The Best Years of Our Lives: The Greatest Movie Ever Made?
No cursing, no skin, no car crashes, no jump-cutting? Boy, movies used to be dull! All they had to work with were great actors playing heroic characters in tragic conflicts while reciting brilliant dialogue.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is the story of three World War II combat veterans who meet and befriend each other on a freight plane on their way home, and their difficulties re-adjusting to life in their Midwestern hometown.
The idea for the picture came from producer Samuel Goldwyn’s wife, Frances, who had read an article in 1944 about the problems some veterans were having, returning to civilian life. Goldwyn commissioned Iowan Mac Kinlay Kantor (here and here), who had served in the Army Air Force to write a script, and Kantor duly headed to a cabin in the country with a few cases of scotch, only to return a few weeks later with a … poem!? Glory for Me was published in 1945 with the subtitle “A Novel” on the cover, but it’s a 268-page, narrative poem that opens,
Fred Derry, twenty-one, and killer of a hundred men….
And a powerful poem it is, but Sam Goldwyn was not amused. He had to hire a second screenwriter, the legendary Robert E. Sherwood, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, including Abe Lincoln in Illinois, to translate and shape Kantor’s poem into screen prose. Sherwood did a marvelous re-working, but the magic and most of the story about Army Sgt. Al Stephenson, Army Air Force Capt. Fred Derry, and Navy Seaman Homer Parrish are Kantor’s. Al was played by Fredric March, Fred by Dana Andrews, and Homer by Harold Russell.
(“Mac” Kantor would go to become a legend himself, winning a Pulitzer for Andersonville, and writing other acclaimed works of fiction, but he was a conservative patriot. Before he died, the press, Hollywood, and the universities would run red, and he would become an exile in his own land. In today’s multicultural America, whose most acclaimed writers are the likes of Maya Angelou, Edwige Danticat, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Tony Kushner and “Barack Obama,” Sherwood and Kantor are forgotten men, and would only be mentioned, in order to condemn them.)
Because Goldwyn had engaged Freddie March to star, the focus of the story was shifted away from Fred to Al, while Homer’s affliction was changed from extreme spasticity to having had his hands burned off in a fire caused by an attack by a Jap kamikaze fighter. (And a good thing, too. As bad as Harold Russell’s hooks are, Homer’s spasticity in the poem is too heartbreaking to take.) And yet, running at two hours and 50 minutes, each character has as much screen time as a lead in a typical, 80-100 minute “A” picture of the period.
March imbues banker Al Stephenson with his signature blends of tragedy and comedy, and the aristocratic and the common touch.
Nobody played a comic drunk better than March, and Al Stephenson is a functioning, jovial drunk, but a drunk, nonetheless. He loves his family, but hates his job, working for Mr. Milton (Ray Collins), “the old hypocrite,” at the bank.
I don’t know of any harder scripting task than writing a good speech. Can’t be too short, or too long. Can’t be too melodramatic, but in a major drama, it shouldn’t be lightweight. Sherwood gives March’s drunken Al Stephenson an oft-times hilarious speech as the guest of honor at a dinner held by his boss, to celebrate his return and promotion, during which Al goes from the pinnacle of his career to almost talking himself out of a job. It’s a tightrope act, but with Myrna Loy’s help, March pulls it off.
March uses some stage business as subtle punctuation to the misery Al feels in his work life. Anytime he has to deal with Mr. Milton or some other intolerable situation, he must have a drink or a cigarette in his hand. His creeping problem is that he also needs a drink in his hand, even when he’s in a happy situation.
Although Al is upper-middle-class, he served as a sergeant in the infantry, which comes from Kantor’s poem, and matches March’s signature character in his best roles (e.g., Les Miserables, Inherit the Wind), of the aristocrat with the common touch. This character reveals itself particularly in his dinner speech, and in a later confrontation with Fred.
Speaking of Fred, Dana Andrews’ role as the poor kid who made it to bombardier captain, the tortured hero who saw his buddies die in front of his eyes on a burning bomber, permitted him to display his own unique blend of easy masculinity and doubt-ridden vulnerability that he’d established in 1944’s Laura.
Andrews had a role big enough to qualify for a Best Actor nomination, along with March, and gave one of the greatest supporting actor performances ever, up there with Karl Malden in On the Waterfront, and Walter Brennan reading from the telephone book.
This was Andrews’ Oscar, but it was not to be.
The Academy wanted to do something for veterans that year. An admirable sentiment, that. Harold Russell was a veteran who’d had both of his hands blown off in a military training accident. It would have all been fine, if the Academy had simply given Russell the honorary Oscar that it ultimately bestowed on him. But they couldn’t leave well enough alone, and the powers that be not only gave Russell an honorary Oscar, but nominated him for the official, competitive Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, as well. And who was going to stand in his way? Not that year. And so, for his only real screen role, Russell won two Oscars.
The citation for Russell’s honorary Oscar reads, “For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.”
Don’t get me wrong; Russell gave an excellent performance by professional standards; never mind that he was a “civilian.” He was particularly good in his scenes with Dana Andrews. But Andrews gave a performance for the ages.
And that was it for him.
As Al’s daughter, Peggy, Teresa Wright’s insistent performance can be annoying at times, and yet, even it works, because she is paired with Myrna Loy as her mother, Millie, whose light touch is the perfect counterpoint. Wright was up again for Best Supporting Actress, but Loy should have been. Unfortunately for Myrna Loy, the Academy has never been a friend to restraint.
This was one of the last pictures that Gregg Toland shot. His legendary “deep focus” technique of filming a scene on a sharp angle, in order to show the action clearly both in the foreground and background, was put to its best use in the saloon scene, where Al, Homer, and Uncle Butch are in the foreground, but the real action is in the background, as Fred makes a fateful call from the telephone booth at the other end of the bar, a call whose content only Al knows.
Director William Wyler wanted Aaron Copland to score the picture, but Copland was busy with other projects, and so Wyler instead engaged Hugo Friedhofer.
Friedhofer wrote a bold, ambitious score, but also gave the picture some distinctly Coplandian flavor. He took an up-tempo theme exemplifying the speeded-up nature of town life from Copland’s score to the 1937 ballet, Billy the Kid, slowed it down, and made it lush with strings, as the leitmotif of Homer’s long-suffering fiancé from next-door, Wilma. It’s called, “I’m a Dreamer, aren’t We All?” but would more accurately have been called, “Wilma’s Theme,” as it expresses her romantic and domestic yearnings.
I believe that Friedhofer was paying homage to Copland, rather than plagiarizing him. At the time, the score to Billy the Kid was so famous that many viewers would have caught the allusion.
(In the Old West, town life represented accelerated modernity; by the time World War II was over, it represented a decelerated return to normalcy.)
Over 40 years later, the critically acclaimed but ratings-poor TV series China Beach, about the true, eponymous hospital and R&R installation during the Vietnam War, paid an homage to the The Best Years of Our Lives. The series’ third season was set stateside, after we had pulled out of Vietnam, but in each episode, the featured character would have flashbacks in which she was back at China Beach. The message of the series became that, far from having sacrificed “the best years of their lives,” the war years were the best years of their lives, and all that followed them was a come-down. To underscore that message, and as an homage to the movie (and Copland?), series composer John Rubinstein arranged a version of “I’m a Dreamer,” which thenceforth became a parallel theme to the show, along with its official theme.
Rubinstein’s homage was a grand gesture to the few viewers who would have caught the allusion, so many years down the road.
To return to the movie, poster “The Apacus,” who uploaded an early passage from Friedhofer’s score, dubbed it, “The Homecoming.” Its first passage is "Homer's Theme," a dark leitmotiv that expresses Homer's fears, as he lies awake in the plane with tears in his eyes, of being reunited with Wilma and his family.
The next passage evokes the emotions felt by Al and Fred, as they see landmarks from home from the plane, and then, sharing a taxi with Homer from the nearest airfield, hit their hometown of Boone City, after four years off fighting the war. First comes the thrill of watching city life—their city, with pretty American girls walking down the street all dolled up—and yet, it’s like they’re seeing it for the first time. Then comes the foreboding each feels as he nears his family home, after having been away for so long. Has the world back home passed them by?
Another uploaded recording is much longer, and features highlights from Friedhofer’s entire score. Unfortunately, as one commenter observed, the transitions are muddled.
Thanks to Friedhofer, Toland, and Andrews, the scene at the airplane graveyard is the most powerful in the entire picture. That scene comes early in Glory for Me, but Sherwood wisely moved it towards the end, and juxtaposes it with Fred’s father finding the medals and citations for bravery, including the Distinguished Flying Cross—just one notch below the Medal of Honor—that the humble Fred had not so much as mentioned to him and his stepmother.
In his combination of valor and the steadfast refusal to brag or even talk about it, Fred Derry stood for hundreds of thousands of American combat veterans.
Because the picture was made immediately after war’s end, Sherwood and Wyler were able to freshly capture the mood of the nation, and at the same time, certain ephemeral physical conditions, e.g., aircraft graveyards, were available that would soon be gone. Note that at the time Hollywood, which had many performers and directors in uniform, and more than a few who’d seen actual combat, was patriotic, rather than the enemy of the people that it has since become.
The Best Years of Our Lives was nominated for eight competitive Academy Awards, of which it won seven, plus Harold Russell’s honorary Oscar. The title is ironic, and comes from a speech in which Fred’s floozy of a wife (Virginia Mayo) complains that she gave up “the best years of my life” for him while he was off fighting in the war. (Not that the slut gave up a thing!) The double irony is that the title became an iconic phrase, due to its connection to the picture, yet shorn of its ironic origins. Over the next 20-30 years, it became standard usage in the vernacular to speak of veterans as having sacrificed “the best years of their lives.”
This picture has got to be on the short list with The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, and Citizen Kane, for the greatest movie ever made.
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.