The Best Years of Our Lives
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946 poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWilliam Wyler
Screenplay byRobert E. Sherwood
Based onGlory for Me
1945 novella
by MacKinlay Kantor
Produced bySamuel Goldwyn
Starring
CinematographyGregg Toland
Edited byDaniel Mandell
Music by
Production
company
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • November 21, 1946 (1946-11-21)
Running time
172 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$2.1 million[1] or $3 million[2]
Box office$23.7 million[3]
Standing (left to right): Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright; seated at piano: Hoagy Carmichael
Standing (left to right): Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright; seated at piano: Hoagy Carmichael

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).[4] 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.[5]

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".[6][7]

Plot

In 1945, three veterans from different parts of the military 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: USAAF bombardier captain Fred Derry, U.S. Navy petty officer Homer Parrish, and U.S. Army sergeant Al Stephenson. 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 most obvious man 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 Homer crying 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. While waiting at the airport he walks into an aircraft boneyard, where he climbs into one of the decommissioned B-17 bombers. Sitting at the bombardier's site, his mind returns to 1944, 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.

Cast

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 (1927-2020), 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.[8]

Production

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.[9][10][11][12] Robert E. Sherwood then adapted the novella as a screenplay.[12]

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.[13]

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.[13]

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.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

The fictional Boone City was patterned after Cincinnati, Ohio.[11] 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.[16]

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.[13]

Reception

Critical response

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".[17]

Director Wyler and cinematographer Toland used deep focus to keep Fred visible in the far background of the frame.
Director Wyler and cinematographer Toland used deep focus to keep Fred visible in the far background of the frame.

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.[18]

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."[19]

The Best Years of Our Lives has a 98% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 56 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."[20] Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert put the film on his "Great Movies" list in 2007, calling it "... modern, lean, and honest".[21]

Popular response

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,[22] 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.[23] 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.)[24]

However, because of the distribution arrangement RKO had with Goldwyn, RKO recorded a loss of $660,000 on the film.[25]

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.[26]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards Best Motion Picture Samuel Goldwyn (for Samuel Goldwyn Productions) Won
Best Director William Wyler Won
Best Actor Fredric March Won
Best Supporting Actor Harold Russell Won
Best Screenplay Robert E. Sherwood Won
Best Film Editing Daniel Mandell Won
Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture Hugo Friedhofer Won
Best Sound Recording Gordon E. Sawyer Nominated
Academy Honorary Award Harold Russell Won
Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award Samuel Goldwyn Won
Bodil Awards Best American Film William Wyler Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Film from any Source Won
Brussels World Film Festival Best Actress Myrna Loy Won
Cinema Writers Circle Awards Best Foreign Film Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Picture Won
Special Achievement Award Harold Russell Won
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Crystal Globe William Wyler Nominated
Best Director Won
Best Screenplay Robert E. Sherwood Won
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films Won
Best Director William Wyler Won
National Film Preservation Board National Film Registry Inducted
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film Won
Best Director William Wyler Won
Best Actor Fredric March Nominated
Online Film & Television Association Awards Hall of Fame – Motion Picture Won

In 1989, the National Film Registry selected it for preservation in the United States Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[7]

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).

Radio adaptations

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.[27][28]

References

Notes

  1. ^ At the time the film was shot, Ford was unknown as a singer. He worked in San Bernardino as a radio announcer-disc jockey.

Citations

  1. ^ Thomson 1993, pp. 490–491.
  2. ^ vhttps://archive.org/stream/variety165-1947-01#page/n85/mode/1up
  3. ^ " 'Best Years of Our Lives' (1946)." Box Office Mojo. Retrieved: February 4, 2010.
  4. ^ "The 19th Academy Awards (1947) Nominees and Winners." oscars.org. Retrieved: November 20, 2011.
  5. ^ "The Ultimate Chart: 1–100". British Film Institute. November 28, 2004. Archived from the original on August 3, 2012. Retrieved June 11, 2019.
  6. ^ "ENTERTAINMENT: Film Registry Picks First 25 Movies". Los Angeles Times. Washington, D.C. September 19, 1989. Retrieved April 22, 2020.
  7. ^ a b "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved May 19, 2020.
  8. ^ "A tribute to the collector Michael Hall (1926–2020)". June 16, 2020.
  9. ^ Kantor, MacKinlay (1945). Glory for Me. Coward-McCann. OCLC 773996.
  10. ^ 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!'
  11. ^ a b Orriss 1984, p. 119.
  12. ^ a b 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.
  13. ^ a b c d Orriss 1984, p. 121.
  14. ^ Kehr, Dave. "'The Best Years of Our Lives'." The Chicago Reader. Retrieved: April 26, 2007.
  15. ^ Orriss 1984, pp. 121–122.
  16. ^ "Trivia: 'The Best Years of Our Lives'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: February 10, 2015.
  17. ^ Crowther, Bosley. The Best Years of our Lives. The New York Times, November 22, 1946. Retrieved: April 26, 2007.
  18. ^ Bazin, André (1997). "William Wyler, or the Jansenist of Directing". In Cardullo, Bert (ed.). Bazin at Work: Major Essays & Reviews from the Forties & Fifties. New York: Routledge. pp. 14–15. ISBN 978-0-415-90018-8.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ " 'The Best Years of Our Lives'." Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved: July 30, 2010.
  21. ^ Ebert, Roger. "The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)." Chicago Sun Times, December 29, 2007. Retrieved: May 1, 20201.
  22. ^ "All-Time Top-Grossers", Variety 18 January 1950 p 18
  23. ^ "Upped Scale Films Cop 'Win, Place, Show' Spots in Gross Sweepstakes". Variety. January 7, 1948. p. 63. Retrieved June 11, 2019 – via Archive.org.
  24. ^ "All-time Films (adjusted)." Box Office Mojo. Retrieved: September 19, 2010.
  25. ^ Richard B. Jewell, Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures, Uni of California, 2016
  26. ^ Bergan, Ronald. "Obituary: Harold Russell; Brave actor whose artificial hands helped him win two Oscars." The Guardian, February 6, 2002. Retrieved: June 12, 2012.
  27. ^ "The Best Years of Our Lives". Classic Movie Hub.
  28. ^ "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 38 (4): 35. Autumn 2012.

Sources

  • Dolan, Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • 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.
  • Kinn, Gail and Jim Piazza. The Academy Awards: The Complete Unofficial History. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2008. ISBN 978-1-57912-772-5.
  • 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.
  • Thomson, David. Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick. London: Abacus, 1993. ISBN 978-0-2339-8791-0.
  • 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.
  • Eagan, Daniel. The Best Years of Our Lives, 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.
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