The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The Best Years of Our Lives, a charming film focusing on three soldiers returning home from World War II. Each man, from different backgrounds, is able to find a common thread in their war service. They have been greatly changed by the war; there are physical changes, emotional changes, and life changes.
Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo as Fred and Mary Derry
When Fred (Dana Andrews) entered the Army, he left behind a life of extreme poverty and a job at the local drug store lunch counter. While training in Texas he met and quickly married his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) before going overseas. Fred found the steady Army paycheck and respect garnered from battle has given him optimism about the life he will now make for himself and Marie. Now trying to return home it is quickly apparent that with the war over, veterans must find where they fit in a jig-saw puzzle that has filled in the missing pieces while they have been away. Now it seems there is no place for these pieces to fit.
Homer and his Uncle Butch playing the piano at Butch’s Bar.
Homer (Harold Russell) is returning home from recovering in a military hospital after his hands were badly burned when his aircraft carrier was sunk. While at the hospital he was trained to use the mechanical hook prosthesis that are now replace both of his amputated hands. Homer though seemingly capable with his prosthesis, agonizes over the strain his handicap will have on the people he loves. In addition, Homer’s mental state is fragile. On Homer’s first night home, his mother serves the family and company drinks. However, Homer as capable as he is with his prosthesis was unable to grasp the glass and it breaks. The breaking of the glass in his mother’s sitting room shows the audience that it is Homer himself that is unsteady and fragile. Training him with the prosthesis hooks may have given him skills to perform daily activities, but Homer must unsteadily navigate his new world and at times we will see his vulnerability.
Fredric March and Myrna Loy as Al and Milly Stephenson
Al (Fredrick March) is returning to his family, home, and work at the bank, after a stint in the Army in the Pacific front. Al finds it difficult to get into routine with his family and work. The years apart because of the war have made his presence in the home awkward. His job at the bank seems less interested in having him back to work, as they are interested in having a war veteran on their payroll. To cope with these difficulties he drinks heavily.
This movie is not only about the struggles of the men returning home, key to the film are the women in their lives and their families. Each man has their struggles with the women in their lives, but they find that with perseverance and understanding their futures begin to fall into place making a new puzzle. As symbol of this, are the war planes which have now become a graveyard where their pieces are being used for scrap. During the war the country was turning out hundred of planes a day, now these planes are no longer in use they sit desolate and rusting. Soldiers too were enlisted and trained in mass numbers, now they are returning home to a world that has moved on without them, leaving no space for them and no need for their war-time training. By the end of the move the airplanes are now being repurposed as building materials, and the men will be repurposed too. They may not be in their same pre-war jobs, but their life will adapt and their skills will too be repurposed.
The parallels between the men and their lives are intertwined very succinctly. When we meet the men, they are on their way home. Sharing a cab, each man is equally excited and terrified about going home. The film shows us the audience the men’s first night with their families. We see Homer’s difficulties with the constant visible reminder that life for him is different, Fred is trying to locate his wife who is no longer living with his parents, and Al suggests a night on the town to delay the awkwardness of his house. The film shows the men at work, how each man spends their evenings, and a brief insight that each man will be able to positively transition into the future.
There is a truth in this film in its depictions of situations concerning the veterans. Take for instance, the situation between Fred and his wife Marie was a common one. The premise of the “quickie” wartime marriages is also explored in the Judy Garland drama The Clock (1945). The Clock follows a couple as they meet and get married during a two-day period. The Best Years of Our Lives, though not about the same couple, shows us a couple who married quickly and the cautionary result of such a union.
The film also depicts characters that are less than impressed with the war veterans and their service. Al’s son is less interested in the war treasures his father has brought home, as he is interested in the facts of the war. There is also a man at the drug store who speaks about the war being fought against the wrong enemies. Living in a country that promotes freedom of speech allows these detractors to have a voice. Sadly, it is often the veterans and their families who have fought and sacrificed for this freedom that are faced with these detractors.
In my opinion Harold Russell as Homer steals the film. Russell himself was a veteran of World War II, like many of the men in the cast. But his prosthesis hooks were not part of Hollywood special effects, but part of his everyday life. Films of this era rarely displayed people with disabilities or handicaps, but casting Russell in this his first film role showed realism to the plight that many veterans suffer from physical scars that have changed their lives and the lives of those around them. Throughout the movie Russell is not only able to convey the fear and strength of his character, but he demonstrates skills that he has been taught that were meant to help him assimilate into normalcy. The scenes which I find are most truthful are those that involve Homer’s night-time routine. The taking off of Homer’s prosthesis allows everyone to see that when the prosthesis is removed at night, Homer is helpless until they are put back on in the morning.
Hoagy Carmichael as bar piano player, Cricket.
Also in the cast, is jazz piano player and singer Hoagie Carmiachael. Those that are familiar with film noir will recognize him as Cricket in the Bogart & Bacall film To Have and Have Not (1944). Now in this film he is Homer’s Uncle Butch who owns a local bar. Butch’s bar becomes a meeting place for the new friends, this is where they ravel and unravel the ties of their friendship. Butch as a character is the sympathetic ear and unsolicited advice giver to Homer, who finds it difficult to express his struggles to his parents and his fiancée.
The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards including: Best Motion Picture for Samuel Goldwyn Productions, Best Director for William Wyler, Best Actor for Fredric March, Best Writing for Robert E. Sherwood, Best Supporting Actor for Harold Russell, Best Film Editing for Daniel Mandell, Best Music for Hugo Friedhofer. In addition, Harold Russell won an Honorary Award for his performance in the film. He had been nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category. However, many felt he was not likely to win. He is the only actor to receive two Oscar awards for the same performance. Samuel Goldwyn was also given an additional award, the Memorial Award.
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