The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, William Wyler)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

If I have one movie that I wish most strongly I could persuade everyone I know to see, I reckon this is it. All you need to know about the uncompromised depth and range of feeling in this sobering film is expressed simply enough by the fact that its title is meant sarcastically — sourced from a bitter remark by a side character who’s talking of having wasted those “best years.” That’s not to say the film itself is snide or angry — not at all. It’s just that it’s centrally concerned with and sympathetic to the cold irony of disappointment, for disappointment is at the heart of adulthood, and like most of William Wyler’s best films, The Best Years of Our Lives is a film by and for adults. It begins after most stories end, and explores the aftermath of the events that will always define and haunt its characters, in the process acquainting us with a document of their inner lives so direct and real it can reduce you to tears at the sheer fact of its existence.

It’s very hard to approach Best Years without resorting to hyperbole. I haven’t seen everything, of course, but for all its good humor and lack of sentimentality, this is nevertheless one of the most profoundly moving films I know to have come from Hollywood, and it’s neck and neck with Casablanca and The Apartment as the finest feature ever to receive the Best Picture Oscar. It isn’t a “sweet” film or even a terribly sentimental or patriotic one; its message is simply of people, how they change and evolve, how they cope with loss and love. The truth is it’s uncluttered and deeply sincere enough to spoil the modern cinema for you: you wonder if we could do this, why there aren’t hundreds of other movies like it.

Billy Wilder would in later years point out that one reason every aspect of The Best Years of Our Lives — each scene, every camera setup, every composition and all of the dialogue — aches with feeling is how fresh the wounds were in 1946 of returning home from war. WWII had barely ended at all when it was commissioned and made, and Wyler felt the crush of expectations at capturing the quintessential returning-veteran experience. But he did, and so much more besides, largely thanks to how much the film reflects his own life. This was his first narrative movie since the superb war propaganda piece Mrs. Miniver, after which he’d gone into the service to make documentaries; the surreal displacement articulated, then, by Best Years and by Robert Sherwood’s screenplay (very loosely sourced from a MacKinlay Kantor novel called Glory to Me), is finally Wyler’s own, and it’s for that reason that it’s so artfully and elegantly expressed. It could easily have been his most personal effort. Little wonder that, as so many critics from Jonathan Rosenbaum to this or that amazon.com customer will be happy to tell you, it’s next to impossible to come through even repeat viewings of the film without weeping.

Adding to the legacy of all this, and certainly cathartic for anyone who’s fallen under the complex spell of the film, is that it would become the biggest Event film in several years, and the highest-grossing since Gone with the Wind. That solidly emphasizes how much the world has changed since 1946, in less than obvious ways: when was the last time Americans flocked to screenings of a film that was just about people? People coping and trying and fucking up, falling in love, having normal sex and going home to their families and dealing with the small frustrations and bullshit they share with the theater’s darkened spectators. Things do happen, of course, in the film. Hollywood did not gain its reputation for thrills and daring for nothing; Best Years is a model of efficiency, and not bloodless, inhuman efficiency but a craftsmanship putting on display an alarming skill of handling, documenting, and evoking emotion.

The film follows the lives of three men who meet up on their psychologically overwhelmed, hungover return home from war and then begin their strained attempts at reassimilation, during which their paths regularly cross. Endlessly frowning Fredric March’s Sergeant Stephenson is a well-to-do and cantankerous banker (“What’s happened to this family? All this atomic energy and scientific efficiency…”), but he’s also an alcoholic who’s come to feel distant from his adoring family (wife Milly, given urgency and sympathy by Myrna Loy; and daughter Peggy, stunningly mounted by the great Teresa Wright), despite their best efforts. He’s outranked by Captain Derry (Dana Andrews, hauntingly wounded in all his outward toughness), ironically nothing more than a soda jerk in civilian life, who’s met with resistance at his attempts to move up and beyond such a calling; his commanding and hostile wife Marie (Virginia Mayo, excellent in a thankless role) is reflective of his darkest, dumbest impulses and an unwilling partner in his journey, piling on to his tightly-wound depression and combat nightmares.

