The collective Hollywood wisdom in 1945 was to forget about making more movies with wartime themes. The public had just gone through a steady three-year diet of them - escapist combat movies, realistic thrillers, and melodramas about conditions on the Home Front. So convinced was Warner Brothers that audiences would tire of the subject, they held off releasing The Big Sleep for a year in order to first shove their backlog of war movies through the distribution pipeline.
That prevailing attitude made Sam Goldwyn and William Wyler's commitment to Mackinlay Kantor's novel Glory For Me a commercial longshot. Little did anyone know that their film would capture the heart of the nation, while adding the category of 'socially conscious' to the kinds of movies the public would accept. Just as Casablanca had struck an emotional nerve, millions saw The Best Years of Our Lives as a true mirror of their personal lives.
A trio of veterans returning to the small midwestern town of Boone City form a bond during their 'period of readjustment.' Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to a loving family, but his kids have grown so much they seem like strangers. Back at work, he finds his bank job incompatible with the cooperative spirit he felt during the war, and turns to drink. Sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) lost both of his hands in battle. He rejects the pity of his parents and misinterprets the love of Wilma Cameron (Cathy O'Donnell), his high school sweetheart and literal girl next door. After being responsible for an entire aircraft, bomber pilot Fred Derry feels like damaged goods because he's now unqualified for a respectable job. His party-girl war bride Marie (Virginia Mayo) has little use for him, and he's drawn to Al's daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright). When Peggy announces that she's going to break up Fred's marriage, even her mother Milly (Myrna Loy) knows that Fred's straying, Homer's depression, and Al's drinking are related problems.
The Best Years of Our Lives set the a crucial tone for the immediate post-war period. Audiences conditioned to seeing Ginger Rogers (Tender Comrade) and Claudette Colbert (Since You Went Away) yearn for victory to bring about a miraculous American Utopia, must have been disappointed when the real end to hostilities meant continued shortages, and new problems they hadn't expected. The men they got back from overseas didn't seem to be the same boys they had sent away. The mood became one of vague disillusion. What was it all about, when a generation had given so much and the world had changed so little?
A lot of the content of Best Years was daring stuff. Alcoholism had been taboo until the previous year's The Lost Weekend. Using a real amputee to represent the hundreds of thousands of maimed veterans was considered distasteful, the kind of thing banished from screens since the days of Freaks. The emasculation of the Fred Derry character (especially in the face of bombshell Virigina Mayo) and his adulterous flirtation with Peggy, also raised eyebrows. Finally, the movie's frank views about callous business practices and a hostile work environment were a provocation that wouldn't be tolerated just a few years later.
William Wyler had an extremely delicate touch. His sensitive treatment of movies like Jezebel, The Little Foxes, The Letter and Dodsworth had made sound work of very melodramatic material. Weighing in at almost three hours, Best Years is gripping from from the first scene to its last - and with no intermission. Every major character is a multi-dimensional human with faults and problems, strengths and limitations. The town of 'Boone City' was no idealized Andy Hardy-land but a place of tight jobs and small minds, as Fred Derry finds when he has to return to soda-jerking in a drugstore. When daughter Peggy discovers that love isn't the answer to all problems, her parents admit that their own marriage hasn't been any picnic. Homer Parrish is dismayed to learn that his impairment is an obstacle that many small-town people can't deal with. And banker Al Stephenson begins to question the morality of an economic system that refuses to help the very veterans who fought to keep the nation together.
