Movies We Like
The Best Years of Our Lives
It's not a great movie but then perhaps it is still the best of its kind of film. There's an element of national catharsis that The Best Years of Our Lives channels, redeeming it from whatever middlebrow pretensions it uses to get there. In aesthetic terms it may be nothing more than a syrupy drama that presumes to show the "reality" that G.I.s from WWII faced when they returned home but, clunky soap operatics aside, it does fulfill a need for some kind of closing statement from Hollywood about the emotional toll the whole wretched thing took on average people.
Similar ground had been covered by the turgid Since You Went Away two years earlier but whereas that celluloid headache made you pine for the hours lost trudging through its "epic" pretensions, The Best Years of Our Lives has enough good stuff to make it worthwhile viewing.
The film follows three G.I.s at varying levels of command returning home, just as World War II ends, to a Midwestern town modeled, apparently, on Cincinnati. Frederic March plays a genial middle-aged boozy banker with a grown daughter and Myrna Loy for a wife while Dana Andrews plays a young war hero who returns to his crummy soda jerk job and terrible marriage. Harold Russell, a non-actor who had his hands blown off in WWII combat, plays a variation on himself (he would go on to win two Oscars for the role—Best Supporting Actor and a special honorary Oscar). The three men, heretofore unknown to one another, become fast friends on the plane ride home. We follow all three of their stories as they adjust to life at home and see their lives intertwine in meaningful ways.
For such a grand Samuel Goldwyn-produced statement The Best Years of Our Lives has some surprisingly subtle moments that are quite beautifully played. A scene where Dana Andrews walks through a yard of junked war planes as he runs the missions he flew through his head has an eerily haunting quality. There are some really interesting sexual politics at work, too, with March’s good girl daughter nobly vowing to break up Andrews’s miserable marriage to a cheap floozy. Best of all, though, is a scene where Homer shows his girl-next-door-sweetheart how she will have to undress him at night if she wants to be with him. Homer is achingly vulnerable and incredibly touching to watch and it’s a scene that justifies the comparisons to the great works of Italian neo-realism (if for that one scene).
The post-war era of Hollywood filmmaking is fascinating for what it shows us about how people coped with the new, larger, infinitely more dangerous world Americans found themselves living in. Key works of Film Noir such as Act of Violence and In a Lonely Place paint one kind of picture of the psychological damage the war did to men while more subdued but no less intense dramas such as The Best Years of Our Lives and (later) The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit offered another variation on the same theme. I can’t say I think The Best Years of Our Lives is a truly great film but I understand it as a film that was sorely needed at the time—a Hollywood film to explore the complexities of life after wartime in a way that average people could relate to. If the film and its subsequent plethora of awards are perhaps testament to the self-congratulatory nature of Hollywood for daring to taking on a dificult subject it is at the very least notable that there was an era when such gestures were even attempted.
The Best Years of Our Lives was nominated for eight Oscars and won for seven (plus an honorary Oscar) including: Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Frederic March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood), Best Editing (Daniel Mandell), Best Music (Hugo Friedhofer), and a special honorary Oscar "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives " (Harold Russell).