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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

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Article 2

The Best Movie of Our Lives

by D.A. "Sandy" McLendon


It could not possibly have happened. No one could have written the quintessential film about servicemen returning from World War II two years before the war's end. If anyone had, no one would have cast an amateur actor in one of its starring roles. If that had happened, there was no way the amateur could have given a professional-quality performance. If the amateur had somehow managed to do well, the performance would never have been recognized with an Academy Award. If the Academy had given such a performer recognition with one Oscar, it would never have accorded him two, and certainly not two for the same performance. And such a cockeyed endeavor would -- surely -- never win a total of eight Oscars. But happen it did -- just over fifty years ago.

One of the best-loved and best-remembered films of the postwar era, "The Best Years of Our Lives," has held up astonishingly well after more than half a century. Its themes are universal in appeal; the performances amazingly fresh even today. The respect still accorded this film is even more remarkable when one stops to think that it was given very little chance for success when first conceived.

It was thought that people were still too close to the experience of World War II and to the process of readjusting to civilian life for the film to be successful. One pundit of the day wrote "the really successful films about the war will not come for another five years, at least."

Sam Goldwyn had commissioned the basic story (a prose poem entitled "Glory For Me") from MacKinlay Kantor; Robert Sherwood fashioned a screenplay from Kantor's work, changing much of it to better suit the screen. The handsomely mounted production began shooting on April 15, 1946, wrapping on August 9 that same year, and opened at New York's Astor Theatre on November 22. The film was instantly a hit of the magnitude most producers only dream of, outgrossed at the time only by "Gone With the Wind."

The film is about three returning servicemen (played by Dana Andrews, Fredric March, and Harold Russell), and the families to which they return. Andrews is an airman coming back to a shallow floozy of a wife (played by Virginia Mayo) whom he married hastily during his military training in Texas. March is a banker, married to Myrna Loy, and with a daughter played by Teresa Wright. Russell returns from the war, injured and with prostheses replacing his hands, to his fiancée (newcomer Cathy O'Donnell).

Almost every major performance in the film is top-notch (March has a tendency to hamminess in some scenes); William Wyler directed each role as if it were a starring part, in some instances eliciting performances that astounded the very performers who gave them. Virginia Mayo's "Marie Derry" was such an advance over the starlet-type work she had done up to that time that she joked she had won Wyler the 1947 Oscar for Best Director. (Mayo also kiddingly quoted people as saying, "If William Wyler can do THAT with Virginia MAYO . . . ", having a healthy laugh at her own expense.) Dana Andrews gave a fine portrayal of a sensitive man coping with an insensitive world. Myrna Loy was, well, a very good Myrna Loy. Teresa Wright lent her usual luminosity to the part of March's daughter, who loves Andrews, but who has to wait for him to fall in love with her and divorce Virginia Mayo's character.

All these seasoned professionals, however, had to bow before the performance given by an amateur, Harold Russell. Russell was an Army sergeant who had lost both hands in the war, the hands having been replaced by metal hooks. His physical and emotional adjustment to the hooks had been so good that he had been made the subject of an Army Pictorial Service documentary, "Diary of a Sergeant," produced to help other amputees realize that there was hope and help for their plight. Wyler cast Russell after seeing the Army film -- and after giving him strict instructions not to take acting lessons. The results were tremendous. Russell's "Homer Parrish" was a finely wrought creation combining grit, vulnerability, stolidity, and tenderness. Two scenes stand out in the memory; in one, Homer is spied upon through a window by curious children wanting to see his hooks in use. His fury at their insensitivity is expressed by plunging the hooks through the window they have used for their spying. This was very clever of screenwriter Robert Sherwood; Russell might easily have been made to look pathetic or neurotic expressing rage in another way. Homer's action was clearly something that he could do without flinching -- and that a non-amputee would not dare do -- thereby enhancing Homer's strength as a character. The other scene, of course, is when Homer takes his fiancée to his bedroom to show her the private details of coping with his prostheses and their harness. Russell's quiet, unemotional imparting to Cathy O'Donnell of his disability's implications is a tour de force any professional actor would have envied. For his magnificent performance, Russell earned not one Oscar, but two (Best Supporting Actor as well as a Special Award recognizing his influence on disabled veterans). His amateur status ended immediately.

