The Best Years of Our Lives
|The Best Years of Our Lives|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||William Wyler|
|Produced by||Samuel Goldwyn|
|Screenplay by||Robert E. Sherwood|
|Based on||Glory for Me|
by MacKinlay Kantor
|Edited by||Daniel Mandell|
|Distributed by||RKO Radio Pictures|
|Budget||$2.1 million or $3 million|
|Box office||$23.7 million|
The Best Years of Our Lives (aka Glory for Me and Home Again) is a 1946 American drama film directed by William Wyler, and starring Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and Harold Russell. The film is about three United States servicemen re-adjusting to civilian life after coming home from World War II. Samuel Goldwyn was inspired to produce a film about veterans after reading an August 7, 1944, article in Time about the difficulties experienced by men returning to civilian life. Goldwyn hired former war correspondent MacKinlay Kantor to write a screenplay. His work was first published as a novella, Glory for Me, which Kantor wrote in blank verse. Robert E. Sherwood then adapted the novella as a screenplay.
The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell), Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood), and Best Original Score (Hugo Friedhofer). In addition to its critical success, the film quickly became a great commercial success upon release. It became the highest-grossing film in both the United States and UK since the release of Gone with the Wind. It remains the sixth most-attended film of all time in the UK, with over 20 million tickets sold.
In 1989, The Best Years of Our Lives was one of the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Just after the end of World War II, returning veterans Fred Derry, Homer Parrish, and Al Stephenson meet while flying home to Boone City. They share the nose-cone of a bomber on an overnight flight, and have a panoramic view of their town as they arrive in the morning.
Fred was a captain and bombardier in Europe. Homer was a petty officer; he lost both hands from burns suffered when his ship was sunk, and now uses mechanical hook prostheses. Al was an infantry platoon sergeant in the Pacific. All three have trouble readjusting to civilian life.
Al is a banker with a comfortable apartment and a loving family: wife Milly, adult daughter Peggy, and high-school student son Rob. He is promoted to vice president in charge of small loans, as the president views his military experience as valuable in dealing with other returning servicemen. When Al approves an unsecured loan to a young Navy veteran, despite the man's lack of collateral, the president advises him against making a habit of it. Later, at a banquet in his honor, an inebriated Al expounds that the bank—and America—must stand with the vets and give them every chance to rebuild their lives.
All three meet again at "Butch's" bar, a saloon belonging to Homer's piano-playing uncle. Here Peggy and Fred meet for the first time as Al dances with Milly.
Fred, a soda jerk before the war, wants something better, but the tight labor market forces him to return to his old job. Fred had met and married Marie after a short acquaintance, before shipping out less than a month later. She became a nightclub waitress while Fred was overseas. Marie makes it clear she does not enjoy being married to a lowly soda jerk.
Homer, a high school football quarterback, had become engaged to his next-door neighbor, Wilma, before joining the Navy. He does not want to burden Wilma with his handicap so he eventually pushes her away. However, she still wants to marry him.
Peggy drives her parents around to various nightclubs to celebrate. The last place they stop is a small bar owned and operated by Homer's uncle. There Al is reunited with Homer and Fred. Peggy and Fred are attracted to each other.
Fred finds himself working under a young man who had been Fred's assistant before the war. Peggy drops by, and they have lunch together. Afterward, he suddenly grabs her and kisses her quickly but passionately. He immediately apologizes. Confused and somewhat upset, Peggy gets in her car and drives away. She decides to find out more about Marie in person, and arranges a double-date with herself and a boyfriend. Peggy dislikes Marie, and informs her parents later that night that she intends to end Fred's unhappy marriage. Al demands that Fred stop seeing his daughter. Fred agrees, but the friendship between the two men is strained.
Fred is having a casual conversation with Homer at work when an obnoxious customer enrages Homer with his remarks about fighting the wrong enemy in the war. Fred intervenes, knocking the man down and losing his job. Later, Fred encourages Homer to marry Wilma. When Wilma visits Homer at home later that same evening, Homer shows her how hard life with him would be, but she is undaunted.
Fred catches his wife with another man when he returns home unexpectedly. They argue, and Marie tells him that she is getting a divorce.
Fred decides to leave town to make a fresh start. While waiting for a plane, he wanders into a vast aircraft boneyard. Inside the nose of a B-17, he has a flashback. The boss of a work crew, in charge of disassembling the planes for materials for "prefabricated houses," rouses him. Fred persuades the man to hire him.
At Homer and Wilma's wedding, Fred, now divorced, is Homer's best man. Fred and Peggy glance at one another. After the ceremony, he takes her in his arms, kisses her and asks if she understands the troubles that lie in store for them. Peggy smiles fondly at him, and then kisses him again.
An underlying theme is the changing fortunes of the three involved: in particular the reversal of Fred and Al.
Fred says he was earning $400 a month in the USAF but is forced to take a job at $32.50 a week ... a third of what he had been earning. Meanwhile we are not told what Al was earning. Basic pay as an infantryman was $50 a month, but as a sergeant he might expect $100. But returning to the bank he is offered $12000 per year... over ten times his pay in he army.
