The Best Years of Our Lives
|The Best Years of Our Lives|
|Directed by||William Wyler|
|Screenplay by||Robert E. Sherwood|
|Based on||Glory for Me|
by MacKinlay Kantor
|Produced by||Samuel Goldwyn|
|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 epic 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 societal changes and civilian life after coming home from World War II. The three men come from different services with different ranks that do not correspond with their civilian social class backgrounds.
The film was a critical and commercial success. It 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). It was the highest-grossing film in both the United States and United Kingdom since the release of Gone with the Wind, and is the sixth most-attended film of all time in the United Kingdom, 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".
In 1945, three veterans from different parts of the military (USAAF bombardier captain Fred Derry, U.S. Navy petty officer Homer Parrish, and U.S. Army sergeant Al Stephenson) meet on a return flight from service at the end of World War II. They travel together and arrive in their midwestern hometown of Boone City.
Before the war, Fred had a menial job at a drug store as their soda jerk and lived with his parents in the poorer part of town. Before becoming an officer in the Army Air Corps, he married his girlfriend Marie after a brief engagement and shipped out shortly thereafter.
Al worked as a high level officer at the local bank and lived in an upscale apartment with his wife Millie and their two children, Peggy and Rob.
Homer was a high school student living with his middle-class parents and younger sister. A star athlete at school, Homer also had been dating his next-door neighbor, Wilma, and they commit to marrying upon his return.
Each man faces challenges integrating back into civilian life. Having lost both hands, Homer is the man most obviously damaged by the war, but each man suffers from mental injuries, Homer included. Homer has become quite functional in the use of his mechanical hooks, but he cannot bring himself to believe that Wilma will still want to marry him. Al, tired and jaded from the war, is asked to return to the bank and gets a large promotion which he feels obligated to take. The highly decorated and accomplished Fred suffers from PTSD flashbacks by night, and despite his Captain’s rank in the military, cannot find a civilian job because of his lack of experience at anything other than dropping bombs and is forced to return to the drug store to work behind the counter. The one bright spot for Fred is Al's daughter Peggy, whom he met when they first returned to town after a long night drinking binge. Peggy feels sympathy for Fred and gives him her room as he passes out that night.
Fred and Peggy are attracted to each other, and when she stops by his work to check on him he asks her to meet him for lunch. Afterwards, he walks her to her car, and though he knows it is wrong, kisses her. Fred's relationship with Peggy puts him at odds with Al, who, despite his affection for Fred, does not want his daughter to be involved with a married man. Peggy on the other hand, after meeting Marie by arranging a double date, is determined to "break the marriage apart" thinking that Fred deserves better than the craven Marie.
Homer continues to avoid his fiancé, Wilma, and much to the family's anguish doesn't seem to want to continue the relationship. Each night Homer's father helps him remove the prosthetic arms and places him in bed. Homer appears lost and despite being as independent as he can, he still requires others to help him with day-to-day activities. Wilma confronts Homer who explodes in a rage and breaks a window when he cannot manage to open the door, scaring his younger sister and her friends.
Al continues to struggle with re-entry into normal life. Widely respected by the bank's senior management for his past business acumen, Al finds himself aligning himself with veterans looking for loans - sometimes with little or no collateral which becomes an issue for the bank. His behavior is made worse by his excessive drinking and he continues to seek solace away from his family obligations with the other veterans.
All three characters' individual stories come to a head. One night, when Homer visits the drugstore for an ice cream sundae, another customer strikes up a conversation with him. The topic turns sour when the customer alludes to the latest news that the country is now at odds with the Soviet Union and Chinese governments, saying, "You lost your arms fighting the wrong enemy." Homer becomes angry; Fred comes to his aid and punches the disrespectful patron in the face. After being fired, Fred advises Homer to confess his true feelings to Wilma.
Al, under the influence of drinking, begins to go off the rails at a company dinner and barely finishes his speech without embarrassment as Millie comes to the rescue.
Wilma catches Homer before his bedtime routine. Homer is determined to avoid the topic of their relationship, but Wilma announces that her parents want to send her to live with relatives with the primary purpose of leaving town and moving on from Homer. Homer initially agrees with the decision, but as Wilma presses him for his true feelings he agrees to show her his disabilities and what the future would entail. At a tender moment, Wilma buttons his shirt and kisses him goodnight, leaving a teary-eyed Homer in bed.
Meanwhile, Fred's wife, Marie, frustrated with his lack of financial success and missing her past nightlife, tells Fred she is getting a divorce. Heartbroken and seeing no future in Boone City, Fred decides to pack up and catch the next plane out. After he bids farewell to his father and step-mother, his father reads a letter of commendation from General Doolittle describing Fred's heroics. While waiting at the airport Fred walks into an aircraft boneyard, where he climbs into one of the decommissioned B-17 bombers. Sitting in the bombardier's seat, his mind returns to the war, and another bombing run over Germany. He is roused out of his stressful memories by a work crew foreman, who informs him that the planes are being demolished for use in the growing pre-fab housing industry. Fred asks him if they need any help in the budding business, and is hired.
The finale shows everyone at Homer and Wilma's home wedding. Fred and Peggy have a polite reunion but as the vows are spoken between the newlyweds, they cannot help but look at each other. Peggy begins to weep and after the ceremony, Fred walks to her and they embrace while no one is looking. He expresses his love with the caveat that things may be a little rough financially but he is committed to the new job. Peggy is completely enthralled and smiles.
- Myrna Loy as Milly Stephenson
- Fredric March as Technical 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
- Victor Cutler as Woody Merrill
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 Air Transport Command 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 (1926-2020), at the time of his death the last surviving credited cast member, with his role as Fredric March's on-screen son, is absent after the first one-third of the film. The reason was that Hall's contract with Goldwyn ended during filming, but the producer was reluctant to pay extra money to rehire him.
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.
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, which 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 Fourth and Vine 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".
French film critic André Bazin used examples of Toland's and Wyler's deep-focus visual style to illuminate his theory of realism in film—going into detail about the scene in which Fred uses the phone booth in the far background while Homer and Butch play piano in the foreground. Bazin explains how deep focus functions in this scene:
The action in the foreground is secondary, although interesting and peculiar enough to require our keen attention since it occupies a privileged place and surface on the screen. Paradoxically, the true action, the one that constitutes at this precise moment a turning point in the story, develops almost clandestinely in a tiny rectangle at the back of the room—in the left corner of the screen.... Thus the viewer is induced actively to participate in the drama planned by the director.
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 97% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 95 reviews. The critical consensus states: "An engrossing look at the triumphs and travails of war veterans, The Best Years of Our Lives is concerned specifically with the aftermath of World War II, but its messages speak to the overall American experience." 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 $10.2 million at the U.S. and Canadian box office during its initial theatrical run, not only making it the highest-grossing film of 1946, but also the highest-grossing film of the 1940s decade. 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.
Russell Academy Award
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 ($116,800 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).
In 1947 and 1949, there were four separate half-hour adaptations from Hedda Hopper's This Is Hollywood, Screen Guild Theater (two) and Screen Directors Playhouse. In all four cases, various actors reprised their film roles.
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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!'
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- The Best Years of Our Lives at IMDb
- The Best Years of Our Lives at AllMovie
- The Best Years of Our Lives at Filmsite.org
- The Best Years of Our Lives at Reel Classics
- The Best Years of Our Lives at Rotten Tomatoes
- The Best Years of Our Lives at National Film Registry
- The Best Years of Our Lives at the TCM Movie Database
- The Best Years of Our Lives at American Music Preservation
- The Best Years of Our Lives at the American Film Institute Catalog
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