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The Best Years of Our Lives, Hollywood With Heart

Updated on March 16, 2015

Movie with a Message

The Best Years of Our Lives was made just after the Second World War in 1946 and portrays the adjustment problems facing returning servicemen and their families, including unemployment, adultery, alcoholism, and ostracism. The film is poignant and moving and realistically and intimately recreates the setting where three servicemen return from their honored wartime roles to their previous, now-altered middle-American lives. They are immediately thrust into domestic tragedies, uncertainties, conflicts and awkward situations - handicapped (both physically and emotionally) by their new civilian roles. This superb and eloquent film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won seven: Best Picture (Samuel Goldwyn's sole competitive Oscar win), Best Actor (Fredric March - his second Oscar - the first was for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Director (William Wyler - his second of three career Oscars), Best Screenplay (Robert E.Sherwood), Best Editing, Best Musical Score -- its nomination for Best Sound was the only one that failed to win. Real-life double amputee (from a ship explosion) and one of the cast's inexperienced actors - Harold Russell received an additional Special Honorary Oscar "for bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans" for his first performance. The film was producer Samuel Goldwyn's most successful and important work - he also was presented with the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award. It was also a major commercial success - the biggest box-office draw since Gone With The Wind in 1939. Though on lists of the greatest movies ever made, it is often outranked by more classical films (like Citizen Kane (1941)) or more flamboyant productions (such as Gone With The Wind (1939)), in terms of pure cinematic storytelling, The Best Years of Our Lives is quite simply one of the finest films ever made.

Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright
Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright

Basic Story Line

The story centres on three World War II veterans who are returning to their hometown of Boone City after spending several years in the Pacific Theater.

The oldest of them, a forty-ish man named Al Stephenson (Fredric March), is an infantry soldier. The youngest, Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a Navy man, lost both hands and now wears cleverly-designed metal hooks. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), the third member of the trio, is a frequently decorated Air Force captain who commanded bombing missions. While Homer's injuries are the only visible ones, each of the men carries his own psychological burdens. As the movie progresses the families of the men are gradually introduced and the individual problems faced by each man become clear.

Al has difficulty accepting the reality of his new life. It doesn't live up to the idealized image he had built up during his three year absence. His children are older, there's a distance between him and his wife (despite her attempts to bridge it), and he has little taste for earning a living.

Fred and Homer are experiencing similar difficulties. Homer's disability makes him bitter and causes him to build walls in his relationships, particularly with his fiancée, Wilma. Fred is just getting to know his wife and finds her distressingly superficial. She loves the high life but the only job he can get is a menial one at a local drug store. Plus, he cannot deny his growing feelings for Al's daughter, Peggy.

Al makes Fred promise not to see Peggy. Fred loses his job when he punches a customer who attacked Homer's war record. His wife tells him she wants a divorce. Homer finally marries Wilma and at the wedding a now divorced Fred and Peggy kiss. It's a happy ending, sort of.

Homer's Wedding

(From left) Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Harold Russell, and Cathy O’Donnell
(From left) Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Harold Russell, and Cathy O’Donnell

Main Cast List

Fredric March - Al Stephenson

Fredric March was born in 1897 in Wisconsin and after serving in the Artillery in the First World War, he started acting in silent movies in New York,  graduating to Broadway where he came to the attention of Paramount Pictures. He won an Academy Award nomination for his send-up of John Barrymore in The Royal Family of Broadway in 1930. Four more Academy Award nominations came his way, and he won the Oscar for Best Actor twice: for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 and The Best Years of Our Lives.  

Theresa Wright
Theresa Wright | Source

Dana Andrews - Fred Derry

Dana Andrews was born in 1909 in Covington County, Mississippi. He was offered a contract by Samuel Goldwyn and the role that launched his career into stardom was playing a police detective in the hit movie Laura in 1944. After The Best Years of Our Lives the quality of his movies dropped and Andrews gradually made fewer appearances. He had had an acknowledged drinking problem since his career took off in the forties, but he succeeded in conquering the disease. He spent much of the late 1960s promoting the National Council on Alcoholism. From 1963 to 1965 Dana Andrews was the President of the Screen Actors Guild.

Harold Russell - Homer Parrish

Harold Russell was born in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1914. He lost both his hands in the Second World War when serving as a parachute corps instructor and a defective fuse he was handling blew up. He movingly portrayed the plight of a similar victim in The Best Years of Our Lives. His integrity and honesty shine through in some of the best scenes in the movie. Russell was awarded a special Academy Award for "bringing aid and comfort to disabled veterans," and then also won the year's Oscar as best supporting actor.

Myrna Loy - Milly Stephenson

Teresa Wright - Peggy Stephenson

Virginia Mayo - Marie Derry

Cathy O'Donnell - Wilma Cameron

Hoagy Carmichael - Uncle Butch Engle

Gladys George - Hortense Derry

Roman Bohnen - Pat Derry

Ray Collins - Mr. Milton

Minna Gombell - Mrs. Parrish

Walter Baldwin - Mr. Parrish

Steve Cochran - Cliff Scully,

Dorothy Adams - Mrs. Cameron

Summary

When it was made,, the film's social relevance was immense. It was about the problems facing ordinary men and women of the time. The Best Years of Our Lives relates the story of typical characters facing the then-typical challenge of resuming their lives after years of upheaval, separation and individual change and growth precipitated by the second World War; it is about people in transition in a society in turmoil.

The director of the movie, William Wyler, had experienced wartime combat missions himself in the US Army Air Corps, when he made war-related documentaries, and it shows in his sensitive handling of the difficult subject matter.

There is an irony in the title, due to the fact that many servicemen had 'the best years of their lives' not before the war or after it, but actually during it. The problems of the individuals and the family dramas in the movie make compelling stories, and they are universal. The movie is about people and relationships to which everyone watching of any time period can relate and empathise.

The low-key, understated approach, loose dramatic structure and Wyler's obvious sympathy for and appreciation of the difficulties facing returning ex-servicemen stops the film tipping into sentimentality. The film paid lavish attention to detail and it was expensive to make, but it is a triumph. It touched a nerve, and it has continued to be acclaimed by critics and moviegoers alike.

Buy the DVD at Amazon

Comments

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    • discovery2020 profile image

      WILLIAM EVANS 

      6 years ago from GARLAND, TEXAS

      Hello again, Gunsock. Well, I decided to do a hub about one of my all time favorite roles in a film, Harold Russell as the returning vet from WWII in The Best Years of Our Lives! Guess what? You did it again. What am I going to do with you, Gunsock? Great job.....keep up the good work.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 

      6 years ago from North-East UK

      Hi Gunsock, excellent review- this is one of my all-time favourite films and it was great to find someone had done a review of it on HubPages. Thanks for sharing! Voted up, interesting.

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