The 19th winner of the Best Picture Oscar went to a film that was both an emotional epic and a stirring social commentary piece. It was graceful and great.
The year was 1946, and America was smarting from the war. Soldiers were coming home, and America was experiencing a new phenomenon; the wounded veteran re-entering life. Sure, there had been wars before, but even the horrors of WWI as metaphorically explored in amazing films like All Quiet on the Western Front didn’t match the new and unexpected social impact of WWII. The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the most timely and immediate Best Picture winners in Academy history, beating even Mrs. Miniver in terms of topicality.
Which is amazing, given that The Best Years of Our Lives is also strangely timeless. It’s most certainly about America in the wake of World War II and of the specifics of fighting that particular war, but this film is so wise about the mindset of post-soldier domesticity, that it could be applied to any war. Future Best Picture winners The Deer Hunter and The Hurt Locker would also deal with this phenomenon, but each with a different war. The three films would make great companion pieces. The post-war milieu is universal.
The Best Years of Our Lives – both and ironic and unironic title – is about three men, all coming to grips with their new lives after the war. There is Fred (Dana Andrews, looking like a proto-Michael Fassbender) who seems to be the most emotionally damaged, and who is more eager to drink than he is to return to his pretty young wife (Virginia Mayo). Fred also has trouble finding a job, learning that his once-important combat training didn’t really prepare him for the workplace. His retail experience is still limited, and, thanks to the influx of hundreds of returning soldiers, there aren’t too many jobs to be had. Fred’s wife gives up her jobs as a nightclub hostess, but quickly learns how unsatisfying a life without money is. Also, she doesn’t like that her husband is not a proud hero, and more like a wounded man. It’s not long before she’s having affairs. Fred – in the film’s most damning metaphor – eventually begins working in a junkyard, trashing the very planes he used to fly in. He also begins falling in love with Peggy (Teresa Wright), the young daughter of a peer.
That peer is Al (Frederic March), an older fellow with grown children who manages to return to his life best. He works as a bank manager, but whose job seems effected by his wartime experience. He is happy to be home, but his first instinct in most situations is to get blind drunk and not have to explain the war to his family, and not have to face the grinding boredom of life back home. Al and Fred bond over their military expertise, but eventually come to blows when Al learns that he and Peggy are having a flirtatious relationship. In the film’s most damning and daring scene, Peggy announces to her mother (Myrna Loy) and father that she fully intends to break up Fred’s marriage. You don’t typically hear that kind of forthright announcement of infidelity in films of the 1940s.
The third returning soldier is Homer (Oscar-winner Harold Russell, who won both Supporting Actor and a special Oscar “for bringing hope to veterans”) who lost both his hands in the war. He has been outfitted with a pair of hooks which he seems to have a cautious and necessary sense of humor about, but which his family are appalled over. The awkward silences and repeated questions about his missing hands reveal Homer’s good humor, but also how trying the constant grilling can be. He just wants to be with his girlfriend again. Homer does eventually explode at some local kids who he assumes are gawking at his hooks, but eventually proves to be the most emotionally stable of the three, eventually proposing to his girlfriend, and teaching himself some rudimentary piano tunes. Russell was actually missing both his hands which he lost in a training accident. He’s also the most natural, at-ease actor in the entire film.
With its depiction of both physical and emotional damage, The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the more forthright, brutally honest, and cinematically daring films of its era. What’s more, at 165 minutes, the film is given ample time to grow and to breathe, allowing the various interpersonal dramas to organically extend to their logical conclusions. It never drags, compelling viewers throughout. For those who thought that the phrase “The Greatest Generation” wasn’t tinged with a certain irony, you may want to check out this damning self-analysis. It’s a great film.
This is the second “social issue” film in a row, marking a trend in Best Picture winners that will last for all time. Next year’s winner will also be a social issue film, although it will, perhaps, be less graceful about it.
Join me next week for Gentleman’s Agreement.