Lost in the Movies: The Favorites - The Best Years of Our Lives (#64)

The Favorites - The Best Years of Our Lives (#64)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946/USA/dir. William Wyler) appeared at #64 on my original list.

What it is • The war is over...the big one, the one that galvanized the country and affected every life, at home or abroad. Of course it didn't have the same effect across the board. Some, like soldier Al Stephenson (Fredric March), sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and airman Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), experienced the battlefield for themselves and are returning with wounds psychic (in Fred's case) or physical (in Homer's - he is played by a real-life double amputee). Others, like Al's wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), experienced its shocks more indirectly, through the absence of their loved ones and more subtle social and economic changes on the homefront. And still others, like Al's banker boss Mr. Milton (Ray Collins) or the right-wing isolationist who gets in a fight with two of the veterans at a soda fountain, barely seem to have been affected by it at all except as an abstraction or an imposition. This diversity of experience is one of the brilliant qualities of The Best Years of Our Lives, which centers around the three veterans (attempting) to adjust to their old lives, only to discover that those lives don't exist anymore. It doesn't simply offer one prepackaged notion of how the war impacted America and the individuals in this story; it explores many different points of impact with rapt fascination. In telling this story, William Wyler's attention to detail and Gregg Toland's astonishing deep-focus camerawork create a world so textured that after nearly three hours we feel as if we live there ourselves.

Why I like it •
God, this is one hell of a movie. I love its ability to fuse Old Hollywood storytelling with a newer, postwar sense of realism. There is a very strong sense of how it connects to real life (a sense felt by audiences of the period, who made it one of the biggest hits ever up to that point) and yet it still has that slightly magical, mythologized quality of "the movies" to it. Like It's a Wonderful Life, released the same year, the film represents a deeply transitional period in the history of both the United States and Hollywood, serving as a bridge between the world of the Twenties and Thirties and the world of the Fifties and Sixties. Unlike that film, however, the timeline of Best Years is very contained (what seems to be a matter of months in the autumn of '45) which makes its sense of scope all the more remarkable. When Homer returns to his world of picket-fenced suburbia, we are peeking into the idealized world of Fifties domesticity, with his own insecurity about his disability an uneasy, destabilizing presence in this middle-class utopia - as always seemed to be the case in the best Hollywood films about postwar Americana. Al and Milly, on the other hand, recall the witty repartee and comfortable, if aging, glamor of the Golden Age - one of the film's best little moments is when March holds up a handsome portrait of his young movie star face and compares it to the wearier visage in the mirror. Meanwhile as Fred visits his family in a shack that's literally on the wrong side of the track, we get a sense of the lingering Depression, of Thirties films that confronted poverty and social displacement. Indeed, Fred's situation - alcoholic dad living with a stepmom he calls "Hortense", wife (Virginia Mayo) who is wife in name only, and completely unstable life with difficulty finding employment or even a steady home - remains resonant today, in a world where the nuclear family seems less typical and the professional life more unattainable. He's also the most flawed of the movie's heroes (though Al's apparent drinking problem is not exactly brushed over), a bit of a cad with a streak of self-loathing, but also an honorable guy determined to do the right thing...or at least to try hard. He's my favorite character; that said, I'm absorbed in the plight of every character in this movie. Hell, every scene between Homer and his fiancee (Cathy O'Donnell, infusing what could be a thankless role with sincere sensitivity) pretty much devastates me. It could be tempting to see Russell's Oscar as a sympathy vote, given that he seldom acted again and was playing someone similar to himself. But in fact this is a remarkable performance, brave, subtle, and utterly sincere. No wonder William Wyler declared it "the finest performance I have ever seen on the screen." But then all the leads in the movie are great (poor Michael Hall, misdirected to play the part of Al's son as 16-going-on-11, disappears from the screen after three scenes - he isn't even invited to the climactic wedding! - but has had the last laugh; an art collector living in New York, he is the only surviving cast member). It's easy to become absorbed in the captivating story and forget the technique, but this is also an exquisitely directed film, a masterclass in how to shape the viewer's perceptions with virtuoso cutting, staging, and composition that nonetheless don't call attention to themselves. The Best Years of Our Lives is that rare movie at once historically and socially significant, grandly entertaining (I always forget it's two hours and forty-eight minutes, so swiftly and surely does it move), and aesthetically dazzling. As I put it on Twitter right after re-watching, "The Best Years of Our Lives is really something. A fascinating slice of history, bridging two eras. A dazzling (yet completely subtle) technical accomplishment. And goddamn do I care about those characters by the end of the movie."

How you can see it • The Best Years of Our Lives is available on DVD from Netflix. This is my first review (though I think this would be prime material for a 3 1/2 Minute Review video, don't you?) but a clip appears at 6:29 in "Dreaming in Wartime", chapter 7 of my video clip series 32 Days of Movies.

What do you think? • How does this approach compare to other postwar/veteran movies (here is a good video essay discussing the subject on film)? Where do you see this film's place in film history, especially given postwar trends? How do you view this film in the evolution of Gregg Toland's career - or William Wyler's for that matter? Do you have a favorite character or storyline in the film? If so, which one...and why? Are there any characters you particularly relate to? Do you root for Fred and Peggy to get together, or do you think they are bad news for each other? Where do you see these characters in ten years, twenty years, fifty years? Had there been a sequel - or a soap opera TV spin-off - where might it have gone? What do you make of the film's political outlook, especially its equation of patriotism with a fairly left-wing sense of communitarianism, sympathy for the underdog, and skepticism of business? Do you think such a space exists for a film today? If so, more or less than ten or twenty years ago? And do you think such a film would have been possible five years - or even a year or two - later, or do you think the enemies would have been different (specifically, would someone spouting off about "Reds" be pegged as a bad guy)? When you watch the film today does it jump out at you as a fascinating time capsule or as something surprisingly contemporary? If both, which parts feel like a time capsule and which parts feel contemporary?

• • •

Next week: 42nd Street (#63)

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