THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

thebestyearsRemember Rambo? Of course, how could you forget Hollywood’s premiere guerilla superhero? In a lot of ways, he was pretty typical of popular culture’s view of Vietnam veterans. Sure, by the later installments of the franchise his story had become rather farcical, but there were other movies that portrayed similar men with varying degrees of nuance. Vets in movies like Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and Jacob’s Ladder were damaged, haunted men who returned from war to an America that had little use for them. Things were so much different for the men who came home after defeating the Nazis and the Japanese Empire. After being greeted by a civilian population united behind them, they settled into the comfortable prosperity of the 1950s and all moved out the suburbs. Vietnam vets had no V-J day and returned to social and economic malaise, and so “just couldn’t leave the war behind.” Or so one would think from TV and movies. Eventually Hollywood would tone down the stereotype of the deranged Vietnam vet, but the idea of WWII as the “Good War” persisted. The Best Years of Our Lives might make you rethink how easy veterans of the Second World War had it when they came home. The Best Years of Our Lives is the story of three servicemen returning from the war. They meet while catching a long ride on a bomber back to their hometown. Fred is an Army Air Force officer seeking his wife from a rushed pre-deployment marriage, with no interest in returning to his previous job as a soda jerk. Al, an infantry sergeant, already has a family and established career in banking. Homer is a young sailor with terrible injuries; both his hands were lost in the war and replaced with prosthetic hooks. All three men struggle with the adjustment to civilian life in one way or another as their paths repeatedly cross.

As with many of the older films, I became more interested by and impressed with this film when we actually forced ourselves to sit down and watch it. It’s true that I have my own prejudices against older films. It’s why doing this project is good for me – it has opened my horizons. My interest was piqued for several reasons – my deceased grandfather was a German immigrant who fought in WWII and eventually became a colonel, my father also served in the military, and I worked for several years at a veteran-serving organization. The human effects of war have become painfully clear to me over time, and this film presents the challenge of reintegration sensitively and succinctly. Homer’s character was especially compelling, and played by an actor who actually had lost both of his hands in a military training due to a defective explosive. The actor, Harold Russell, was also one of only two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award for his performance in the film. Homer has great anxiety about reconnecting with his love interest Wilma upon his return from the war. He is nervous about how she will react to his prosthetic hooks. Additionally, he feels a little out of place with his family, though they do make brave efforts throughout the film to show him support and love. To the Navy’s credit, they trained him well in how to use the hooks, and he is able to function quite well with them. However, the looks, stares, and unsolicited comments do begin to wear on him – understandably. Wilma’s character shows a lot of determination, self-expression, and strength. I appreciated seeing her dedication to Homer and how the two navigate their relationship after such a life-altering blow.

Homer’s wounds are the most visible, but the other men are dealing with effects of the war. Fred is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, decades before it was given a name. Furthermore, after his time as an esteemed officer, he has to deal with the indignity of returning to his job at the soda fountain to get by. Even Al, despite having the most comfortable situation to return to, drinks enough to concern his family. On a lighter note, I was impressed by how well the actor who played Uncle Butch handled the piano playing in his scenes. Then I saw the end credits and realized it was Hoagie Carmichael. I’ve heard this film’s use of deep staging discussed before, and I’m glad I knew to look out for it. During several scenes, there is some important element in the background, but in-focus, relevant to what’s going in the foreground- in one instance quite literally coming between the characters. In one critical scene, the real drama happens in the background, while characters closer to the camera carried on a more mundane interaction. This paradoxically heightened the emotional intensity, like watching a friend have a gravely serious conversation across a crowded room.

Al does seem to have the best time readjusting of the group, but even still it is painful to watch him with his family initially. His wife is understandably a little on edge, trying to reconnect with someone she hasn’t seen in ages. There are aspects of the job he takes at the bank that are demoralizing, and you can tell part of his hire on their end is for show – they benefit from having a veteran in a high-ranking position to navigate the applications for GI loans. It reminded me a lot of my past work at a veteran-serving organization – many politicians and companies were eager to connect themselves in a superficial way to returning troops, but very few wanted to take on the difficult work of offering an array of jobs to vets, assisting with reintegration, and being true allies to former service members. Throughout the film, I felt happy that the three protagonists had each other. It seemed to make the process of returning home a little easier, and it was heartening to see them get together and have conversations at various points throughout the film. While many aspects of their lives at home are different, they share a history that their civilian partners and families can’t understand. Nurturing their relationships is as critical a survival strategy as finding jobs or reconnecting with people on the home front.

The Best Years of Our Lives was a big winner on awards night, taking not only the Oscar for Best Picture, but Director, Actor (March), and Supporting Actor (Russell). While no means forgotten today, it has since been eclipsed in popular consciousness by one of the also-rans from the year. A commercial failure at the time of its release, It’s a Wonderful Life gained a second life on broadcast TV, where it became the Christmastime cultural institution we know it as now. I wonder if people would be surprised to hear that Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart were losers at the Oscars, or that portraying Mister Potter didn’t even earn Lionel Barrymore a nomination. Still, it’s not hard to see why The Best Years of Our lives received such acknowledgement, timely and well-made as it was.

Timely, sure, but also timeless. I thought that this film did a great job of portraying the true human costs of war in a time we could all stand to see more such media. I definitely enjoyed this film more than I thought I would, and felt grateful our blog project exposed me to it.

Also nominated in 1946:
Henry V
It’s a Wonderful Life
The Razor’s Edge
The Yearling

Next film: BRAVEHEART (1995)

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2 Responses to “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)”

  1. I totally missed your post about this movie! I just watched it for the first time a couple of years ago and I liked it. I think Dana Andrews is such a likeable and underrated actor. He has a pretty heartbreaking supporting role in the “The Ox-Bow Incident” from 1943, one of my favorite movies, definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it! Also, a fun trivia fact that I can’t help bring up whenvever I hear of Hoagy Carmichael (which..isn’t often!), he was one of Ian Fleming’s inspirations for James Bond’s appearance along with himself! Hoagy Bond! Also another decent film about WWII vets coming home and having to readjust to life at home and also come to terms with living with a disability is 1950’s “The Men” which is Marlon Brando’s feature debut and directed by Fred Zinnemann (who not long after directed “High Noon” and down the road did “The Day od the Jackel”). “The Men” also stars Teresa Wright (who played Peggy in “Best Years..,” who’s always pretty charming (you may have seen Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” but if not she’s quite good in that as well). Hope you guys are doing well!!!!

  2. cdascher Says:

    Hey Alan. I will have to check out The Men.

    Of the actors in Best Years, I was only familiar with Myrna Loy, whom I knew from the Thin Man and the glamour portrait Kati got at the Berlin Mart. I wonder if she still has it?

    And speaking of High Noon, I named that as the more deserving nominee in the entry for The Greatest Show On Earth.

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