As part of my continuing effort to watch all the movies that have received Best Picture Oscars, I watched the 1946 winner, The Best Years of Our Lives, directed by William Wyler and starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright.
If some of those names sound familiar, it's because I've talked about them recently. William Wyler also directed Mrs. Miniver, Myra Loy appeared in The Great Ziegfeld, and Teresa Wright was in Mrs. Miniver.
The movie follows three World War II veterans upon their return to the states, depicting the kinds of issues that faced returning soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. I found it to be a fascinating, honest portrayal of those issues.
The other best picture contenders that year were Henry V, It's a Wonderful Life, The Razor's Edge and The Yearling. The screenplay, written by Robert E. Sherwood, was based on a novel called Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor, written in blank verse. Sherwood had been the head of the Office of War Information during the war, which is why producer Samuel Goldwyn approached him to write the script.
The movie begins as three servicemen catch a ride home on a warplane headed for decommission. This was a great symbolic gesture, because as they near the airfield, below them they view hundreds and hundreds of plane parts, ready to be scrapped, a visual representation of just how many returning soldiers would be facing similar situations.
As they reenter civilian life, the three men face very different concerns. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), who was a flyboy and a recipient of honors for valor, returns to his new bride, whom he met while in basic training. He must deal with an uncertain employment situation, since the drug store that previously employed him as a soda jerk has been bought by a national chain. He longs for a more important, better paying job. Soon, he discovers that his experience in the military doesn't mean much in the civilian world.
Not only that, but his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), who had been making good money working in a nightclub during the war, resents the fact that he demands to be the single wage earner. She nags him about his career failures. Their personality differences lead to further stress in the marriage.
Al Stephenson, an Army officer, returns home to his wife, his two children, and his job at a bank. Of course, he's in for some changes, too. His children have blossomed into young adults, and his employer immediately promotes him to be the head of the small loans department. His primary job is to say yay or nay on small loans for returning servicemen. In this capacity, he differs from the bank's policies, which frown upon taking risks. By contrast, he feels it's important to invest in the future of the country.
The final returning serviceman, Homer Parrish, was an infantryman who lost both of his hands, replaced with prosthetic hooks. He has had occupational therapy which taught him to use them with an amazing amount of skill. Homer, however, is touchy about people trying to do things for him. When he returns home to his loving girlfriend and family, he must confront the fact that his life has forever changed, a difficult task, despite the love and support.
Homer is played by Harold Russell, a real-life veteran and double amputee. For his role, he earned both a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and an honorary award "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance." He was the only actor to win two Academy Awards for the same role.
Of course, there are further complications, namely in the love department. Homer's girlfriend had been looking forward to him marrying her upon his return, but he insists on deferring their plans, because he can't imagine her being happy spending the rest of her life with him, given his disability.
As Fred's marriage sours, his relationship to the Stephensons becomes complicated as he falls for the daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright). This naturally strains his friendship with Al, who does not want to see his daughter involved with a married man.
The movie shifts back and forth between the three characters. Sometimes they seek out each other's company and other times, they run into each other in public places, such as the bar owned by Homer's uncle, Butch, played by award-winning songwriter Hoagy Carmichael. Uncle Butch is one cool cucumber, by the way, encouraging his nephew to get beyond his depression, showing him there are still ways to grow and learn. For example, he teaches him how to play a rudimentary song on the piano.
Just like Mrs. Miniver, the movie wisely avoids lapsing into melodrama, instead sticking to well-crafted dialogue that sounds like it could, indeed, be coming out of the mouths of people in similar circumstances. The soundtrack is only used minimally, and the sets, while they are clearly sound stages and not locations, look very much like a small, rural town, down to the run-down hovel where Fred's parents live. Wyler deliberately tried for a naturalistic look, building all the sets smaller than life-size and buying all costumes off the rack, requiring the actors to wear them before the filming, to make them appear worn.
Wyler, a veteran himself, went even further than that, hiring each member of the crew from props to grips to mixers from the ranks of World War II veterans. This was his first postwar movie. He discovered Harold Russell in an Army training film, "Diary of a Sergeant," in which he appeared in a section discussing the rehabilitation of wounded servicemen.
Much like Mrs. Miniver could help modern viewers understand what it might have been like to live through the German blitz, The Best Years of Our Lives draws attention to issues faced not just by World War II vets but by every returning veteran. Whether they've experienced a life-changing injury or whether they were simply away their family and their hometown for several years, they have to find a way to readjust to civilian life.
Wyler's careful attention to detail earned him box office success: the movie was the most successful film since Gone with the Wind, released seven years earlier. In addition to the Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor wins, the picture also received Best Actor in a Leading Role (Fredric March), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music and Best Writing of a Screenplay.
Overall, I found the movie to be fascinating, depicting aspects and issues about World War II which are seldom discussed any more. Yet, they are issues that are still relevant today and will remain relevant as long as our troops serve overseas.
Rating (out of 5): ****
The homefront can be just as challenging as the warfront for returning veterans.