As a director, Wyler had a subtle yet recognizable style that with a great camera talent like Gregg Toland (Stagecoach, Citizen Kane) lends The Best Years of Our Lives a distinctive feel of its own. Most scenes are covered fairly directly, yet dramatic moments often employ extreme cinematic devices, as with the rapid trucking shots that underscore Fred's emotional breakdown in a mothballed B-17. The wedding in the Cameron house has a signature Wyler staircase,1 yet is just a plain frame house with old furnishings. Wyler doesn't judge the people who live there any more than he does Fred's parents, who live in a veritable shack. The Virginia Mayo character could easily have been set up to blame for Fred's problems, yet both the audience and Fred realize that she's just as much a victim of the wartime distortion of values as he is. 2
Best Years has several scenes where Wyler stages his action in deep-focus depth, disposing of the necessity to use cutting. The most famous is Al's homecoming in his apartment house,3 a hallway reunion displayed like a 3-D Norman Rockwell painting. We witness Al and Milly's embrace at a discreet distance, along with their children, who sneak away. In this one shot Al's family is established as loving and solid. Later, Fred Derry makes a crucial phone call in the bar, seen only as a background detail while Homer and barkeep Butch Engle (Hoagy Carmichael) play piano in the extreme foreground. Al stands by the piano but turns his attention back to the phone booth, tying together both visual planes. Greg Toland's fine camerawork makes both shots into complex works of art - that don't draw attention to themselves as gimmicks.
While looking for scapegoats for the commercial failure of his It's a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra in his book The Name Above the Title gives grudging praise to best-picture Oscar competition Best Years. He likens it to the trend of hardboiled, mean-spirited, despairing and violent crime thrillers of the late 40s that he found to be such an abomination. Savant always thought it telling that the king of Capracorn should quote the killing in Kiss of Death, the one where Richard Widmark pushes a wheelchair-bound grandmother down a flight of stairs, as a trend that soured movies like a bad stain. Funny that he was describing Film Noir without even knowing it. Capra's own Wonderful Life has a self-contained Noir episode, the alternate-universe vision of an Evil Bedford Falls. Capra would seem to have been trying to reconcile his personal brand of romantic optimism, with this new kind of disillusion and anxiety.
Wyler's Best Years definitely did go in the opposite direction from Capra's Life. Even its title places the 'wonderful' part of Life in the past tense. The Best Years of Our Lives is warm but never goes soft, never settles for movie-star solutions to its problems. Its romantic conclusion has a bitter undertaste and shows a realistic awareness of the unfairness of the world that qualifies it as Film Noir for non-criminals. The last dialogue line, delivered in a romantic kiss, is a hardboiled gem: "You know what it'll be like, don't you Peggy? It may take years to get anywhere. We'll have no money. No decent place to live. We'll have to work, get kicked around." Fade out.
MGM's DVD is the second time around for The Best Years of Our Lives, which came out from HBO video as a flipper near the beginning of the format. Visually the new disc looks about identical, with a few digital artifacts and a picture that seems to 'pop' every once in a while. It wasn't a big problem on the first disc and it isn't on this one either. The dual-layer uninterrupted play is a definite advantage. Picture and sound are basically good; the fine B&W photography looks extremely attractive. The old disc did have some short docu-like intros, an extra that might make it a collector's item later.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Staircases figure prominently in almost all of Wyler's movies, with the most
memorable scenes, often emotional climaxes, occurring on them: Bette Davis' plea at the end of Jezebel,
Olivia DeHavilland at the end of The Heiress. You can quickly tell which half of Come and Get It
Wyler directed - he did the house with the staircase, while co-director Howard Hawks did the knockabout scenes
with the bar fights and communal singalongs.
2. It is implied that Virginia has a pretty cozy illicit relationship going with Steve Cochran. However ... Savant always wondered if the pair didn't leave Boone City and team up with Cody Jarrott a couple
of years later, in White Heat!
3. The front for Al's fancy digs is located only a few blocks from Savant's home, not in Boone City but Los Angeles just East of the intersection of Highland and Beverly boulevards. Also ... note the fact that Al's son, who is so prominent in his first night at home, promptly disappearsand never returns. Did you hear a reason why? Savant's often thought Best Years should be reinterpreted sometime as a murder mystery, like Twin Peaks. Who killed Teresa Wright's brother?
The Children's Hour
The Little Foxes
DVD Savant © Copyright 2001 Glenn Erickson