Saturday, April 21, 2012


BACKSTORY: “The Best Years of Our Lives” is one of the most beloved movies of its time. It was directed by the acclaimed William Wyler and released in 1946. Wyler had earlier done the famous documentary “Memphis Belle”. Producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted to make a movie about returning veterans so it is set in the period immediately after WWII. It is based on a blank verse novel by MacKinley Kantor and was adapted into the screenplay by Robert Sherwood – two heavyweights. The movie was a box office smash in America and was actually even more popular in England. It won seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Frederic March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Editing, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score. AFI ranked it as the 37th best motion picture of all time. The movie is famous for the casting of Harold Russell a a disabled vet.  Russell had lost his hands due to a faulty fuse setting off some explosives during a training session. He is the only actor ever to win two Oscars for the same performance. The Academy felt he would lose for Best Supporting Actor so they gave him an honorary Oscar. Besides Russell, Wyler insisted on the film crew being veterans.

OPENING: We are introduced to the three main characters as they meet on a flight home. Homer (Russell) is a disabled sailor who has mechanical hook prostheses. He is returning to his fiancé. Al (March) was a sergeant in the infantry. He is returning to his wife and children. Freddy (Dana Andrews) is a decorated bombardier. He is returning to a wife he married just before leaving. Each is facing their reunions with trepidation. Al says “it feels as though I’m going to hit a beach.”
Homer, Freddy, and Al

SUMMARY: Part one: the reunion section. Al’s reunion is surprisingly joyful, but he feels awkward at home so he takes his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) out for drinks. He gets drunk. A vet with a drinking problem – actually kind of daring for a movie made in 1946. Guess who they meet at Butch’s bar? It’s a small world. March and Andrews do good drunks. What’s going on with Peggy and Freddy? There’s some chemistry there. When Freddy sleeps off his drunk at Al’s he has a nightmare involving a bombing raid.  (It looks like Freddy is the one who is going to have PTSD.)  Peggy is there to comfort him.

Al wonders if he's the same man

Freddy finally finds his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo) and she is surprisingly thrilled to see him. This feeling will not last. Marie is a tramp and is used to independent life and has a night club job and a night club personality. She is unimpressed when Freddy is forced to take a deadend job at a drugstore.

Part two: the job section  Al is back at work at his bank. Freddy is selling perfume at the drugstore. Freddy has lunch with Peggy. It costs $.85. They kiss. This does not bode well for Marie’s character development. She’s going to have to get trampier for this to work cinematically. Al gets in trouble with his banker boss when he humanely makes a loan to a vet who has no collateral. The war has apparently thrown off his banker mentality. He sardonically says  “Last year it was kill Japs, now it’s make money.” Al follows this up with a drunken speech at a business dinner. He finishes strong with a plea to gamble on small business owners. Listen up, bankers in the audience.

the ladies are Peggy and Milly
       Peggy double dates with Freddy and Marie to try to get rid of those pesky feelings, but instead she discovers that Marie is quite the trollop. Peggy then resolves to break up the marriage. When Al learns what is going on, he confronts Freddy like grown men should. The dialogue is great in its adultness. Freddy agrees to not see Peggy.

      Freddy gets fired from his perfume job when he punches a customer who is spouting about how the war was a waste because we were fighting the wrong countries. Huh?  Shaky plot development. This seems too early in the Cold War for him to be talking about the Russian communists. This opinion would have been bizarre for 1946 so it seems like a weird way to advance the plot.  Why not punch him because he is deriding chumps who went off to war when the economy was booming?

Homer tickles the ivories
      Meanwhile, Homer’s problems are not on the job front. Things are very awkward at home with his parents. Homer feels he is not good enough for his fiancé Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) and he tries being mean to her to get her to move on with her life. Wilma is an American girl-next-door type so she is not easily dissuaded. (Plus she knows many girlfriends of disabled vets will be watching the movie and she will be a role model on how to handle this situation.) Hollywood has her do the right thing. In a great scene, she puts Homer to bed without flinching and when he finally hugs her, the look on her face is priceless. Upping the heart-tugs, Homer sheds a tear when she leaves.

