The Best Years of Our Lives
“The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946)
The Best Years of Our Lives is a 1946 American drama film directed by William Wyler and starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and Harold Russell. The film is about three United States servicemen trying to piece their lives back together after coming home from World War II. 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. Robert Sherwood then adapted the novella as a screenplay.
The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards in 1946, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell), Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Sherwood), and Best Original Score (Hugo Friedhofer). In addition to its critical success, the film quickly became a great commercial success upon release. It became the highest-grossing film in both the United States and UK since the release of Gone with the Wind. It remains the sixth most-attended film of all time in the UK, with over 20 million tickets sold. The film had one of the highest viewing figures of all time, with ticket sales exceeding $20.4 million.
After World War II, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), and Al Stephenson (Fredric March) meet while flying home to Boone City (a fictional city patterned after Cincinnati, Ohio). Fred was a decorated Army Air Forces captain and bombardier in Europe. Homer lost both hands from burns suffered when his aircraft carrier was sunk, and now uses mechanical hook prostheses. Al served as an infantry platoon sergeant in the Pacific. All three have trouble adjusting to civilian life.
Al has a comfortable home and a loving family: wife Milly (Myrna Loy), adult daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright), and college freshman son Rob. He returns to his old job as a bank loan officer. The bank president views his military experience as valuable in dealing with other returning servicemen. When Al approves a loan (without collateral) to a young Navy veteran, however, the president advises him against making a habit of it. Later, at a banquet held in his honor, a slightly inebriated Al expounds his belief that the bank (and America) must stand with the vets who risked everything to defend the country and give them every chance to rebuild their lives.
Homer playing piano. Note the in-focus figure of Fred in the phone booth in the background, while maintaining clear focus on Homer, Butch and Al, showing Gregg Toland’s use of deep focus photography.
Before the war, Fred had been an unskilled drugstore soda jerk. He wants something better, but the tight postwar job market forces him to return to his old job. Fred had met Marie (Virginia Mayo) while in flight training and married her shortly afterward, before shipping out less than a month later. She became a nightclub waitress while Fred was overseas. Marie makes it clear she does not enjoy being married to a lowly soda jerk.
Homer was a football quarterback and became engaged to Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) before joining the Navy. Both Homer and his parents now have trouble dealing with his disability. He does not want to burden Wilma with his handicap and so pushes her away, although she still wants to marry him.
Peggy meets Fred while bringing her father home from a bar where the three men meet once again. They are attracted to each other. Peggy dislikes Marie, and informs her parents she intends to end Fred and Marie’s marriage, but they tell her that their own marriage overcame similar problems. Concerned, Al demands that Fred stop seeing his daughter. Fred agrees, but the friendship between the two men is strained.
At the drugstore, an obnoxious customer, who claims that the war was fought against the wrong enemies, gets into a fight with Homer. Fred intervenes and knocks the man into a glass counter, costing him his job. Later, Fred encourages Homer to put his misgivings behind him and marry Wilma, offering to be his best man.
On arriving home, Fred discovers his wife with another veteran (Steve Cochran). Marie tells him that she is getting a divorce. Fred decides to leave town, and gives his father his medals and citations. His father is unable to persuade Fred to stay. After Fred leaves, his father reads the citation for his Distinguished Flying Cross. At the airport, Fred books space on the first outbound aircraft, without regard for the destination. While waiting, he wanders into a vast aircraft boneyard. Inside the nose of a B-17, he relives the intense memories of combat. The boss of a work crew rouses him from his flashback. When the man says the aluminum from the aircraft is being salvaged to build housing, Fred persuades the boss to hire him.
One evening, Wilma visits Homer and tells him that her parents want her to leave Boone City for an extended period to try to forget him. Homer bluntly demonstrates to him how hard life with him would be. When Wilma is undaunted, Homer gives in and agrees to marry her.
The wedding takes place in the Parrish home, with the now-divorced Fred as Homer’s best man. Fred and Peggy watch each other from across the room. After the ceremony, he approaches and holds her, telling her that it will be a struggle before they become comfortable. She smiles, and they kiss and embrace.
Casting brought together established stars as well as character actors and relative unknowns. Famed drummer Gene Krupa was seen in archival footage, while Tennessee Ernie Ford, later a famous television star, appeared as an uncredited “hillbilly singer” (in the first of his only three film appearances). At the time the film was shot, Ford was unknown as a singer. He worked in San Bernardino as a radio announcer-disc jockey. Blake Edwards, later notable as a film producer and director, appeared fleetingly as an uncredited “Corporal”. Actress Judy Wyler was cast in her first role in her father’s production.
Additional uncredited cast members include Mary Arden, Al Bridge, Harry Cheshire, Joyce Compton, Heinie Conklin, Clancy Cooper, Claire Du Brey, Tom Dugan, Edward Earle, Billy Engle, Pat Flaherty, Stuart Holmes, John Ince, Teddy Infuhr, Robert Karnes, Joe Palma, Leo Penn, Jack Rice, Suzanne Ridgeway, Ralph Sanford and John Tyrrell.