It never made “Sight & Sound”s list of the Ten Greatest Films Ever Made (by the way, what in the world were they smoking over there anyway? “Vertigo”!?!), but high up on my Top Ten is that masterpiece of understatement, “The Best Years of Our Lives”. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler, this 1946 release tells the story of three servicemen returning to civilian life. Unless you’ve seen it, you might think it’s just a feel good film, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Its view is realistic—there are obstacles in life that can’t be wished away, success in love and work is incremental—and the ending, while hopeful, is far from a slam-dunk for any of these characters.
We begin with the introduction of Sgt. First Class Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Capt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Seaman Homer Parrish (Harold Russell, famously cast after Wyler saw him in an Army training film), who are returning home to Boone City, our Everytown USA. Within the first 20 minutes of the movie, they, as well as the audience, begin to understand how much their world has changed. Al, the middle-aged infantry veteran, is confronted with two adults who bear only a slight resemblance to the children he left behind four years ago; Fred, the soda jerk-turned-Air Force bombardier, comes to realize he has nothing in common with his wife beyond their quickie wartime wedding; and Homer, who now wears hook-equipped prostheses in place of the hands he lost, has to deal with how his family, fiancée and the post-war world at large now view him. Aside from their personal issues, these men find themselves having to cope with a changing American landscape: Fred’s former place of employment is no longer Dillard’s, the neighborhood drugstore, but is now only one retail outlet in a large chain; Al, employed by the Cornbelt Trust Company, is promoted to Vice-President in charge of a small loan department established in response to the G.I. Bill, though his boss obviously looks down on this type of “government handout” to veterans who lack collateral; Fred suffers from the square peg/round hole readjustment dilemma faced by many job-seeking ex-servicemen.
What makes “The Best Years of Our Lives” so great to watch is that it’s so different from the standard Hollywood fare of that era. Despite the love story of Fred Derry and Peggy, Al’s daughter (Teresa Wright), the real romantic leads in this film are Al and his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy). This is a middle-aged couple, married for 20 years, with a bond so solid it could and did survive a four-year separation. We see it in every moment they’re on screen together, from Al’s classic homecoming scene to their whirlwind dance at Butch’s Place (Fredric March’s drunken “You’re a bewitching little creature!” never fails to break me up) to the lovely moment the next morning when they reach for each other. Fredric March (whom you never, ever catch acting) and Myrna Loy have incredible chemistry in these roles, and while he totally deserved his Best Actor Oscar, it’s shocking that she was never nominated for an Oscar at any time during her career, let alone for this role (she did receive an Honorary Oscar in 1991).
While “The Best Years of Our Lives” has its set pieces—Homer’s misguided confrontation with his kid sister and her pals, and later, his demonstration of the extent of his disability to Wilma, his fiancée; Fred and Homer’s angry exchange with the unrepentant America-Firster at the drug store; Milly’s speech to daughter Peggy about the ups and downs of marriage; the extraordinary sight of acres of junked bombers and fighter planes juxtaposed with Fred’s father reading his son’s Distinguished Flying Cross citation—it’s the details that make this a great film. Wyler takes care to delineate the different worlds of these characters within the first few minutes of the movie, from Al’s well-appointed neighborhood to the classic tree-lined street of the Parrish home to the shotgun house on the other side of the tracks where Fred’s father and step-mother live. You remember the fleeting things—Milly’s hash marks on the tablecloth for every drink Al takes at the banquet; Fred’s sardonic “Greetings, brother” to the ex-G.I. sleaze his wife is involved with; the fat cat businessman’s checking into the air terminal with golf clubs while Fred is forced to fly home in the belly of a B-17.
While we’re left with hope (the junked planes will be recycled into pre-fabricated housing units—swords into plowshares, indeed), you’re not quite sure what the future holds for some of the characters. Fred isn’t exactly a safe bet, and you wonder how Peggy, the banker’s daughter, will fare on the other side of the tracks. Although he marries Wilma, Homer’s prospects aren’t even discussed beyond the fact that he’ll be receiving Uncle Sam pay for life, though Harold Russell, the real-life amputee who portrayed him, went on to a successful business career and served a prominent role in AMVETS. This is far from the glossy ending you’d expect from a Hollywood film, and it ushered in the post-war era of uncertainty. The popularity of film noir was straight ahead.
“The Best Years of Our Lives” is a unique portrait of a particular time, and it tells more about the generation that fought in World War II than ten Tom Brokaw specials. It’s got heart, in the best sense of the term, and doesn’t apologize for it. Simply an example of great American movie-making.