      Part three: marching into the future  Freddy catches Marie with another man. She wants a divorce. Problem solved! And she comes off as the bad guy.  Mission accomplished. Freddy plans to leave and start a new life. While waiting on his flight, he wanders into an airplane graveyard (symbolic of the vets?). The contractor that is going to use the planes for materials for building homes offers him a job.

CLOSING: Homer and Wilma get married. He screws up the vow, but they get through the ceremony. (Russell actually flubbed the lines and Wyler left the take alone – very nice!) Freddy and Peggy rekindle with a kiss. It looks like everyone will live happily ever after.


Acting - 9

Action - N/A

Accuracy - N/A

Realism - 8

Plot - 8

Overall - 8

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Absolutely. It is not a typically macho war movie. It even has some romance. The female characters hold their own. Myrna Loy and Virginia Mayo were highly respected in their day. The film has just the right dose of smoochiness. The ladies will have their hanky moments and the guys will be able to tolerate them.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Accuracy is not really an issue here. The story is fictional. However, the three main characters do fit many of the returning veterans.

CRITIQUE: It is easy to see why “The Best Years of Our Lives” is so beloved. It was the perfect movie for its time. It really struck a chord. People were making the transition from wartime to peacetime and the adjustment was difficult. Millions of veterans were returning to lives that were not only different from Depression-era America, but drastically different from their military experiences. Some came home disabled and wondering about their place in society. Some came home to stable families and jobs, but found that boring and unfulfilling. Some came home to faulty wartime marriages and unclear occupational futures.

     The movie is very well made. Wyler is at the top of his craft and used his experience filming “Memphis Belle” to get a realistic veteran vibe. The movie has a different look to it. Wyler insisted on a type of cinematography called “deep focus”. When you watch a scene, everything in the background and foreground is in focus. It gives the scenes incredible depth. The framing is also nicely done. Many of the scenes feature doorways like in “The Searchers”.  Although Wyler did not like the score, it matches the moods well.

       The cast is all-star. The acting is top notch. Just the facial expressions alone are amazing. Russell is the standout because of his background. He does real well for a rookie. (Wyler insisted he not take any acting lessons.) Of course, it helped that O’Donnell is a poor actress and anyone would look talented opposite her.

      The movie holds up surprisingly well considering it came out right after the war. You would expect a good bit of patriotism and sentimentality. It keeps those elements to a minimum. The way characters in the movie behave is true to life. The one problem is the tidy ending is not true to life. It is asking too much of 1940s Hollywood to have a depressingly realistic ending. All three story arcs portend positive futures. That’s 100%. It would have been nice if 100% of actual WWII veterans had bright post-war lives.

CONCLUSION: “The Best Years of Our Lives” is one of the best of the small subgenre of post-war home front movies. It is an excellent companion to all the good American WWII movies. Many of the survivors in those movies would have had experiences similar to Al, Freddy, and Homer. It’s almost like a sequel to many of those movies. It is definitely a must-see, but a bit overrated because of its overly optimistic ending. Contrast it to the second half of “The Deer Hunter”. But then again, perhaps that movie was too pessimistic.  "The Best Years of Our Lives" seems to be appropriately placed in the Greatest 100.




  1. This is one of those movies I'm really looking forward to. I've had it for a long while now but somehow never felt the time was right.
    I don't think the ending could have been different, given the time.

  2. Time to watch it so I can find out what you think. You are certainly right about the ending. Spoiler alert: if The Deer Hunter had been made in the 1940s, Mike would have rescued Nick from the Russian roulette den.

  3. Great review. I hadn't picked up on the hard work Marie's character has to do so that we don't feel bad about Peggy taking her place as Fred's wife. It is manipulative and convenient and you are right to call it out.

    I really like this movie. The characters are interesting and have great chemistry with each other. The vets suffer serious problems which are portrayed in a frank but positive way, which makes the film a joy to watch. The aircraft graveyard scene is a powerful transition from despair to hope that I like to remember. Thank you for including this one among your war movie reviews!

    1. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the review. It is a classic that holds up well.


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