Comparing relative earnings during the war and after the war: Fred earns four times what Al earns in the war (hence the constant reference to "glamour boys"): Fred's $130 a month in the drug-store seems pitiful in relation to Al's $1000... but when they go out Fred is insistent that he buys the drinks.
- Myrna Loy as Milly Stephenson
- Fredric March as Platoon Sergeant Al Stephenson
- Dana Andrews as Captain Fred Derry
- Teresa Wright as Peggy Stephenson
- Virginia Mayo as Marie Derry
- Cathy O'Donnell as Wilma Cameron
- Hoagy Carmichael as Butch Engle, Homer's uncle
- Harold Russell as Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish
- Gladys George as Hortense Derry
- Roman Bohnen as Pat Derry
- Ray Collins as Mr. Milton
- Minna Gombell as Mrs. Parrish
- Walter Baldwin as Mr. Parrish
- Steve Cochran as Cliff
- Dorothy Adams as Mrs. Cameron
- Don Beddoe as Mr. Cameron
- Marlene Aames as Luella Parrish
- Charles Halton as Prew
- Ray Teal as Mr. Mollett
- Howland Chamberlain as Thorpe
- Dean White as Novak
- Erskine Sanford as Bullard
- Michael Hall as Rob Stephenson
Casting brought together established stars as well as character actors and relative unknowns. The jazz drummer Gene Krupa was seen in archival footage, while Tennessee Ernie Ford, later a television star, appeared as an uncredited "hillbilly singer" (in the first of his only three film appearances).[Note 1] Blake Edwards, later a film producer and director, appeared fleetingly as an uncredited "Corporal". Wyler's daughters, Catherine and Judy, were cast as uncredited customers seen in the drug store where Fred Derry works. Sean Penn's father, Leo, played the uncredited part of the soldier working as the scheduling clerk in the A.T.C. Office at the beginning of the film.
Teresa Wright was only thirteen years younger than her on-screen mother, played by Myrna Loy. Michael Hall, with his role as Fredric March's on-screen son, is absent after the first one-third of the film.
Director Wyler had flown combat missions over Europe in filming Memphis Belle (1944), and worked hard to get accurate depictions of the combat veterans he had encountered. Wyler changed the original casting that had featured a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and sought out Harold Russell, a non-actor, to take on the exacting role of Homer Parrish.
For The Best Years of Our Lives, he asked the principal actors to purchase their own clothes, in order to connect with daily life and produce an authentic feeling. Other Wyler touches included constructing life-size sets, which went against the standard larger sets that were more suited to camera positions. The impact for the audience was immediate, as each scene played out in a realistic, natural way.
Recounting the interrelated story of three veterans right after the end of World War II, The Best Years of Our Lives began filming just over seven months after the war's end, starting on April 15, 1946 at a variety of locations, including the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, Ontario International Airport in Ontario, California, Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, and the Samuel Goldwyn/Warner Hollywood Studios. In The Best Years of Our Lives cinematographer Gregg Toland used deep focus photography, in which objects both close to and distant from the camera are in sharp focus. For the passage of Fred Derry's reliving a combat mission while sitting in the remains of a former bomber, Wyler used "zoom" effects to simulate Derry's subjective state.
The fictional Boone City was patterned after Cincinnati, Ohio. The "Jackson High" football stadium seen early in aerial footage of the bomber flying over the Boone City, is Corcoran Stadium located at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A few seconds later Walnut Hills High School with its dome and football field can be seen along with the downtown Cincinnati skyline (Carew Tower and PNC Tower) in the background.
After the war, the combat aircraft featured in the film were being destroyed and disassembled for reuse as scrap material. The scene of Derry's walking among aircraft ruins was filmed at the Ontario Army Air Field in Ontario, California. The former training facility had been converted into a scrap yard, housing nearly 2,000 former combat aircraft in various states of disassembly and reclamation.
Upon its release, The Best Years of Our Lives received extremely positive reviews from critics. Shortly after its premiere at the Astor Theater, New York, Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, hailed the film as a masterpiece. He wrote,
It is seldom that there comes a motion picture which can be wholly and enthusiastically endorsed not only as superlative entertainment, but as food for quiet and humanizing thought... In working out their solutions, Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Wyler have achieved some of the most beautiful and inspiring demonstrations of human fortitude that we have had in films." He also said the ensemble casting gave the "'best' performance in this best film this year from Hollywood".
Several decades later, film critic David Thomson offered tempered praise: "I would concede that Best Years is decent and humane... acutely observed, despite being so meticulous a package. It would have taken uncommon genius and daring at that time to sneak a view of an untidy or unresolved America past Goldwyn or the public."
The Best Years of Our Lives has a 96% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 56 reviews. Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert put the film on his "Great Movies" list in 2007, calling it "... modern, lean, and honest".
