples did. Al is a family man who hasn’t seen his wife Millie (Myrna Loy) or children in several years, and is concerned that they’ve gone and grown up without him. And Homer, a sailor and former football hero who lost his hands in the war, is self-conscious and worried that the girl next door (Cathy O’Donnell) won’t want to marry a cripple.

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Upon their arrival, all three men find their concerns to be well-founded. Fred, who struggles to find gainful work, is surprised that Marie seems to have done fine without him, having taken a job in a nightclub and enjoyed a high-energy lifestyle in his absence, all of which she expects him to embrace. Al finds his children grown, perhaps too much for their own good,and soon becomes restless as he resumes a job at the bank he left reviewing loan applications from fellow veterans. And Homer is incapable of accepting anybody’s help and instead pushes his loved ones away, including his girlfriend Wilma and his loving family.

Right off the bat, The Best Years of Our Lives provides a terrific foundation for homefront melodrama, and the film refuses to go for cheap sentimentality. The problems these three men face are real and reflect much of the country was going through at the time, to say nothing of the plight of veterans today. Even so, the movie wisely refuses to provide easy answers or solutions. Fred finds himself stuck in a loveless marriage to Marie, who was originally drawn to the uniform but now finds herself disappointed by the man who used to be in it, and he soon finds himself falling for Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). Al turns to drinking to get over the boredom of his home life. And Homer, so unwilling to accept love from anyone, ends up alienating himself from the people who love him most. Though the turns these intersecting stories take throughout the course of the film are surprising and at hopeful, at no point is the viewer reassured that everything will turn out all right.

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Best Years wouldn’t work half as well as it does without its beautifully drawn and complex characters. Robert E. Sherwood’s story, based on a novel titled Glory for Me by MacKinlay Cantor, is filled with three-dimensional human beings who are faced with relatable choices and don’t always make the right ones. Peggy, who knows she’s in love with a married man, determines to break up his marriage, but she’s clearly naïve, blinded by love and unable to grasp the full consequences of what she’s doing. Fred knows exactly what he’s doing, and Al, with whom he’s become friends, knows it too. He sees what their relationship is doing to his daughter (and senses what it might be doing to Fred’s wife), forcing a confrontation between the two men to resolve the situation. Al knows their feelings are real, but that divorce is messy, and he doesn’t want his daughter getting mixed up in something she’s unprepared to deal with.

Homer, on the other hand, is so consumed with self-doubt that he doesn’t realize what it’s doing to the people around him. His disability is devastating to both his family and his girl, but the devastation doesn’t last long, and while they get over their anguish quickly and resolve to help him through it, he continues to wallow in self-pity. Russell, who wasn’t a professional actor and did lose his hands in the war, plays the part without a hint of self-consciousness, never asking the audience to feel as sorry for him as he does for himself. It’s a stunning performance, with a naturalism that anticipates the Italian Neorealist movement of the ‘50s, and where a professional actor might have added unneeded theatricality, Russell’s lack of experience proves to be exactly the right choice for the role.

In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a movie filled with more deeply felt performances than this one. Wyler’s film is simply stacked with some of the most recognizable movie stars from golden-era Hollywood – Fredric March, Myrna Loy and Virginia Mayo among them – not one of whom gives a traditional movie star performance. Each is committed to striking a delicate balance between nobility and an all-too-human vulnerability. March’s Al is a dedicated family man, but his alcoholism threatens to destroy his livelihood, and the movie doesn’t give him a last-minute miracle cure for his affliction. At the same time, while Virginia Mayo’s Marie is shown to be a money-grubbing party girl, her sense of disappointment at her husband’s lack of initiative is relatable. This is a woman who married the idea of a man rather than the man himself, and who’s grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle in his absence. Upon his return, she’s asked to immediately give it up to live a life of relative poverty. Wouldn’t you be disappointed?

The three-dimensionality of the story and characters make Best Years feel more relevant and less dated than Oscar winners that have come since. Wyler’s touch is so assured and so restrained the film’s big emotional moments feel completely earned. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene late in the film when Homer breaks down and finally accepts Wilma’s willingness to marry him. It’s late at night and he’s dressing for bed, something he’s been unable to do without the help of his father, which, as we’re told earlier, is the thing that makes him know he’s truly helpless. This time, however, Wilma pleads with him to let her help (O’Donnell is dynamite in this scene) and finally he relents. The sequence that follows in which she shows him that she is absolutely willing to do this for the rest of her life is played almost entirely without words, and Wyler knows it doesn’t need them.  It’s crushing.

