The Best Years of Our Lives
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
Director: William Wyler
Production: Goldwyn Productions; black and white, 35mm; running time: 172 minutes. Released 1946. Filmed in RKO studios.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn; screenplay: Robert Sherwood, from the novel Glory for Me by MacKinley Kantor; photography: Gregg Toland; editor: Daniel Mandell; sound recordist: Gordon Sawyer; art direction: George Jenkins with Perry Ferguson; music: Hugo Friedhofer.
Cast: Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson); Fredric March (Al Stephenson); Dana Andrews (Fred Derry); Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson); Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry); Cathy O'Donnel (Wilma Cameron); Harold Russell (Homer Parrish); Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle).
Awards: Oscars for Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Actor (March), Best Supporting Actor (Russell), Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Music, and a Special Award to Harold Russell for "bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans," 1946; New York Film Critics Awards for Best Motion Picture and Best Direction, 1946.
Reisz, Karel, editor, William Wyler: An Index, London, 1958.
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Rich Isaacs, Hermine, "William Wyler: Director with a Passion and a Craft," in Theater Arts (New York), February 1947.
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Acclaimed by critics and audiences at its release and awarded eight Academy Awards, The Best Years of Our Lives is imbued with the personal commitment that director William Wyler brought to his first project after his experience of shooting two documentaries for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Wyler was as much of a returning serviceman as are the heroes of this film. His problems in reintegrating himself into the community were perhaps not the same as those of Homer, the amputee, Fred, the captain who can only find work as a soda jerk and Al, the banker who confuses idealism and collateral, but the director's identification with their predicaments cannot be doubted. It is expressed in the film's unconventional structure and tone.
The film is, of course, about homecoming, and emphatically so when we realize that nearly one-third of its considerable length is exclusively devoted to that subject. The unfolding of the narrative, a slim narrative, is deferred until the film has thoroughly spatialized the notion of the return. In his pre-war films, Wyler's meticulous mise-en-scène served psychological portraiture in the context of melodrama. In Best Years, what we conventionally identify as theatrical tension is replaced by the nearly plotless placement of characters in locale and in relationship to each other. Wyler's stagings make dramatic events of the performers' positions in the frame. The three male protagonists, distinct from each other in class, backgrounds, age, and profession, are emblematized as an entity in the way their faces fit together in a bombardier's bay, during their journey back to Boone City. A taxi, with its windows and rear view mirror, provides a series of variations on their unity and singularity as it deposits them at their respective homes. Homer is caught in significant isolation, standing before his front porch, between the clear eyes of his buddies and the pitying ones of his family and sweetheart. When he waves goodbye with his prosthetic hook he places everyone in this less than triumphant homecoming. Al's reception, in one of the film's most famous shots (in a film full of famous shots), is a happier one. He embraces his wife Milly in a hallway whose length is a function of narrative time and camera placement rather than physical dimension.
One of the elements for which the film is distinguished is the use of quite limited spatial contexts—the bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens of the middle class. Wyler's blockings and the deep-focus photography of Gregg Toland, then, transcend the modest areas of middle-American domesticity, without betraying or distorting their shape, finding in them the coordinates that express this drama of placement. The emotional peak of the embrace of Al and Milly is followed by Al's nervousness at being a civilian and a husband. Milly sits comfortably in a wing chair, at place in the frame; Al shifts nervously from one side of the frame to the other. His homecoming, as well as that of Fred and Homer, is incomplete. It will require the duration of the whole film to achieve something like a narrative homecoming. And even that is ambiguous in this film that so disrupts the conventions of Hollywood storytelling.
The story that is told is charted in the distances our eyes traverse in the frame. Here, as in other examples of screen narrative that exploit staging in deep fields, we are required to make sense out of what is apparently a fully constituted frame, without the distraction of frequent inter-cutting. This access to the wholeness of the cinematic image is what prompted André Bazin to consider Best Years a model of his realist aesthetic. Bazin pays particular attention to the scene where the foreground is occupied by Homer, playing the piano with his hooks, while in the background Fred is phoning Al's daughter to break off their relationship. The mediating figure in the frame is Al, presumably looking at Homer, yet just as much aware of what is going on behind his back. We see and understand all the elements simultaneously, just as we do at the film's end, at the wedding of Homer and Wilma in one side of the frame, and the reconciliation of Fred and Peggy in the other.
The Best Years of Our Lives represents the kind of production for which Samuel Goldwyn was renowned. No expense or effort was spared; the lighting of the cramped playing spaces required enormously complicated procedures to create the deep-focus effects. Hugo Friedhofer's score is one of the most admired in the history of film music. A star actress, Myrna Loy, played Milly, essentially a supporting role. The embodiment of one kind of American wife in the "Thin Man" series, she is just as well remembered for the variation she brings to the type in Best Years. Fredric March won his second Academy Award (the first 15 years previously in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) for his portrayal of Al. Harold Russell, the nonprofessional chosen to play Homer, gives a performance that is as much a function of the director's ability to place him in the frame and preserve his simplicity as it is a creation of the "actor."
While it is impossible to ignore the non-professional status of Harold Russell or to ignore the way the fiction addresses an important social problem in 1946 America, it is equally impossible to ignore the film's formal and perceptual challenges. With almost mannerist insistence, Wyler reminds us that the screen is an image of depth, not the real thing. He tests that quality of the image in the long and short of the fiction's expressive physical contexts—an ex-flier (Fred) wandering through a graveyard of planes slated for demolition, an amputee finally embracing his sweetheart with the stumps of his arms, a gigantic drug store that seems to sum up the crassness of postwar America, a neighborhood bar that collects the feelings of a film unsure about our "best years."