It’s close to time for Sight and Sound‘s decennial list of international critics’ ‘best films’. I’m not very keen on these lists but they seem to amuse a lot of cinephiles. I’m intrigued as to what criteria the selected critics use for their personal choices (i.e. outside of the guidelines they are sent by the journal) and why they end up with mainly the same kinds of films from the same directors. I’ve seen the majority of the 250 films on the 2012 list and I’ve enjoyed many of them. Indeed, many of my favourite films are on the list. But what about those that aren’t? How come, for instance, that The Best Years of Our Lives is not on the list and, as far as I can see, no films by William Wyler, the German émigré director who arrived in the US in 1920, aged 18 and was active in Hollywood from 1925 to 1970. Second only to John Ford in Best Director wins at the Academy Awards, Wyler directed some of Hollywood’s ‘biggest’ pictures such as Ben Hur (1959) as well as Westerns, musicals and melodramas and films notable for the performances of stars such as Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn.
The Best Years of Our Lives was a box office winner in 1946 in both the US and UK and was duly recognised with seven Academy Awards. Unlike many films rooted in a specific historical moment, the film still works just as effectively in 2022 as it did in 1946 and in the early 1970s when I first watched it. What makes it so special?
Three demobbed servicemen find themselves thrown together on a flight back to their home town, aboard a military aircraft in 1945. Lt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a navigator/bomb aimer. Sgt Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was with the US Army and Homer Parrish was a seaman below decks on a US carrier in the Pacific, but has spent time in a military hospital. They return to rather different family situations. Al returns to his family and his secure job in a bank. Fred visits his parents before trying to find his wife and Homer moves back in with his parents and wonders whether his marriage to the girl next door will eventually go ahead. The narrative follows the next several months as each of the men discover that ‘civvy street’ has changed since they’ve been away and the war is rapidly being forgotten as people try to focus on the future. The men might aim to go their separate ways but chance means that they soon meet again at the bar owned by Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). Before he sees his wife again, Fred meets Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). This creates a slightly different structure in the sense that Fred has two relationships in the narrative. In broad terms, the narrative gives roughly equal space to all three stories, though perhaps Fred ‘s actions evoke more issues, partly because of his attraction to Peggy and therefore his role in Al’s story as well.
The origins of the film are in a novel, written in blank verse and titled Glory to Me, by MacKinlay Kantor in 1945. The independent producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights but then asked playwright Robert Sherwood to write a screenplay which extended MacKinlay’s narrative and changed it significantly (to MacKinlay’s dismay). MacKinlay had been a war correspondent in Europe and he used his own experiences as well as interviews with US servicemen to inform his story about three veterans who return to their Midwestern home town in 1945 and face problems in returning to civilian life, both as workers and family men. The titles of the novel and the film are ambiguous I think. Which were the ‘best years’ of these lives – the years spent away in the war or the years coming to terms with post-war life? Hollywood films are usually optimistic, so presumably it’s the latter. The novel’s title actually refers to a line in a popular gospel hymn by Charles H. Gabriel. The phrase is used repeatedly to refer to the moment of arriving in heaven to see the face of Jesus Christ which will be ‘glory to me’. The suggestion might be that reaching home in ‘Boone City’ should be like reaching heaven, but actually it means facing a series of difficult problems for each man.
I haven’t read the novel but from various reviews (e.g. on ‘Good Reads’) it seems clear to me that the film is much ‘softer’ in presenting the problems than the novel. Other changes might have been the result of the usual Hollywood politics involving actors and contracts. The most significant change is that Fred, who in the novel is a still a young man in his early 20s, is played by Dana Andrews (aged 37 when the film was released). The age difference is most pronounced when Fred is forced to consider returning to work as a ‘soda jerk’ in a drugstore after his three years away. It’s ludicrous that Andrews could have been a soda jerk at 33 but somehow the actor and Wyler as director manage to create a narrative in which we suspend disbelief. But actually the ages of actors and characters are out in several cases. Fredric March who plays the bank clerk Al, called up when he was 38, was in reality 49 when the film was released and Teresa Wright, playing his daughter Peggy, who we assume to have been an older teenager when he left for war, was 28. It’s worth pointing out that Hollywood has always been fairly relaxed about the real ages of stars in comparison with their characters. Even so, the disparities here do raise questions in a film about a specific time period of a few months in the second half of 1945.