Virginia Mayo's work was, as has been mentioned, exceptionally fine. Her first scene sets the pace for her entire performance. Her character is awakened by a doorbell rung by her returning husband, and she slouches out of a Murphy bed to answer it, looking authentically slovenly instead of Hollywood-disheveled. Her grooming improves as soon as her husband moves back in with her, but Mayo soon shows us that Marie has major defects of character behind her flossy facade. Most new ingénues (and most established actresses) would have resisted portraying Marie's venality; Mayo pulled no punches. The only breakthrough performance ever to equal it for unexpected impact was Bette Davis' in "Of Human Bondage." Marie exits the film on a note that leaves the audience in no doubt as to her future; she humiliates her husband with a final wisecrack, and walks out on him forever, absolutely certain that this stupid decision is the right one. Marie hasn't a clue that she has just walked out on the only man who will ever give a damn about her -- and the audience knows without being told that she is embarking on a long, slow process of personal and spiritual decay and disintegration.

Even minor players (like Minna Gombell as Homer Parrish's mother and Steve Cochran as one of Marie Derry's pickups) gave performances that were exactly right for the Middle-American milieu of the story.

The film was an advance in realism, as well. Many of its scenes take place in bedrooms; any matter-of-fact treatment of such scenes was nearly unheard-of in the 1940s. Producers often had to resort to such subterfuges as allowing only one character into a bedroom at a time -- the other character had to be speaking from a point obviously outside the room, so as to avoid any suggestion that anything romantic could take place there. In this picture, bedrooms are just bedrooms; they are intimate places, but no one is coy about them, either. The treatment of sex was startlingly frank for 1946 -- the banker and his wife obviously have a love life; Marie has no qualms about cheating on her husband. Homer and his fiancée establish their trust in each other in Homer's bedroom, and it is clear that the intimacy of this scene is a prelude to other intimacies to come in their relationship. Many of the sets were uncommonly realistic; Fred Derry's parents live on the wrong side of the tracks in Boone City, and their rundown house is so accurately designed and built that it is difficult to believe it is a set. Marie Derry's apartment is right on the money; messy when she expects to be alone, fluffy for company, a combination of the two when she's bringing home a pickup. A drugstore set breaks with 1940s Hollywood tradition; most films of the period never showed real trademarks on the screen, substituting invented ones instead. This drugstore offers Coca-Cola and Raleigh cigarettes; a real Woolworth's is shown early in the picture. For some scenes, real pedestrians were filmed on real streets by hidden second-unit cameras. Harold Russell stumbles a bit while reciting his marriage vows; this "blooper" was the take Wyler printed -- the CHARACTER would have stumbled over his vows; the perfection of a retake was unnecessary. Even the costuming by Irene Sharaff was atypical; instead of designing high-fashion costumes from scratch, the designer shopped in real stores for suitable clothing, even picking different stores for each character. All this realism is especially impressive when viewed alongside another film that tried to do much the same job as "Best Years" -- David O. Selznick's "Since You Went Away." In that 1943 film, some wonderful performances were swamped by Selznick's expensive, glossy sets that none of the film's characters could have afforded in real life, and by clothes, diction, and manners far too fancy for the Middle-American setting of the story.

"The Best Years of Our Lives" triumphed at the 1947 Academy Awards ceremony on March 13; winning awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (really a career achievement award for Fredric March), Best Score (by Hugo Friedhofer), Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and the two awards already mentioned for Harold Russell. To top everything off, Sam Goldwyn was also awarded the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Award for "the most consistent high quality of production" that year -- for a total of NINE awards going to Goldwyn, his cast, and his creative personnel.

The initial release was almost unparalleled as a financial success; a 1954 re-release (reformatted for wide-screen) raked in another million dollars. The film continues to be strongly in demand for television showings, sells quite steadily on videocassette, and was recently selected as one of the first classic-era movies to be made available in the new DVD format.

Goldwyn tried in 1951 -- and failed -- to duplicate the success of his masterpiece with a movie titled "I Want You." This updating of "Best Years"'s themes to the Korean War era copied much of the look and feel of the previous film; it even used Dana Andrews in a key role.

It sank almost without a trace; you've probably never heard of it. Magic -- like "The Best Years of Our Lives" -- only happens once.

(Send your comments on this article to the author, Sandy McLendon, at

© 1998 by D.A. "Sandy" McLendon

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