December 23, 2015

The Best Years of Our Lives

In 1946, movie attendance reached its peak, with an estimated 80 million Americans--or 57 percent of the U.S. population--attending the cinemas that year. How interesting then, that during this uplifting and prosperous period of time in American history, a picture like The Best Years of Our Lives would come along and become a smash hit.

Unlike the many shallow, 'important' pictures that came before it, the beauty in The Best Years of Our Lives is its understated nature. The story isn't complicated, it doesn't come off as forced, and it's ridden of as much of that old-Hollywood glamour and gloss as director William Wyler could manage. It feels important without having to tell us that it is. You've got a handsome leading man playing a broke, unemployable war hero. You've got another star--who isn't even a professional actor--with hooks where his hands should be. What I found so appealing about the film is it's sheer humbleness in its presentation, a crucial element when you're dealing with a humanistic story.

Wyler's eye for filmmaking most definitely contributes to the film's success. It is beautifully shot, and clocking in at just under three hours, The Best Years of Our Lives could have very well bored the tears out of me had it been in the hands of a lesser director. But it maintained my intrigue all throughout my viewing. You can attribute this to a number of factors--the lush, deep camera work that elevates the simple storytelling, the solid acting from the entire ensemble (anchored by the charming triumvirate of Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, and Fredric March), or a narrative that, while not exactly unpredictable, is balanced and engaging in the way it tells its message. It's a great, sympathetic watch--an ordinary (though I don't say this negatively) breath of fresh air compared to the contrived tellings of 'real humans' a la Going My Way and Mrs. Miniver and How Green Was My Valley. 

1946 was the calm before the turning of the tide--folks would soon move to the suburbs to start families, no longer able to visit the cinemas as much as they used to, the television would become a staple in the American home, and a Supreme Court two years away would eventually mark the beginning of the end of the Studio System. Perhaps The Best Years of Our Lives, in its more realistic depiction of human life, coupled with the rise of dark film-noir such as '46's Gilda and The Killers, was signaling a start of something new.


  1. Great review of a great film. Aside from being the biggest blockbuster since "Gone With the Wind", this film was an artistic achievement on multiple levels. From Greg Toland's famous 'deep focus' photography to Hugo Friedhofer's evocative score to Robert Sherwood's intelligent screenplay to William Wyler's subtle direction and an ensemble cast that is near perfection, "Best Years..." achieves its greatness through its countless, small yet honest moments that had a potent ring of truth for post war America. I can recall older relatives who lived during these times saying that moments in this film portrayed exactly what they or others they knew had experienced immediately following WWII. It resonated in an honest way that audiences responded to, hence the accolades and box office.

    More importantly (at least where the film is concerned), this represents some of the best work these artists would ever do. Wyler the taskmaster was also a master of understatement and in this film he allowed the actors and their experiences to develop and linger. From the moment Harold Russell casually exposes his prosthetic arms, we as an audience are relieved of any shock and instead are able to then observe all of the other characters' reactions to this and how it impacts everyone. This was quite risky for a film back then, but Wyler specifically wanted an actual war casualty for the role rather than an actor in make up. In fact, so sure was the Academy that the non professional Russell would lose in the Supporting Actor race that they voted him an honorary Oscar, so he ended up with two awards that year.

    There's so much more here, though. Sherwood's screenplay allows for moments that resonate and linger. The silent awkwardness filled with emotion when March and Loy finally see each other again is exquisite. When Loy asks of March, "How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart" the ouch still stings. When Wright comforts Andrews after his post traumatic nightmare, countless audience members must have nodded in recognition. It all feels both as ordinary as any old day yet has an evocative quality that is timeless.

    The cast is superb. Andrews has a palpable anguish that's at times disconcerting because it's so real. Loy has never been more grounded and natural. March, who is really more a member of the ensemble than the star, adds gravitas and thoughtfulness to his portrayal and Wright uses her amiable centeredness to augment a role that is at once less obvious and more complex than anything she'd done before. Even Russell, the untrained newcomer, manages to engender our empathy without ever asking for sympathy in a role that could have played as stunt casting.

    None of this would have been possible if it weren't for William Wyler. His direction is subtle and purposeful. Always in control of the film's tone, he tells the story with a cinematic fluidity that is both unobtrusive and engrossing. His legendary effectiveness with actors is everywhere evident, yet one doesn't walk away from this film wondering "who was that director?!" The film is an total. Wyler knew what he was doing.

    I think my favorite moment is the final scene between Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright, when they reunite. In an era when frothy musicals and honorable biopics were the norm, how does Andrews finally propose to Wright? Try this: "You know what it'll be, don't you Peggy? It may take us years to get anywhere. We'll have no money, no decent place to live. We'll have to work ... get kicked around." THE END.

    'Get kicked around ...' Those are not exactly words that typify what's known as a "Hollywood ending" but then, 'Best Years...' has never been a typical Hollywood film. Its directness has an honesty that was atypical of films of that era. Perhaps that's why it still resonates today.

  2. I think I'll just leave it to producer Samuel Goldwyn to make the final observation on this film's merit. Quote: "I don't care it doesn't make a nickel ... I just want every man, woman and child in America to see it."