I know of no other movie in cinema history that can justly be considered both as perfect entertainment and as nourishment for the nation’s collective soul. But director William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is arguably both - its poignantly disquieting critique of the changing American landscape G.I.s faced upon their return from WWII resonating with audiences then and delivering a potent message that time has been powerless to disavow since. By 1946 Hollywood’s interpretation of the war had decidedly shifted from more glamorous fare like Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Since You Went Away (1944) to frank and sobering reflections. The harshest realities would not surface on celluloid for a few decades more, perhaps because the Hollywood moguls wisely perceived that those who had lived through the hardship wanted to place their painful memories in the past and move forward.
However, the transition from war to peace time would prove anything but smooth for thousands of returning veterans. Grittier critiques (Twelve O’Clock High 1949) examining the psychological fallout of war would all come later. But The Best Years of Our Lives captures the truthful essence of that hopeful anxiety facing the conquering hero; his re-assimilation into a complacent civilian world, perhaps even misplaced as a distant dream, already moved on without him.
Written by Robert E. Sherwood and Mackinlay Kantor, The Best Years of Our Lives charts this bittersweet and occasionally very awkward period of transition with frankness, honesty and a sense of empathy. Director William Wyler had the original ailment of post-traumatic stress syndrome shifted from the character of Homer Parrish, the sailor, to Fred Derry, the pilot bombardier and then actively sought out Harold Russell – a real life double amputee – for the role of Homer; the only non-actor in the film’s ensemble cast. Russell’s performance proved so enigmatic as the linchpin of the story that he won two Oscars; one for Best Supporting Actor, the other an honorary statuette in acknowledgement of his extraordinary bravery in bringing social acceptance about for the physically disabled.
The three service men whose lives become intertwined once their uniforms have been shelved in mothballs are bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), platoon sergeant, Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell); men of varying social backgrounds brought together in the twilight’s last gleaming after D-Day as they travel back to their home town of Boone City in the nose of a B-52. Anxious for different reasons, Homer, Fred and Al quietly observe the relatively unchanged landscape of their home town by air, taking comfort in the fact that most of what they see is sweetly familiar. But the similarities witnessed from above are, of course, superficial and cosmetic. For upon closer inspection at ground level it becomes immediately apparent that the community around them has changed, the ground beneath their feet having shifted further still.
Fred and Al are quietly impressed by Homer’s agility, and perhaps even more with his seeming sunny outward optimism. Despite the loss of both hands from burns sustained after his aircraft carrier was sunk, Homer is able to sign his name with a pen, carry his own duffle bag, and even light a cigarette using his prosthetic metal hooks. After their plane ride, the boys share a cab. Homer points out Butch’s Bar – an old haunt owned by his uncle that he, Fred and Al vow to return to once they have settled into their old lives. But as the cab approaches Homer’s address his confidence drains. He nervously suggests they turn around and have a drink at the bar now, before ‘going home’. Al wisely forces Homer out, saying “You are home, soldier.” But Fred delays the cab a moment as Homer is reunited with his aged parents (Walter Baldwin and Minna Gombell) and former sweetheart Wilma Cameron (played to winsome perfection by newcomer, Cathy O’Donnell).
Al’s reunion with his family is no less poignant. He is met at the front door by his stunned and tearful daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright) and overjoyed son, Rob (Michael Hall); encouraging both to keep his arrival a secret from their mother, Milly (Myrna Loy) until she suddenly becomes aware of the deafening silence in the next room, emerging from the kitchen with her simple joy fulfilled at being reunited with her husband.
The least welcome of all the homecomings is Fred’s; returning to a cramped little shack he once shared with Marie (Virginia Mayo); the war bride he married on the fly while still in basic training. Marie is a heartless creature, more enamored with Fred as a flyer than she is with him as a man – even less so when he informs her that due to limited employment opportunities he is returning to his former career as a drug store soda jerk. Marie, who has since become a cocktail waitress at a nightclub, is accustomed to high times and wild parties. She wants excitement, money and uninhibited fun; tangibles that Fred can neither afford or finds particularly unattractive since his sobering return from the war.
Al’s future is hardly as bleak. In fact, the bank where he once worked has offered to reinstate him with a promotion and a raise, viewing his war record as an asset when dealing with other vets seeking loans from the bank. Al gratefully accepts this position, but like his two contemporaries, has already begun to suffer from some deep seeded social angst. In Al’s case, he manages to console his reoccurring fears with alcohol. When the bank decides to hold a dinner in his honor, Al regrettably arrives mildly inebriated but still manages to impart an eloquent speech that champions the bank aligning its interests to help servicemen rebuild their lives in a country whose precepts they defended in the war.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Homer and his parents becomes strained. Mrs. Parrish in particular cannot bring herself to anything but tearful frustrations over the loss of her son’s hands while Homer’s father seems unable to articulate his worried confusion beyond evasive reflections about the past. Although engaged to Wilma before the war, Homer now encourages her to leave him and seek her happiness elsewhere. But Wilma has been in love with Homer for many years. The loss of his hands has not changed her affections and she remains steadfast in her devotion – not out of a sense of pity or even moral duty – but from a genuineness and unerring love that Homer is reluctant to realize as pure of heart.