But most heartbreaking of all is Petty Officer Homer Parish, unforgettably played by nonprofessional actor Harold Russell. Like Russell, Homer lost both his hands because of an equipment malfunction and is now befitted with a pair of hooks he can control and maneuver quite easily. But his optimism quickly fades as he learns just how differently his family and his fiance will now look upon him, a challenge devastatingly and beautifully expressed without dialogue by Wyler — only in actions, expressions, and wordless communication. “They keep starin’ at these hooks,” he says, “or else they keep starin’ away from ‘em.” Homer may be even a little more fucked up than anyone expects. “I’ve just gotta work it out for myself,” he tells his girl at one point, not something you want to hear somebody say when they’re holding a gun. But the film never once looks down on or trivializes him — nor any of his fellow soldiers or their families.

The inherent tragedy of all this is that the war is over, yet it isn’t, a perceptive comment that’s one of many elements to allow the film to age so gracefully. Then as now, everything goes back to the war in one sense or another. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a stronger or more understanding portrayal of the shock that greets these men as they return to their day-to-day lives. “Culture shock” is too reductive a term, and it can’t be pared down, as in the Iraq story The Hurt Locker, to talking too much about tight spots you’ve been in and being overwhelmed by the cereal aisle. No simple shortcuts or narrative violations will do here; everything is earned in this film, and earned the hard way. We cry for these people because we have come to know them. Even beyond his war experience, Wyler knew the emotional core of his subject well — from Dodsworth to Mrs. Miniver all the way to Roman Holiday, he would constantly fill his films with a concentration upon the often irreconciliable differences between the desirable world of “appearances” within the specter of societal approval, and the stark truth of private life. And like most of his other films, Best Years is only faintly suggestive that there’s a solution — it reaches a sweet, overwhelming finale, but really leaves the future in the air and chillingly tentative, as well it should.

Wyler hangs back and allows us, in Rosenbaum’s phrase, a “sense of bearing witness.” He and the man who might well have been the finest cinematographer in cinema history, Gregg Toland (best known, of course, for Citizen Kane), traverse in and out of rooms carefully and frame their deep-focus scenes busily, with a sense of naturalism owed both to the elaborate compositions that give facial emphasis to the actors and to the subtle realism of the refreshingly unartificial sets. Toland’s sense of scope and vision, so vital to the immersion into the world of Kane, here brings us a kind of dramatic clarity that draws us ever farther in to the seriousness and detail with which Wyler has mounted these beautiful, messed up lives. It’s conceivable that this could have been a great film without Toland, but a film that comes across this vividly, sadly, honestly? Doubtful.

Though it’s finally a heartening film, at bottom Best Years is an unveiled critique of the “American dream,” a mythology on the verge of reaching its height, and an account of post-war fallout before we had a term for Post-Traumatic Stress. One stunning sequence features Andrews returning to a plane similar to the one he flew, now standing in a junk heap about to be reappropriated, and as he sits alone inside Wyler mounts the camera as if he’s back in battle, filming the stationary plane from the same angles that would be used were he actually in flight — a deeply stirring reflection of the character’s suffering. Wyler’s trick, at least as far back as Dodsworth, had always been the involvement of audiences deeply within the lives of characters he’d allow them to come to know. Much as we saw Mr. Dodsworth removing his pants while trying to read his wife’s words and expressions, we see these people preparing dinner and having a cigarette in a quiet moment, and reflecting alone with the crush of the recent years all on their shoulders (that applies to the female characters as much as the men); it’s nearly too much to bear. More than just a witness to the times, it’s an achingly moving witness to humanity, in its eternal battle against every vexing outside standard of “normalcy” and what “should” be.