The Best Years of Our Lives was a massive commercial success, earning an estimated $11.5 million at the US and Canadian box office during its initial theatrical run however, it benefited from much larger admission prices than the majority of films released that year which accounted for almost 70% of its earnings. When box office figures are adjusted for inflation, it remains one of the top 100 grossing films in U.S. history.
Among films released before 1950, only Gone With the Wind, The Bells of St. Mary's, The Big Parade and four Disney titles have done more total business, in part due to later re-releases. (Reliable box office figures for certain early films such as The Birth of a Nation and Charlie Chaplin's comedies are unavailable.)
However, because of the distribution arrangement RKO had with Goldwyn, RKO recorded a loss of $660,000 on the film.
Awards and honors
Despite his Oscar-nominated performance, Harold Russell was not a professional actor. As the Academy Board of Governors considered him a long shot to win, they gave him an Academy Honorary Award "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance". When Russell in fact won Best Supporting Actor, there was an enthusiastic response. He is the only actor to have received two Academy Awards for the same performance. In 1992, Russell sold his Best Supporting Actor statuette at auction for $60,500 ($110,200 today), to pay his wife's medical bills.
American Film Institute included the film as #37 in its 1998 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies, as #11 in its 2006 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers, and as #37 in its 2007 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition).
- Thomson 1993, pp. 490–491.
- " 'Best Years of Our Lives' (1946)." Box Office Mojo. Retrieved: February 4, 2010.
- Kantor, MacKinlay (1945). Glory for Me. Coward-McCann. OCLC 773996.
- Easton, Carol (2014). "The Best Years". The Search for Sam Goldwyn. Carl Rollyson (contributor). Univ. Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-62674-132-4.
Andrews looked at the onionskin pages and asked, 'Mac, why did you write this in blank verse?' 'Dana', said Kantor with a wry smile, 'I can't afford to write in blank verse, because nobody buys anything written in blank verse. But when Sam asked me to write this story, he didn't tell me not to write it in blank verse!'
- Orriss 1984, p. 119.
- Levy, Emanuel (April 4, 2015). "Oscar History: Best Picture–Best Years of Our Lives (1946)". Emanuel Levy: Cinema 24/7. Archived from the original (review) on January 18, 2017. Retrieved January 16, 2017.
- "The 19th Academy Awards (1947) Nominees and Winners." oscars.org. Retrieved: November 20, 2011.
- "The Ultimate Chart: 1–100". British Film Institute. November 28, 2004. Retrieved June 11, 2019.
- "ENTERTAINMENT: Film Registry Picks First 25 Movies". Los Angeles Times. Washington, D.C. September 19, 1989. Retrieved April 22, 2020.
- "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board | Programs at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved May 19, 2020.
- Orriss 1984, p. 121.
- Kehr, Dave. "'The Best Years of Our Lives'." The Chicago Reader. Retrieved: April 26, 2007.
- Orriss 1984, pp. 121–122.
- "Trivia: 'The Best Years of Our Lives'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: February 10, 2015.
- Crowther, Bosley. The Best Years of our Lives. The New York Times, November 22, 1946. Retrieved: April 26, 2007.
- Thomson, 2002, p. 949. 4th Edition; the first edition was published in 1975. See Thomson, David (1975). A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema. London: Secker & Warburg. OCLC 1959828.
- " 'The Best Years of Our Lives'." Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved: July 30, 2010.
- Ebert, Roger. "The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)." Chicago Sun Times, December 29, 2007. Retrieved: May 1, 20201.
- "All Time Domestic Champs". Variety, January 6, 1960, p. 34.
- "Top Grossers of 1947". Variety. January 7, 1948. p. 63. Retrieved June 11, 2019 – via Archive.org.
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- Richard B. Jewell, Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures, Uni of California, 2016
- Bergan, Ronald. "Obituary: Harold Russell; Brave actor whose artificial hands helped him win two Oscars." The Guardian, February 6, 2002. Retrieved: June 12, 2012.
- "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 38 (4): 35. Autumn 2012.
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- Flood, Richard. "Reel crank – critic Manny Farber." Artforum, Volume 37, Issue 1, September 1998. ISSN 0004-3532.
- Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies", in The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
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- Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorn, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X; OCLC 11709474
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- Thomson, David. "Wyler, William". The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. 4th Edition. London: Little, Brown, 2002. ISBN 0-316-85905-2.
- Tibbetts, John C., and James M. Welsh, eds. The Encyclopedia of Novels Into Film (2nd ed. 2005) pp 152–153.
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- The Best Years of Our Lives essay by Gabriel Miller at National Film Registry
- The Best Years of Our Lives essay by Daniel Eagan in America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry, A&C Black, 2010 ISBN 0826429777, pages 399-401 
- The Best Years of Our Lives on IMDb
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- The Best Years of Our Lives at the American Film Institute Catalog
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- The Best Years of Our Lives at Rotten Tomatoes
- The Best Years of Our Lives detailed synopsis/analysis at Film Site by Tim Dirks
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