Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) -- William Wyler

This is a special and memorable film. Still the best of Hollywood’s Coming Home films and among the greatest American produced ensemble pieces, there is good reason why The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. Part of it was timing. Released just after the Second World War in 1946, it perfectly captured the nation’s jumbled mix of emotions: relief, angst, hopefulness, and confusion. But most of the explanation for its acclaim lies in its superb craftsmanship.

Homecoming at Butch's.
The story centers on three ordinary veterans. Recently discharged, they form a bond as they share a flight back to their Mid-western hometown, Boone City. Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), and sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) share something else--the uncertainty all veterans face when trying to readjust back into civilized society, and the frightful question: are the best years of their lives behind them?

The men are from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, and except for the common experience of war and their fears of the future, none of these people would likely have become friends. Of course, that’s part of the beauty of the film. Circumstances have thrown them together, for better or worse. How Director William Wyler makes them interact—together and with family and friends—and what’s in store for them in a post-war world, is the heart of the story. And Wyler tells that story in a lean, honest style that surely touches every viewer, be they a veteran themselves or someone who has lost sleep praying that a family member return home safely from some overseas conflict.   

Homer has the most difficult task, having lost both hands when his ship was sunk. He now wears two hooks. “I can dial telephones, I can drive a car, I can even put nickels in the jukebox. I'm all right,” he explains, “but... well, you see, I've got a girl.” Homer doesn’t want to be a burden to Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell), the girl he planned to marry, and at first pushes her away. Feeling self-conscious, he imagines he only engenders pity. Russell, a real vet with no previous acting experience, is remarkable in a sensitive performance.
In a film loaded with great dialog, one of the best exchanges occurs shortly after the men arrive home. Fred and Al watch expectantly from a cab Homer’s uneasy reunion with Wilma and his family. They see Wilma rush to hug Homer, but he stands stiff and awkward in her embrace. Fred doesn’t notice and merely shakes his head, saying, "You gotta hand it to the Navy. They sure trained that kid how to use those hooks." Al, more observant, catches the moment and replies, "They couldn't train him to put his arms around his girl, or to stroke her hair." 

That exchange is typical of Robert Sherwood’s perfectly paced and understated screenplay. It contains no hint of melodrama, just everyday speech and emotion that puts a lump in your throat. Another lump comes when Al arrives home to surprise his family. He motions for his children to keep quiet. His wife Milly, played with grace by Myrna Loy, is in the kitchen with her back to the room, talking over her shoulder. She suddenly and instinctively knows that her husband is home. She turns abruptly, they lock eyes, and no words are necessary. The viewer knows these two are deeply in love.
Homer and Wilma have a moving exchange. 
One of the hallmarks of the film is its open and honest treatment of disabilities. In one particularly moving moment Homer removes his prosthetics to show Wilma how helpless he is without them. He can manage to wriggle into his pajama top, but he can’t button it.

Al is the most financially secure of the three friends. He returns to his pre-war job as a bank executive. It is a good life but everything has changed. His children have grown and he quickly finds that the nation is tired of war and wants to move on. The bank cares little that a loan applicant served his country. What matters is what kind of collateral he brings to the table.

Perhaps the character that most of the 1946 audience related to best is Fred. He is from the wrong side of the tracks and comes home to a dead-end job as a soda jerk, the same one he held before the war. With no better prospects in sight he also must deal with a philandering wife who’s not satisfied with his $32.50 weekly salary. He is miserable. Complicating matters is his growing affection for Al’s pretty daughter Peggy, played by Teresa Wright.

In World War II servicemen hung pinups of Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth in their quarters, but it was women like Wright’s Peggy that they wanted to come home to and marry and have children. She is young, beautiful, innocent, and vulnerable. Wright burst onto the Hollywood scene five years earlier with an astounding record of early success, garnering nominations for best supporting actress in each of her first three films (she won for Mrs. Miniver). Best Years was her sixth film and she is stunning.

Dana Andrews as Fred and Teresa Wright as Peggy.

The second scene at Butch's occurs later when Al asks Fred to stay away from Peggy. He likes Fred, but sees no future in it. Besides he's married and Peggy is too young to know what she's getting into. It is a father protecting his daughter. It is a tense scene with the emotions just under the surface. The conversation here is direct and painful. At one point Fred is unable to look Al in the eye and stares vacantly at the tabletop. Already relying on shaky self-esteem, he understands that Al doesn’t think he’s good enough for Peggy. Facing a hard sobering truth, Fred can’t escape the fact that his own life is a mess. Al, a decent and fine man in his own right, feels like a heel, leaving the viewer sympathizing with both characters.

Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland use deep focus photography to close this scene with a remarkable shot of Fred in the far background, calling Peggy from a corner phone booth to break it off. In the foreground, Al pretends to listen to Homer playing the piano with his hooks, but his attention is on Fred—just like the viewer’s. Because everyone has either made such a call or been on the receiving end of one, the scene is particularly personal, poignant, and effective. 
Another memorable scene has Fred planning to leave town to find other work after he has been fired from the drugstore. Without Peggy he has no reason to stay in Boone City. He walks dejectedly through an airfield as he waits for his transport. It is littered with abandoned bombers. Like their pilots, the machines are no longer needed and are ready for the scrap heap. Fred climbs into the nose bubble of a B-17 and momentarily goes into a trance, again reliving the horrors of war. Nine-time Oscar nominee Hugo Friedhofer wrote the film score, which here is appropriately dramatic.

The film ends with a marriage and the promise of another. Homer has accepted Wilma's love, and the entire cast gathers for the ceremony. Again, Director Wyler works wonders with misdirection and deep focus photography. As the wedding couple exchange vows, and Homer deftly slips the ring on Wilma's finger using his hooks, Fred and Peggy gaze at each other across the room, oblivious to what else is happening. By now Fred has a new job and is divorced. The young couple move to embrace and kiss. Knowing that they'll face a tough life ahead they profess their love for one another.  
The success and effectiveness of the film is more than the sum of its parts. It draws the viewer in completely, giving the sensation of watching real people instead of actors, struggling with everyday problems. The acting throughout is outstanding. March and Russell won Oscars but any of the leads could have. It is Andrews’ best performance. Number 37 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films, it belongs higher. 

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