- Director: William Wyler
- Writers: Robert E. Sherwood, based on the novella Glory For Me by MacKinlay Kantor
- Starring: Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Cathy O’Donnell, Virginia Mayo, Hoagy Carmichael, and Gladys George
- Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 List (#37), 8 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – William Wyler, Best Actor – Fredric March, Best Supporting Actor – Harold Russell, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Academy Honorary Award – Harold Russell), 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Sound Recording)
- Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), free streaming (with ads) on Pluto TV, stream with cable subscription of Turner Classic Movies app, buy or rent with Amazon Video
Almost no one today has seen The Best Years of Our Lives, but when it came out in 1946 it was the biggest Hollywood hit in years, at least since Gone With the Wind. It swept the 1946 Oscars, winning eight awards total, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, but when you read the one sentence description today, it does sound like homework. It’s a topical drama dealing with three soldiers coming home after World War II and dealing with what we would today call “PTSD” in their own ways. When my wife asked me what I was watching and I described the movie, they said “Oh, fun.” They were being sarcastic.
Yet I do think that The Best Years of Our Lives is definitely worth watching today, despite being so of its time. It’s similar to The Grapes of Wrath, in the sense that both were 1940s “issue movies” that successfully dramatized issues that were going on at the time those movies were made, yet they both still feel like they have a lot of universal relevance that we can still glean from them today. The Best Years of Our Lives deals specifically with veterans returning from World War II, but you could tell almost the exact same story dealing with veterans coming home today. Its portrayal of a soldier coming home from war having lost both his hands (Harold Russell) is still resonant, of course, and in fact I think this might be the most rewarding and most well-done look at the issue that I’ve seen in literally anything. This is also not a movie that portrays the soldiers as being unable to adjust to a idyllic, mid-Century America. Consider this scene, which I’d really urge you to take a second and watch even if you’re not going to watch this whole movie. We like to think of so many of today’s problems as brand new, but idiots spouting nonsense have always existed. It’s not new for them to be seemingly “respectable” people, down to the American flag pins. Maybe the difference is that when this guy starts responding to arguments with “just look at the facts,” he gets punched in the face. That doesn’t happen as often as it should on Twitter.
Another thing you’ll probably notice in that scene is the performance of Harold Russell, which is almost unique in movie history. Russell had no acting training, but was in fact a disabled veteran who had lost his hands in a training accident during the war. Director William Wyler (who had lost hearing in one ear on bombing missions over Europe) discovered him in a Navy instructional video showing how to use his artificial “hook” hands. Lots of fully-abled actors of have won Oscars over the years for playing disabled characters, but honestly watching an actual disabled person is a whole different, and maybe deeper, experience. Russell, like his character, is incredibly proficient with his artificial hands. He can light matches, play piano, and, in the movie’s final scene, slip a ring onto his bride’s finger. Today you’d have to use CGI to get anything like this from somebody who actually had hands. Russell’s character could easily slip into maudlin territory, a former football star who now has trouble holding a glass of milk, but he actually seems pretty well-adjusted to the whole situation. His problems come from how other people treat him differently. There’s a heart-breaking scene where he describes his father cleaning his pipe, then suddenly stopping because he was “self-conscious he had hands.” There aren’t any villains discriminating against him because of his disability, it’s just that he wants people to act around him the way they did before his injury, and they just can’t.
Russell was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but few thought he’d actually win, so the Academy decided to give him a special Honorary Award for his performance. As things turned out, he won Best Supporting Actor, too, making him the only actor ever to win two Oscars for one performance. It was a good thing he had a spare, because many years later he became the only Oscar recipient ever to sell his award at auction, in order to pay medical bills for his wife. This is why the Academy made its current rule that, before selling their awards, recipients are required to offer them back to the Academy for one dollar. Russell, for his part, went to college on the G.I. bill rather than continuing his acting career in earnest. He made exactly four more acting appearances over several decades, including one in the 1980s M*A*S*H spin-off, Trapper John, M.D.
The Best Years of Our Lives tells the intersecting stories of three veterans (uncoincidentally, from the three major branches of the service) returning from World War II and finding that they’re having trouble picking up where they left off. Fredric March plays an Army sergeant returning to his family and having to fit back into the lives of his wife (Myrna Loy) and daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright). Peggy finds herself falling for the decorated bombardier Fred (Dana Andrews), who wears his chest-full of medals to a job interview, only to be asked “do you have any experience in procurement?” He’s also just now really getting to know a waitress he married after knowing her a week before shipping out (Virginia Mayo), complicating things for Peggy. Then there’s Hector (Russell), whose family wants to support him but isn’t sure how, and who’s worried that his high-school sweetheart (Cathy O’Donnell) won’t be interested in him anymore. It probably could afford to lose about 40 minutes (the romantic subplots in particular feel extraneous), but it doesn’t drag.
William Wyler was a veteran himself when he directed this movie, which perhaps gives him the right instincts on which skids to steer into and out of. He was one of Hollywood’s most reliable moneymakers over the middle decades of the 20th Century. The Best Years of Our Lives was his second movie to win both Best Picture and Best Director, after Mrs. Miniver (a movie glorifying British resistance to the Nazis shot at a time before the US entered the war). He would pull off the feat again in 1959 with Ben-Hur, making him the only director of three Best Picture winners, ever. He also continues to hold the record for total Best Director nominations at 12. But beyond these superlatives, he was very much an actor’s director, beloved by many of those who worked with him over the years. On The Best Years of Our Lives he chose to work with legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland, of Citizen Kane fame. You see Toland here taking the deep focus techniques he pioneered in Kane, refining them, and using them in different situations. Rather than focusing on two faces having a conversation on different planes, here the deep focus shows us several different groups of people, all having fun at the same bar at the same time. Or, in the scene I embedded above, it’s used to show us Hector aghast in the foreground at what we can also see further away.
One of the things I love most about watching old movies is the way they let us time travel into a different time and place. Sure, they’re “fictional,” but they’re made by people living then who wanted contemporary viewers to relate to their experiences. The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the most interesting movies I’ve seen from this perspective. Sure, we’re rooting for the heroic soldiers to find a job, but we also overhear workers at a drugstore worrying that they won’t be be able to keep their own jobs with all these soldiers coming home. It’s hard to “support the troops” all the time when “the troops” is a significant portion of the population and you live in a resolutely capitalist society. In another scene, Fred is overwhelmed at the same store by the various perfumes with foreign sounding names that he’s now expected to know about. I was reminded of a memorable scene in The Hurt Locker, where Jeremy Renner goes grocery shopping and is overwhelmed by all the different kinds of cereal. Some things change, other things don’t. My personal favorite detail, however, may have been the sign glimpsed in the background, reading “settle for a hot dog today?” Even the sign advertising hot dogs isn’t sure about them.