Peggy and Fred accidentally meet after she arrives to collect her father from Butch’s Bar where the three old buddies have reunited to drink themselves into oblivion. On the surface Fred pretends that his life is solid and secure. But nightly he suffers from terrors and sweats that Marie is unable, or perhaps unwilling to tolerate. Fred takes comfort from Peggy, who finds Marie utterly shallow. An unexpected spark of romance kindles between Peggy and Fred. This infuriates Al and he orders Fred to stop seeing his daughter.
Realizing that Al only has Peggy’s best interests at heart, Fred reluctantly agrees to steer clear of her, but thereafter begins to resent Al’s self-righteousness. Homer comes to the drug store where Fred is working, but is dealt a blow by an obnoxious customer who suggests that the war was fought against the wrong enemy. An altercation ensues and Fred loses his job as a result. Afterward Fred and Homer share a heart to heart and Fred, ever loyal and encouraging, tells Homer he should marry Wilma with all speed. Fred even offers to be Homer’s best man.
However, upon returning home in the middle of the day, Fred discovers Marie locked in a passionate embrace with Cliff (Steve Cochran). Marie tells Fred that she has decided to divorce him because he is a failure – at least, in her books. Briefly believing this snap assessment himself, Fred tosses his father (Roman Bohnen) the various medals and citations he earned during the war, glibly suggesting that they were “passed out with the K-rations”. Realizing what a war hero his son is Mr. Derry encourages Fred to remain in town. But Fred wants out and fast. He books himself on a waiting list for the first outbound plane to anywhere, but then takes a side trip to the nearby war airplane graveyard where vivid memories of combat leave him momentarily despondent.
When Fred is interrupted by the boss of the work crew salvaging the aircraft’s aluminum for scrap, he finesses his way into a job to help with the disassembly. Having resurrected his future from the ashes, Fred decides to pursue Peggy once more. Meanwhile, Wilma tells Homer that her parents have decided to send her away, presumably to forget him. At first, Homer believes this is the best for all concerned, but when Wilma makes it pointedly clear that her place is with him, Homer realizes how much she still loves him and agrees to marry her.
True to his word, Fred stands up for Homer in the wedding. Newly divorced, Fred eyes Peggy from across the room during the service and later, he and Al reach a tentative reconciliation in their fractured friendship. Fred approaches Peggy with the understanding that it may be years before he can find true comfort in civilian life; but reassesses that none of it will mean anything if she is not at his side. The honest gesture is enough. Peggy smiles and kisses Fred, the promise of their life together finally secured.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a flawless, unvarnished masterpiece; perfectly scripted and peerless in its acting. It remains the cinematic touchstone by which all other home front melodramas are judged. The real magic of the film is that it seems more genuine than manufactured; its’ mid-town America backdrop palpably atmospheric and true to life. Director William Wyler evokes the heartfelt without veering into sentimental treacle. None of his actors overplay their hand. Of the lot, Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright strike a perfect chord; symbolic of the ‘new American’ optimism about what the future may bring. Cathy O’Donnell’s screen debut is as impressive; her sad-eyed tenderness the perfect foil for Harold Russell’s wounded pride. Is it any wonder then that The Best Years of Our Lives took home Best Picture honors at the Academy Awards?
Last year, Warner Home Video reissued The Best Years of Our Lives on DVD using the same severely flawed digital files the old HBO and later MGM/UA discs employed to create a thoroughly lackluster rendering. Now comes the Blu-ray. I must confess; when this title was announced with copycat artwork mimicking the DVD release I didn’t hold out much – if any - hope that Warner would do right by this release – and arguably, they haven’t. Before delving into the nuts and bolts of the thing it would behoove the reader to remember that no original camera negative exists for this immortal classic. Hence, Warner is already cribbing from second generation elements to mint this disc. That said, and given all of the many digital tools at Warner Home Video’s disposal, this disc remains something of a let down.
Mercifully gone are the utterly abysmal digital artifacts (edge enhancement, macro-blocking, pixelization) that plagued the DVD and made it virtually unwatchable. Contrast levels have also been brought back into line – marginally. Whites that bloomed now seem merely bright – occasionally, still too bright – but acceptable (again, given the tragic quality of the aforementioned DVD). But the image doesn’t really snap together or tighten up as it should. Close ups look rather marvelous, but medium and long shots lack depth and tonality in the gray scale. Despite the image obviously being darker (though hardly dark) than its predecessor, contrast levels on the whole are a tad weaker than anticipated.
Warner has jettisoned the Chace re-channeled pseudo-stereo audio mix for a very solid 2.0 mono rendering that will surely not disappoint. What is particularly disappointing about this release is its lack of extra features. For an Academy Award Winner as beloved as this, one would have at least expected a new documentary like the one afforded Warner’s House of Wax!!! But no. We get the same tired intro from Teresa Wright and interviews with Virginia Mayo and Wright that add up to a measly nine minutes. The original HBO rendering on DVD also included an isolated track of Hugo Friedhofer’s immaculate and thoroughly moving underscore, by far one of the greatest compositions ever committed to film. We lose this herein. Bottom line: I’m going to recommend the Blu-ray for its marginal improvements – chiefly, for eradicating the painfully obvious and aforementioned digital anomalies. The Blu-ray is definitely an improvement. But it isn’t perfect and that remains a shame.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)