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I need to mention the rest of the cast, which is rounded out with the familiar faces of some of the movies’ great character actors. Hoagy Carmichael is typically wise and loveable as Homer’s uncle Butch, whose bar serves as the primary meeting place for the veterans. Ray Collins is the chiseling bank manager who prioritizes profits over helping veterans build their futures. Roman Bohnen and Gladys George are Fred’s poor but good-hearted parents. And Walter Baldwin and Minna Gombell are genuinely sympathetic as Mr. and Mrs. Parrish, who view their son’s handicap with a combination of pity, pride and uncertainty, just as anyone probably would. With just a few scenes among them, these actors create believable characters that make the film’s world feel full and lived-in.

Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography has become justifiably famous. It’s not only beautiful, but also beautifully functional, tying together the characters and story developments without ever really existing just for its own sake. The movie is full of lovely shots. One is Al’s famous reunion with Millie, in which he sees her in full focus on the other end of the hall as their children look on. Another is a particularly breathtaking shot of Al alone in silhouette in his hallway smoking a cigarette. And of course there’s the long shot in Butch’s bar of Fred in the phone booth after he’s been ordered by Al to call Peggy and tell her their affair is over, while Al pretends to pay attention to Homer and Butch’s piano playing (below). And so on. This was the last of the many pictures Toland and Wyler worked on together before Toland’s untimely death in 1948 (he was only 44), and we get the sense that by this point in the relationship Wyler trusted his cameraman to know exactly the right visual scheme to tell this story. It’s one of the movies’ great unheralded collaborations, possibly because Wyler isn’t quite the celebrated auteur Hitchcock and Hawks were, and I can think of no more fitting epitaph for the partnership than this film.

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Viewing Best Years this most recent time I was reminded that it’s a great and resonant picture, though not a perfect one. One particularly niggling flaw is the overly convenient way in which Marie and Fred’s marriage ends. Their relationship is tenuous for much of the film, so when the end does finally come, it’s no great surprise. And to the film’s credit, it doesn’t insist that Fred jump right into Peggy’s arms – he’s told her he’s through with her (at Al’s request), and he intends to stick to his word, so he decides instead to leave town, only reuniting with her after deciding to stay on for a job. Still, the development is awfully convenient, and gets Fred out of having to make the choice himself. Then there’s the fact that Marie, whose issues with Fred are initially treated with empathy, grows increasingly shrewish and materialistic as the movie wears on so we can feel better about rooting for Fred and Peggy to make it. It’s true that many marriages that were rushed before the men went off to war didn’t work out, and the film’s attempt to shed light on that is admirable, so it’s a shame that the relationship becomes so one-sided, especially when the film otherwise feels so rich and multi-dimensional.

The other problem is the confrontation between Fred, Homer and an anti-interventionist later in the film. The man, a customer at Fred’s drug store lunch counter, sees Homer’s disability and asserts that it was all for nothing, that the real enemy he should have been fighting was in Moscow. Fred punches him unconscious and consequently loses his job at the drug store. As written, the anti-interventionist comes off like a cartoon, and I have no doubt that the Greatest Generation would have cheered at seeing his lights knocked out. But more than 60 years later, there’s a case to be made that we might have been better off letting Europe settle its own differences, while the onset of the Cold War in subsequent years make the his arguments seem less outlandish in hindsight. Whatever your beliefs, it would have been nice to see a little weight given to the other side instead of this buffoonish, one-sided device.

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I’m picking nits, though, and these flaws stick out only because so much of The Best Years of Our Lives rings honest and true. The issues it explores are more relevant than ever as scores of veterans return from recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and struggle with problems just like those of Al, Fred and Homer. The film’s refusal to provide easy answers to its characters’ choices makes it remarkably even-handed, and though it ends on a hopeful note, its happy ending isn’t meant to assure us that everything is hunky-dory. Even Fred’s final delivery to Peggy as they embrace at Homer and Wilma’s wedding is fraught with doubt. “It may take us years to get anywhere,” he tells her. “We’ll have no money, no decent place to live. We’ll have to work, get kicked around.” You don’t see many films with closing lines as uncertain as that one, but Wyler’s remarkable film has no interest in bowing to convention.

According to Turner Classic Movies, a new restoration of The Best Years of Our Lives will play at the network’s upcoming Classic Film Festival, which is exciting news. The current Warner blu-ray, released in November 2013, looks solid but imperfect (it’s also $8 on Amazon right now, so you should buy three unreservedly and give two to friends) and is missing any extra features of note, so I’m really hoping that Warner sees fit to release the new restoration in the kind of package the movie deserves, as I’d gladly re-buy it. While so many other Best Picture winners still have us scratching our heads, Best Years grows more timeless, watchable and relevant with each passing year.

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