This essay is Twenty Four Frames contribution to the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by R.D. Finch’s The Movie Projector. Click here to visit other great contributors to this event.
One of the most moving scenes in William Wyler’s epic film about returning war veterans appears only minutes into the start of the film when Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a disabled Navy veteran who lost both hands in the war, is dropped off at his parents’ home by the two other vets from his hometown he just met at the airport. The two others, Sergeant Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) remain in their taxi watching Homer as he approaches the house. He halts on the front lawn, feeling a sense of unease about what waits inside. It’s quiet, nothing happens for a moment, suddenly his kid sister Louella appears at the door, sees him, and excitedly runs out to greet her big brother. Homer’s parents are not far behind. They greet him, hesitant at first, his father then hugs him, his mother sobs, both tears of joy and sadness. They are soon joined by Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), Homer’s girl who lives next door. Their eyes meet, they stand still for a second and then she hugs him. Significantly, Homer does not hug her back.
Surprisingly, or maybe not, “The Best Years of Our Lives” has not dated at all, in fact, it remains extremely relevant to our lives today. Sadly, since World War II, we as a country have been involved in wars or ‘conflicts’ seemingly one right after another. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan being the major engagements and there have been numerous others, too many to list. In each case returning soldiers have faced emotional and physical adjustments and sometimes, like during the Vietnam War, were greeted with protests and indifference.
Wyler, along with screenwriter and playwright Robert E. Sherwood, reflect on these transitions accurately and bluntly in many scenes. However, there is one scene in particular I want to point out. It comes when Al Stephenson, now working as a loan officer at the bank he was employed at prior to entering the service, greets a customer who is requesting a loan. It turns out the man is an ex-G.I. and needs the loan to buy some land so he can start a farm. Al, as is part of the standard procedure for banks, asked him what kind of collateral he can provide. The young veteran looks back with a blank stare, he has no collateral. Al explains the bank needs to have some kind of security, a guarantee of sorts so they know they can get their money back. Dejected, the vet still could not understand why he was being refused. Al is painfully uncomfortable telling the young vet all this. He doesn’t want to reject the soldier’s request and eventually goes against the bank’s policy approving the loan. Later, attempting to explain to his manager why he did it, the sanctimonious boss goes on about, oh sure, we need to help the vets now that they are home, but we cannot be lending money to people with no collateral, after all, we’re running a business. It’s a poignant scene, as well as a dose of reality, one that will resonant with many people and veterans especially. Think of the recent scandals involving banks foreclosing on veterans’ families while they were still serving their country!
Based on a novel in verse called “Glory for Me” by Mackinlay Kantor, “The Best Years of Our Lives” follows the lives of three returning veterans, Fred Derry, Al Stephenson and Homer Parrish. Fred, a heroic bombardier is now facing dead end jobs, unemployment, a slutty wife (Virginia Mayo) only to soon find true love with Peggy (Teresa Wright) the daughter of Al Stephenson, the former Sergeant and now a bank executive. Stephenson finds his cushy successful civilian life hard to accept, almost contemptible. Al drinks too much, trying to forget the horrors he was forced to endure in war. Al finds himself not as concerned with success but empathizing more with his fellow veterans. Then there is Homer who is handicapped , having lost both his hands in an explosion. He doesn’t want pity, nor to be treated as a helpless invalid. Still living with his parents, the transition to civilian life is difficult especially with his girlfriend Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) whom he planned to marry prior to the war. Now, things are different. Wilma still loves him however, Homer holds her at arm’s length, not wanting her to get involved with him, not wanting her to be stuck with a cripple. For all three returning veterans nothing can ever be as it use to be.
Both the novel and the final film are bleak visions of returning vets. Kantor’s original draft submitted to Wyler and MGM had an even darker vision of the post war tribulations the three veterans would be facing. In the novel, Fred Derry’s return to private citizen is met with a cheating wife right up front and no work. Without a job, Fred thinks about robbing a bank, the same bank where Al Stephenson works. Al, whose cushy life at the bank making loans to returning veterans is morally more difficult than he thought attempts to reconcile business ethics with his new found social consciousness. A former serviceman, now a farmer wants to make a loan to buy some land to farm however, he has no collateral. Al makes the loan but faces the anger of the bank’s president for lending the money to someone who is clearly a big risk. Al resigns from the bank and forms a partnership with the veteran he made the “bad” loan too. The biggest changes though come with Homer, the handicapped sailor who returned from the war with two hands missing. In the novel, Homer was originally a spastic as a result of injuries suffered in combat. He finds it hard to coordinate his body movements except when he drinks, only then can he manage to find some ability to control himself. Sadly, he is on his way to becoming a lifetime alcoholic. Homer is also weary of his girlfriend, Wilma. They have been together since high school but he fears Wilma is only going to marry him out of pity. As Homer continues to drink his moods become worst, at on point, he even attempts to shoot his parents during an argument. Only Homer’s unsteady hands saved their lives. Homer eventually does come to realize Wilma’s love is not from pity when she begins to read up on Homer’s condition and tries to help him get through it all.