The disquieting performances provide the heart of the unheard-of social conscience in this Hollywood feature. March and Russell received Academy Awards, but others deserved it equally. Wright in particular displays a kind of bottomless emotional range here, while Andrews’ work is a nearly peerless example of “negative acting,” a feat in a film that gives him arguably the most difficult and subtle content. Myrna Loy, so frequently sidelined in examinations of the film, over and over again proves herself tremendously capable of embodying the stern skeptic, sarcastic hostess, the genuinely loving and infinitely patient spouse, the calmly sympathetic mother – all female roles seldom portrayed with such care in the movies. Her moments with March alone are priceless: softly scolding them just before they close the bedroom door — on his first full day back — with no explicit suggestion required of what’s about to happen: it’s in her eyes. And after all the transforming and difficulty and adjustment pain is on the table, at Homer’s wedding, when the couple quickly shares a glass, a look in her eyes suggests all that we may need to know that the two of them will never not love one another, however much, as she put it, she may briefly feel in her heart she hates him. It’s one of the few vivid portraits of a good marriage I know if in a Hollywood film. (Interestingly, at least one of the others — you know which one — also involved Loy.) Sensational as well in an extremely difficult part is Cathy O’Donnell, the amputee’s fiancée. It’s an awkward character given a humongously graceful performance, embodying the portrait of naivete and hopeful idealism in youngest, barest love.

I must admit to being tied in knots the most of all by Wright as lovelorn Peggy, intelligent but eventually in the throes of what for a time must remain an unrequited love for Derry. No words could describe her performance, but her reading of it is yet another work of mastery for her after Mrs. Miniver and Shadow of a Doubt. There is an incredible shot of her angrily splitting peas after being more or less dumped, taking out every trace of her rage on the food. Some time earlier, she’s the source of the line that breaks down the barrier between us and the screen, when she wins over us all with the completely convicted “I’m going to break up that marriage!” — in the midst of a shatteringly calm and warm conversation, it’s a rare moment of total elation.

Best Years is never overwrought or boring and, surprisingly enough, stands far more capable than you might expect of justifying its 170-minute length. It’s a really excellent use of time because of its concentration not on special effects, scenery, or battle sequences but on people — faces, thoughts, and emotions. People can stay interesting for three hours. Technical marvels cannot. The art, the immense art; it’s not a showy triumph, it’s just all in service of the way this story is made to speak to our heart, the deep focus absorbing us in a heightened world apart along with Hugo Friedhofer’s beautiful score, the character details challenging us not to feel everything in our bones. We paid to feel that. What a time this was.

The left-hanging postwar mood is contagious, and unresolved at the finale, which is nevertheless one of the strongest and most affecting in cinema: a pair of shots explain everything about how much love, familial and romantic, is our sole meaningful respite from everything in this or any era. First is the slow turnaround of Teresa Wright, sporting an enormous sun hat, as she gradually realizes Derry is standing still and looking her over across the room (an ideal example of Toland’s photography’s intricate story functions). And then, what’s likely my favorite or second-favorite shot in any movie: the full span during Homer and Wilma’s wedding vows — distressingly beautiful in themselves, especially after an almost intolerably touching sequence earlier of her helping him undress — of the pair staring one another down, surrounded by the people they care about, who care for them: a communal coming together for all of the film, and all of us. Will lives continue to fall apart? Of course, perhaps; but in this moment, a fleeting love, what we survive for. You can’t know everything, and that’s the point. Wilma places her hand on one of Homer’s hooks and we’re all gone, a blubbering collective massive mess.

William Wyler once told an interviewer: “I wouldn’t be allowed to make The Best Years of Our Lives in Hollywood today. That is directly the result of the activities of the Un-American Activities Committee. They are making decent people afraid to express their opinions. They are creating fear in Hollywood. Fear will result in self-censorship. Self-censorship will paralyze the screen.” Hollywood couldn’t do this today; it probably couldn’t even if it wanted to. Then it was censorship, from which we may never fully recover. Now it’s a censorship of commercialism, the all-American hatred of deep and true emotion, the fear of humiliating oneself by expressing one’s true heart where others across the grandiose banner of society can hear. But people still say and feel and do the things these people in The Best Years of Our Lives did. They seem as real, as haunting and true as ever. They seem, strangely, only to become more so with time.

***

[Vastly expanded from a much less formal review posted in 2006.]

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