I’ve seen The Best Years Of Our Lives on TCM a few times. There’s a part of me that always wishes that this film was dull, in the way that many best picture winners can be when watched through modern eyes, or in any other way overrated. The Best Years Of Our Lives won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946 and in doing so, it defeated one of my favorite films of all time, It’s A Wonderful Life. A part of me would love to be able to say that this was one of the greatest injustices of cinematic history but, honestly, I can’t. The Best Years Of Our Lives is an excellent film, one that remains more than worthy of every award that it won.
The film deals with veterans returning home from World War II and struggling to adjust to life in peacetime. That’s a topic that’s as relevant today as it was back in 1946. If there’s anything that remains consistent about human history it’s that there is always a war being fought somewhere and the man and women who fight those wars are often forgotten and abandoned after the final shot has been fired. The returning veterans in The Best Years Of Our Lives deal with the same issues that our soldiers have to deal with today as they return from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Best Years Of Our Lives follows three veterans as they return home to Boone City, Ohio. As they try to adjust to civilian life, their loved ones struggle to adjust to them.
Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews) is a self-described former soda jerk. (To be honest, I’m really not sure what a soda jerk was but it doesn’t sound like a very fun job.) During the war, he was a captain in the air force. He returns home with several decorations and few marketable skills. During the war, he was good at bombing cities but there’s not much that can be done with that skill during peacetime. Nearly penniless, Fred takes a job selling perfume at a department store. He spends his days trying to control her temper and not give into his frustration. At night, he’s haunted by nightmares of combat.
Meanwhile, his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), finds herself resenting the fact that Fred has come home. She married him while he was in flight training and, as quickly becomes obvious, she’s less enamored of Fred now that he’s just another civilian with a low-paying job. (She continually begs him to wear the uniform that he can’t wait to take off.) The Best Years Of Our Lives is a film full of great performances but Virginia Mayo really stands out. I have to admit that, whenever I watch this film, I find myself envious of her ability to both snarl and smile at the same time.
Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was a bank loan officer who served as an infantry sergeant. (It’s interesting to note that the educated and successful Al was outranked by Fred during the war.) Al returns home to his loving wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), his daughter Peggy (the beautiful Teresa Wright), and his son, Rob (Michael Hall). At first, Al struggles to reconnect with his family and he deals with the tension by drinking too much. Rehired by the bank, he approves a risky loan to a fellow veteran. After the bank president (Ray Collins, a.k.a. Boss Jim Gettys from Citizen Kane) admonishes Al, Al gives a speech about what America owes to its returning veterans.
Meanwhile, Peggy has fallen in love with Fred. When Milly and Al remind her that Fred is (unhappily) married, Peggy announces, “I am going to break that marriage up!” It’s a wonderful line, brilliantly delivered by the great Teresa Wright.
Marriage is also on the mind of Homer Parrish (Harold Russell). A former high school quarterback, Homer was planning on marrying Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) as soon as he finished serving in the Navy. During the war, he lost both his hands and now he’s returned home with metal hooks. Homer locks himself away from the world. When he finally does talk to Wilma, it’s to show her how difficult life with him will be. Wilma doesn’t care but Homer does.
Harold Russell won an Academy Award for his performance here. Russell was not a professional actor. Instead he was a veteran and a real-life amputee. Watching his performance today, it’s obvious that Russell was not an experienced actor but the natural charm that enchanted the Academy still shines through.
It’s been nearly 70 years since The Best Years Of Our Lives was first released but it remains a powerfully honest and surprisingly dark film. All three of the veterans deal with very real issues and, somewhat surprisingly, the film refuses to provide any of them with the type of conventional happy ending that we tend to take for granted when it comes to movies made before 1967. As the film concludes, Fred is still struggling financially. Homer is still adjusting to life as an amputee. Al is still drinking. All three have a long road ahead of them but they’re all making progress. None of them will ever be the same as they were before the war but, at the same time, they’re all working on making new lives for themselves. They haven’t given up. They haven’t surrendered to despair and, the film suggests, that is triumph enough.
The Best Years Of Our Lives is a great film and a great best picture winner. It’s just a shame that it had to be released the same year as It’s A Wonderful Life.