In the film Homer is no long a spastic, this after Wyler heard about Harold Russell, a real life veteran who lost both of his hands in an explosion while training paratroopers at Camp MacKall in North Carolina. Russell later made an Army training film called “Diary of a Sergeant” which Wyler happened to see and he soon after signed him for the part. Other changes involved Fred Derry, no longer planning to rob a bank; instead he went back to his dead end job at the drugstore. In the final film, Fred and his wife try to make a go of their marriage at first, but it doesn’t work out, she wants to party and finds another guy (Steve Cochran) to party with. As for banker Al Stephenson well, he stays with the bank, still gives the loan to the vet but does not quit, nor does he form a partnership with the Vet to farm.
For director of photography Greg Toland this was his sixth and final film with Wyler and like most of Toland’s works it most impressive. His deep focus photography helped Wyler convey a sense of realism and grit. He also avoided using any kind soft glamorous lighting in order to add a touch of reality and less movie star perfection to the actors. For example the actresses, though all beautiful (Myrna Loy, Theresa Wright, Virginia Mayo and Cathy O’Donnell), come across as attractive but still everyday kind of women you could possibly meet in real life. In addition to the realistic photography, Wyler and his set designer paid close attention to small details like the clothes the women wear making sure each piece looked proper for the characters they portrayed. Again, there is nothing glamorous about the wardrobe; it all looks like it came right off the rack.
Wyler’s use of the camera has always been subtle; his point of view always focused on the story, the audience connected by what is unfolding on screen. This is unlike Welles or Hitchcock who use the camera to record extremely personal shots, basically forcing the viewer to see exactly what they want you to look at. Whereas Wyler sets the camera down and lets the scene unfold giving the viewer a choice on where or what to focus on. A good example is the wedding scene of Homer and Wilma. As the scene unfolds Theresa Wright is in the foreground during the ceremony. In the background, also in focus, thanks to Greg Toland’s deep focus camerawork, is Dana Andrews, their eyes making contact. This is all in one shot and Wyler gives the viewer the opportunity to look at whoever they want and when. A result of this technique is Wyler’s films contain longer takes with less editing.
Wyler’ long takes, his craftsmanship, his seriousness that critics once acknowledged as William Wyler’s greatest attributes, later in his career became handicaps and targets for attack by some critics. In the 1960’s and up until 1970 when he made he made “The Liberation of L.B. Jones,” his work began to be viewed as out of fashion, some were considered overblown and his position was not helped with “Funny Girl,” a film so tailored to Barbra Streisand’s talent one wonders whatever happened to Fanny Brice.
While I know many will disagree with me, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” is Wyler’s most fully realized film and I believe his most personal too. Having just come home from the war, he wanted to make something that had depth and meaning to it. He found it in this powerful story of men returning from the horrors of war as they attempt to assimilate back into civilian life as best they could after facing death and destruction.
The film was originally scheduled to open in 1947 but Wyler convinced MGM honcho Sam Goldwyn that it had Oscar potential and should open late in 1946 to qualify. The world premiere was held in New York on November 21st when it opened at the Astor Theater on Broadway where it played for more than eight months straight before being distributed to other theaters throughout the city. On Christmas day 1946, the film premiered in Los Angles at the Beverly Theater. By year end “The Best Years of Our Lives” was crowned the best film of the year by the New York Film Critics and would soon after receive eight Oscar nominations winning seven including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Fredric March) and Best Music Score by the great Hugo Friedhofer. The biggest shocker was that Greg Toland did not even receive a nomination for his impressive cinematography that contributed so much to the film’s look and feel. Harold Russell who won for Best Supporting Actor also received a second special Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.” The film was also a financial hit with the public, this despite the fact it was one of the more serious works to come out of Hollywood, one that challenged the audience to come face to face with problems still fresh on everyone’s mind. After all, it was only one year after the war ended that it came to the screen.
Over the years there have been many films that have focused on returning soldiers coming home with uncertainty or shelled shocked, battle fatigue, post war syndrome, call it what you want, in works like “Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Home of the Brave,” and most recently, “Stop-Loss” and “The Lucky Ones.” “The Best Years of Our Lives” was one of the first films, if not the first, to focus on returning veterans coming home, adjusting to civilian life. While it may be a bit too long, to this day it still remains one of the moving works of its kind.