Your weekly fix of great movies made before you were born that you should check out before you die.
Every February, I use this column to explore some Best Picture nominees that didn’t win. In fact, it’s a rare thing that we look at Oscar winners (often times they take care of their own publicity), but few are as fascinating as The Best Years of Our Lives.
After a brief period of Hoorah American jingoism that shoved WWII through a processor with the violence turned down to something civilians could swallow in pill form (which either meant comedy or straight-ahead action), Best Years marked an attempt at telling the story of men returning from war to find that life had changed and so had they.
It’s an honest look at what shocking violence can do (that doesn’t need to shock with violence), and it brought heroes back to a home front that simply re-framed the type of war they were fighting.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Directed By: William Wyler
Written By: Robert E. Sherwood
Starring: Myrna Loy, Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, Hoagy Carmichael, Teresa Wright, and Harold Russell
Like most Best Picture winners, it would be easy to pile on the standard reasons for why it succeeds. It deals with sensitive issues gracefully and forcefully, the acting is stellar, and the overall effect is one that resonates against your bones so hard that your blood gets sloshed around.
Great writing, great directing, great acting. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It won an Oscar. You should see it, and if you haven’t, there’s a company that will deliver it right to your mail box. It’s a fantastic movie that should be on your to-watch list already. In fact, in a world where some think that Shawshank Redemption being #1 on IMDB’s Top 250 list proves a younger generation is picking the new favorites, this 65-year-old film still makes the IMDB cut, coming in at #172. It’s a classic, yes, there’s no doubt about that.
But what makes this flick so captivating is its success in the context of when it was made, what it had to say, and how it said it. A perfect counter example is The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek which was released only two years before (which happened to be during the war), and is filled with the sort of emotional slapstick and silliness that was meant to distract and keep smiles on faces that had a lot to stay sullen over outside the dark room with the flickering frames.
On the other hand, Best Years falls somewhere between Morgan Creek and The Hurt Locker. It’s not as flighty as the first, and not as bombastic as the second, but it portrays what must have been an all-too-recognizable life for many Americans in the post-WWII period. In fact, the idea for the film was born when director William Wyler read a “Time Magazine” article on the challenges facing military personnel as they returned home from fighting that was published in August 1944 (about a year and a month before the war ended, and two years and three months before the film debuted).
Wyler was the David Fincher of his time. His perfectionism was nearly psychotic, but, like Fincher today, he got results. He was a deliberate filmmaker who demanded a certain level of authenticity in his art, especially where the military was concerned. During WWII, Wyler served the US (he became a citizen in 1928, the year he directed his first non-Western) as a major in the Air Force, creating two documentaries that saw him flying with pilots on bombing missions. The danger wasn’t a manufactured one. His cinematographer Lt. Harold J. Tannenbaum died during filming after being shot down, and The Memphis Belle would remain the only film credit to his name.
It seems obvious that Wyler was uniquely qualified to create a movie like Best Years which sought to capture a delicate, complex national mood to both mourn and celebrate it. The war was over, we had defeated a massive set of enemies, but there was still much to lament.
On a structural level, Wyler made two decisions that set the film on a course to become one of the best war movies of all time. First, he cast several unknown or lesser known faces amidst a handful of stars. Frederic March was a star, Dana Andrews was on the rise, Myrna Loy was a legend even then, Virginia Mayo was still cutting her teeth, Hoagy Carmichael had composed music for film for over a decade but was just starting to act.
The second decision was Harold Russell. Not just an unknown or rising star, Harold Russell wasn’t even an actor. He’d never had a lesson, maybe he’d never even thought about the profession before being cast. Wyler became aware of Russell after watching the documentary Diary of a Sergeant, which showcased Russell and the prosthetics he wore after losing both of his hands in the war.
Even for an artist obsessed with authenticity, hiring Russell must have been a bit of a gamble, but it’s one that would pay off incredible dividends for the audience, for Wyler, and for Russell himself (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor on his first try). In fact, Russell would only ever act in three narrative features. The first for Wyler, the second for Richard Donner 34 years later, the third for George Hickenlooper 16 years after that. Instead of acting, Russell spent his life active in AMVETS – one of the most respected volunteer organizations that offers support for military personnel and plain old community service for us civilians.
The Best Years of Our Lives faced a difficult home-side reality with poise and empathy. It’s not one of the hundreds of happy-go-lucky war time flicks that existed at their basest level as morale-boosters, but it also isn’t a stark piece of gristle meant to devastate under a pile of depressive negativism. It, like life, is more complex than that – showing just as many sunrises as sunsets.
As if ramping up deliberately for Memorial Day, we’ll take a look at To Be Or Not To Be next Thursday.