Movie Reviews - Featured Films » Epic Films - Family Sagas

The Best Years of Our Lives Movie Review

wyler film awards fred

1946 – William Wyler –

Rarely has simplicity been more eloquent on screen. Opening in the immediate aftermath of the veteran's homecoming, William Wyler's masterpiece of three servicemen returning home after World War II seems dated in only very small ways. Hugo Friedhofer's Oscar-winning score may be a bit over-repeated on the soundtrack, and Robert E. Sherwood's script may overindulge in 1940s good-guy slang (“chum” and “brother”). But what connected the film with its audience in 1946 (and made it the most successful movie since Gone with the Wind) also makes it powerful today—the honesty and eloquence of its emotions.

The servicemen represent different parts of American society. Al Stephenson (Fredric March) is a fortyish banker returning to his wife and older children. Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a middle-class sailor who lost his hands in a fire, wonders about the reception he will get from his fiancee (Cathy O'Donnell). Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) married a woman (Virginia Mayo) while in basic training, and now they discover their incompatibilities. Wyler and Robert E. Sherwood bring out the humanity in seemingly simple things and weave these details into a rich, mosaic plot representative of the feelings of many veterans. For example, Al's simple but moving return to his family echoes Wyler's own after the war: Al sees his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), at the end of a long hallway, and they eagerly cover the seemingly great distance to embrace.

At the bank, Al approves a loan for a fellow veteran who has no collateral except his skill as a farmer, and later must endure his sniping boss (Ray Collins), who grumbles about “gambling with the depositors' money.” At the banquet celebrating Al's return, Milly marks her husband's drinks on the tablecloth with the tines of her fork; she worries that Al will have too many and include in his speech what he really thinks about his boss. Fred's father (Roman Bohnen) comes across his son's distinguished service citation and reads it quietly to his wife. Fred loses his job at a drugstore and wanders through a graveyard of junked airplanes, thinking that he too may now be as useless as these planes he once flew.

Perhaps most representative of the film's emotional realism is Homer. His unresolved feelings for his fiancee, Wilma, and his uncertainty about their future together finally lead him to show her his nightly routine of preparing for bed. Taking her upstairs, he wiggles out of the harness that holds his prosthetic hooks onto what is left of his arms and then shoulders his way into his pajama top. He confides that with his hooks on the bed he is as “dependent as a baby.” Wilma quietly buttons his pajama top for him, embraces him, and helps him into bed in one of the most unorthodox and intimate love scenes in cinema, and Wyler, in a further desentimentalizing touch, has the actors play it with their backs partly turned to the camera. Screen-amateur Russell, who had lost both arms in the war, was given a special Oscar for bringing “hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”

Wyler's technique of staging the action so as to minimize editing and to distract from the performers as little as possible capitalizes on moments like these. (It also put the actors under pressure: Virginia Mayo, in an interview for the 1997 DVD version of the film, was still complaining that Wyler would not cut into a long shot with a closeup of her crestfallen reaction on seeing Fred return home; Wyler no doubt trusted Mayo to make her chagrin sufficiently clear to the audience in the long shot.) Many shots and scenes unfold like well-honed, one-act plays. Wyler's films collectively earned 127 Oscar nominations, according to Jan Herman's 1995 biography, a total “not even remotely approached by [Steven] Spielberg's, Billy Wilder's, or John Ford's, their closest competition.” The Best Years of Our Lives beautifully exemplifies the work of this gifted director.

Cast: Fredric March (Al Stephenson), Myrna Loy (Milly Stephenson), Dana Andrews (Fred Derry), Teresa Wright (Peggy Stephenson), Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry), Cathy O'Donnell (Wilma Cameron), Hoagy Carmichael (Butch Engle), Harold Russell (Homer Parrish), Gladys George (Hortense Derry), Roman Bohnen (Pat Derry), Ray Collins (Mr. Milton), Minna Gombell (Mrs. Parrish), Walter Baldwin (Mr. Parrish), Steve Cochran (Cliff), Dorothy Adams (Mrs. Cameron), Don Beddoe (Mr. Cameron), Marlene Aames (Luella Parrish), Charles Halton (Prew), Ray Teal (Mr. Mollett), Howland Chamberlin (Thorpe), Dean White (Novak), Erskine Sanford (Bullard), Michael Hall (Rob Stephenson) Screenwriter: Robert E. Sherwood Cinematographer: Gregg Toland Composer: Hugo Friedhofer Producer: Samuel Goldwyn for the Samuel Goldwyn Company Running Time: 170 minutes Format: VHS, LV, DVD Awards: Academy Awards, 1946: Actor (Fredric March), Director (William Wyler), Editing, Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Original Dramatic/Comedy Score, special award to Russell “for bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans”; Nominations: Sound; British Academy Awards, 1947: Film; Golden Globe Awards, 1947: Film—Drama; National Board of Review Awards: Ten Best Films of the Year, Director (William Wyler); New York Film Critics Awards, 1946: Director (William Wyler), Film Box Office: $11.3M.

Fanny and Alexander Movie Review [next] [back] Babe Movie Review

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or