The other significant change arguably improved the film’s impact. The novel’s Homer suffers a form of paralysis which affects his control of his arms, but for the film the non-professional actor Harold Russell, who had lost both his hands in an accidental explosion while training troops, was cast. Russell’s prosthetic ‘claws’ make a clear visual statement and his ‘natural’ performance enhances the representation of a wounded soldier – although in the film he is a seaman working below decks on a carrier. The top-billed star of the film is Myrna Loy who plays Al’s wife Millie. Loy had been in films since 1925 but had become a major star following the success of The Thin Man in 1934. Her relaxed relationship with her co-star William Powell and their well received comic scenes together would later help to ‘humanise’ the scenes between Al and Millie. Loy was also quite well-known for her wartime work in Hollywood for the Red Cross and the Naval Auxiliary canteen and this too added to her public reception in The Best Years of Our Lives. On the other hand, she had just turned 41 when the film came out, meaning her character would have had her daughter at age 13!
There are three other significant roles for women in the film. Virginia Mayo plays Marie, Fred’s wife, not too pleased to see him back and Gladys George is Fred’s stepmother Hortense. Cathy O’Donnell as Homer’s pre-war girlfriend Wilma was a new contract player for Sam Goldwyn and a few years later she would make a big impact in Nick Ray’s first feature They Live By Night (shot in 1947). Her Goldwyn contract was matched, at least in terms of working on Goldwyn’s independent productions, by several others in the film’s cast and crew. Although the film is clearly focused on the three men who return from war, I think it is the female roles that make the film stand out. That’s possibly because the film is a melodrama at heart. It is through their interactions with the four women that the men’s problems are brought to light. Without the women these men might really struggle to find their way after being institutionalised in the forces.
One of the interesting factors about the film’s reception is the way that aspects of the film ‘speak’ directly about the same concerns that underpin many of the films of the period later recognised as films noirs. For instance, Fred experiences the sense of humiliation and unfairness that might drive a traumatised veteran towards crime or violence. The novel that was the basis for the Humphrey Bogart film In a Lonely Place (1950), a celebrated film noir melodrama, has a central character who is a flyer experiencing a well-paid life in the USAF in the UK with good pay and status who finds it impossible to return to a mundane job without a high salary and status On the other hand, Al finds it difficult to to follow banking practice and wants to make loans to people whom he feels are deserving. Milly is the sensible and loving wife who understands her husband and keeps him on track. She has also passed on her values to her daughter. The film works best within the slightly heightened sensibility of the melodrama. A juxtaposition of scenes cuts between Fred’s father reading his son’s medal citations which Fred has left behind as he seeks to move on and Fred himself wandering through a graveyard of military aircraft, including the B17s in which Fred flew. The one scene that didn’t work well for me is when Al gifts his son the mementoes of his time in Japan. It’s a stiff performance by the young actor playing the son, but perhaps this is what Wyler wanted? Either way, the son doesn’t figure much in the remainder of the film – his sister is much more important.
Samuel Goldwyn may have been an independent but he hired quality personnel and facilities. The leading players in The Best Years of Our Lives all give solid performances and the creative team includes Gregg Toland as cinematographer. Toland became well-known established in Hollywood during the 1930s and in 1940-41 his work for John Ford and Orson Welles was widely discussed. He was known for his use of deep focus and innovative lighting. He had worked with Wyler on three previous films and although the photography of The Best Years of Our Lives was not overtly expressionist there were particular scenes which became classic study texts. One was the scene in Butch’s Bar when Al has been giving Fred a stern talking to about his ‘friendship’ with Peggy. Fred says he will phone Peggy and break off their relationship and as he leaves the bar he notices the phone booth by the door and goes in. (see the image above.) As he is dialling, Homer arrives and invites Al to listen to the new piano piece he and Butch have worked out. Butch sits at the piano with Homer and they play a duet. Al stands by the piano and admires Homer’s playing with his prosthetic hands. After a few moments he turns to look at the phone booth where Fred is speaking to Peggy (or at least we presume he is). Because of Toland’s camera set-up he can show this movement in deep focus from Homer in the foreground all the way back to Fred in the booth in the top left quadrant of the image. The other aspect of the shot is the low angle and effective lighting which feels natural rather than staged. It’s also impressive that Fred is framed in the window of the booth and not obscured by the position of a customer at the bar. This shot must have required very careful blocking and a long time to prepare for the shoot. Toland took his time. He was expensive but the results were impressive. The film topped the box office for 1946. While Toland’s work contributed to a realist aesthetic enabling the audience to put together aspects of the lives of the characters – the three men are linked visibly here – the music in the film composed by Hugo Friedhofer was a more conventional score for a melodrama, serving the narrative and reinforcing the emotional power of the film. The score won one of the seven Oscars awarded to the film.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen the film but it had lost none of it’s power when I watched it again. It tells a universal human story about separation from loved ones, about the trauma of war and the struggle to reconnect in a way that is engaging for a wide audience. It’s nearly 3 hours long but never drags. If you’ve never seen the film I urge you to give it a go. In the UK it is available to rent/buy on Amazon download. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray. Here’s the early scene when Al and Fred drop off Homer for his homecoming: