Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"The Best Years of Our Lives": A Beginning

"The Best Years of Our Lives" opens and closes, roughly, at an airfield.

In the beginning, it's the point of re-entry for three World War II vets -- banker Al (Oscar-winner Fredric March), soda jerk turned bombardier Fred (Dana Andrews) and sailor Homer (Harold Russell), who has lost both of his hands and has become pretty adept with hooks. All three are coming home to Boone City, a midwestern metropolis not unlike Indianapolis or Cincinnati. And all three, for individual reasons, are scared stiff about reintroducing themselves to their loved ones and readjusting to civilian life.

The three of them have hitched a ride on an Army transport plane, taking a route back home that includes many stops along the way. This gives them time to share their stories, especially Homer, who is convinced that longtime girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) will leave him:



"The Best Years of Our Lives" is very much a product of its time -- that time being just after the allied victory in World War II, a victory that solidified America's position as a global power. At the same time, we came out of the war with a clearer understanding of the depths of evil and of how far we as a country still needed to go to ensure true equality for all of its citizens.

The film is ripe with the potential and the pitfalls of possibility -- of lives restarting, in the case of Al and his wife Milly (Myrna Loy); and of lives beginning, in the case of the forbidden romance of Fred, who is already married, and Al's daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright); and of Homer's difficult adjustment and gradual acceptance of the love of longtime girlfriend Wilma.

Director William Wyler handles each actor with delicacy and skill, but to me the most outstanding feature of "The Best Years of Our Lives" is the screenplay by Robert Sherwood, based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor. Sherwood's script contains some great, sharp-edged lines. One of my favorites is spoken by Al as he downheartedly prepares to return to the bank:

Al: Last year it was 'Kill Japs.' This year it's 'Make money.'

Another favorite scene is when Homer flees to the neighborhood tavern owned by his Uncle Butch after an uncomfortable re-entry with his family. Butch, beautifully played by songwriter Hoagy Carmichael, slowly plinks out "Up a Lazy River" on the piano (which Carmichael composed) and has a great little monologue.

Butch: Give 'em time, kid; they'll catch on. You know your folks'll get used to you, and you'll get used to them. Then everything'll settle down nicely. Unless we have another war. Then none of us have to worry because we'll all be blown to bits the first day.


But it's the visual moments that give this movie its real staying power, from Homer's return home to the arrival of Al at his apartment, where he surprises Milly:



And, at the end of the film, back at the airfield, Fred's visit to an airplane graveyard to put to rest some ghosts of his own while his hard-drinking father reads his son's citations:



I've been a fan of older movies since I was a kid, but as I have aged I see "The Best Years of Our Lives" through different eyes. It's a tremendously moving yet down-to-earth movie, its simple nobility enhanced by Hugo Friedhofer's Oscar-winning score. The movie ends with the wedding of Homer and Wilma, and the impending marriage of Fred and Peggy and, to me, the sense of it being very early morning of a whole new day.

12 comments:

  1. This is a true product of its time. I think it is a good representation of what it was like for returning servicemen.

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  2. As long as wars are fought, "The Best Years of Our Lives" will never date. Sure, the hair and clothing styles may change, but its themes are forever timeless. One of the greatest movies ever made. Thanks so much for your contribution.

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  3. Thanks for stopping by! My concern is I hope I do the movie justice -- it has several scenes in it that are among my very favorites, period.

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  4. David, I think you got to the essence of this great film when you wrote that it's "ripe with the potential and the pitfalls of possibility -- of lives restarting...and of lives beginning." There are some moments in the national or even world outlook that need to be preserved for the future, and this film deals with one of those moments. The Second World War changed the world forever, and these people who would like nothing better than to get back to their old lives find that it's just not possible, at least not in the ways they would like. I think that's where the film derives its staying power, because another of those world-changing moments is always lying at some point ahead of us. Films like this one remind us that other people have faced such challenges and outlived them. Oh, and I think you DID do the movie justice!

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  5. I LOVE this movie. It's among my top 10 of all-time and my 3rd fave of the 1940's. (Only Now, Voyager and Casablanca trump it.)

    My all-time favorite movie quote is from this film. It's when Peggy is telling Al and Milly that they never had any problems, that things have always been so easy for them. Millie looks at Al and says, "We never had any problems? How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me, that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again."

    Terrific review of an awesome film!

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  6. The story and message of "The Best Years of Our Lives" will, sadly, never grow old and, as you found, it is a movie that grows with us through the years.

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  7. Well, it doesn't get much better than this, does it? While the story is firmly planted in it's time, the emotions are timeless. A very informative and well done review.

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  8. I agree that this film, Wyler give us a real sense of what it was like for soldiers, their expectations, their waiting loved ones anxieties with a soldier returning home.

    With so many war films during this time that catered to what families were dealing with, TBYOOL holds up as one that feels the most genuine and it certainly had me invested in what happened to each character, wanting everything to turn out for them.

    You've done such a great job here in drawing us in again, as we did when seeing the film for the first or even 5th time. The film was perfectly cast and I'm grateful we were lucky enough to have Wyler behind the lens. I can't imagine changing a thing.

    The perfect contribution to the Blogathon.
    Page

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  9. One of my all-time favorites. Thanks for selecting it.

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  10. This is one I haven't made the time to see yet. Sounds riveting.

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  11. This is a great movie and reading your excellent posting brings it all back. I definitely agree that Wyler handles all the actors with delicacy and that the Robert Sherwood script is very sharp. I tend to think of this film together with the John Garfield movie 'Pride of the Marines', where he also plays a disabled veteran coming home, like Homer in this. Judy

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  12. Excellent review!
    One of my favorite movies of all time. Everyone is perfect in this film.

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