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25 August 2005

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews & Teresa Wright
Directed by William Wyler (Roman Holiday)

From Hollywood Video: "Three WWII veterans must make adjustments to the postwar world as they try to pick up the threads of their past lives."

I rented this film for two reasons: one, the library system here charges $2 for new rentals and I didn't have any money on me at the time, and two, a former boss had mentioned the film to me in passing. He said that he normally would have found the whole thing far too melodramatic and sappy, but having just finished up the first airing of the Band of Brothers HBO mini-series back in 2001, he felt a certain sympathetic soft-spot for the idea of veterans coming home to a happy life after the war. I was tremendously moved by Band of Brothers. The comment stuck in my memory. So here we are.

My boss was right. It was nearly three hours of very melodramatic fare, as Fred Derry (the handsome former soda jerk turned airman, played by Andrews), Homer Parrish (the guy with hooks for hands, played by Harold Russell), and Al Stephenson (the respected banker turned infantry sergeant, played by March) meet on a plane headed home and remain friends as each helps the others adjust. They drink too much, try to reconnect with the women in their lives, and attempt to re-enter the work force, all to varying degrees of success. Fred falls in love with Al's now-grown daughter (Wright), despite the fact he married a young party girl (Virginia Mayo) 20 days before shipping out. It's a fun, predictable, slyly humorous film with as much historic value as drama.

For instance, the extreme patriotism of the times is unmistakable. Fred gets into a fight with a soda fountain customer when the man suggests that the entire war was orchestrated by the US government and that soldiers were suckers. "You read about guys like that, but you never expect to meet one," Fred says as he walks away from the unconscious man. Al, the banker, also expresses his admiration for his fighting brothers when he authorizes unsecured loans to returning veterans, believing that their service was more valuable than any collateral they could offer. And honoring veterans did not stop when the credits rolled. Harold Russell, who had both hands amputated after a war-time TNT accident, became the only person ever to win two Academy Awards for the same role: Best Actor in a Supporting Role and an honorary award "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives." The movie, in all, garnered seven Oscar wins.

I also enjoyed the film's unmistakable attempt to come to terms with modern warfare. Al's son remarks, "We've got to find a way to live together - or else," in reference to what he learned of Hiroshima. Pianist Hoagy Carmichael's character said that things would settle down and return to normal soon enough "...unless we have another war. Then none of us have to worry because we'll all be blown to bits the first day." I was reminded that although we have not seen another nuclear device used in combat since Nagasaki, the threat must have felt ominous and terrible to people in 1946 as they faced news of Stalin and the impending show-down in Korea.

Back to the film. I was particularly interested in the easy chemistry between Wright and her on-screen mother, Myrna Loy. There was a quiet, accepting humor to their situation, even as they struggled to regain solid ground in their personal relationships. I haven't seen such a casually accepting mother-daughter portrayal in some time. Normally, such relationships are overblown, full of strife and blame. This one was more like how ordinary people behave, just being part of a daily family.

One more interesting observation: Myrna Loy got lead billing. I wondered why. Sure, she was engaging and easy to watch - with realism, patience and wit - but how often did a woman earn top billing over men back then? Then I looked at her IMDB profile. She starred in 58 movies between 1927-1934! Amazing! Even though I have never heard of her films, and until watching this movie I'd never seen her work, she must have been a favorite studio actress and matinee draw at the time.

In the end, a review of a film this old cannot be separated from its historical context, which made it even more interesting and worthwhile for me.

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