30 November 2007

The Best Years of Our Lives

Best Years of Our Lives Still One of The Best
By Kristin Battestella

I consider myself a serious classic movie buff. Friends can’t understand my affinity for black and white pictures-my husband hates them! After this renown for such classics, my father was miffed that I had missed one of the greatest films of all time: The Best Years of Our Lives.

Now certainly I’d heard of William Wyler’s haunting classic about a trio of soldiers adjusting to life in post World War II America. I love Wyler’s previous works- The Big Country, The Depsperate Hours, The Heiress, and of course Ben-Hur. I’m also fan of war movies- The Longest Day, From Here To Eternity, Mr. Roberts-even Wyler’s own The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. The stars, however, seemed lined against me and this film (and The Sand Pebbles for some reason. I can’t catch that one, either.) Every time The Best Years of Our Lives was slated on television I missed it. Until at last, this summer the stars realigned!

The Best Years of Our LivesPBS. No power outages, no place to be but before the tele with my dad. A blank tape was in the VCR, too. I was taking no chances for this momentous occasion. Only twice before have I taped a movie without having seen it, and both films I now absolutely adore-Laura and Rebecca.
Speaking of Laura, I was confused at first by its stars Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews-I thought Dana was Laura! No mistaking it here- Dana Andrews, Fredric March and Harold Russell are the triple focus of Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives. The three neighbors meet by chance while returning home from Europe after the war. Former uppity banker Al Stephenson has to adjust to the poor life with his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright) while decorated Captain Fred Derry (Andrews) has no opportunity on the home front- he returns to his previous job as a soda jerk. His wife (Virginia Mayo) can’t get used to him out of uniform, and the quickie marriage falls apart. By contrast Homer Parrish (Russell) would seem to have it all. He returns to his family home and the perfect girl who loves him-but he wavers between happiness and despair while he and his family come to terms with the loss of not one, but both of his hands.

Unlike pro war movies made during the battles-everyone’s a hero, evil is defeated, the good guys always get the girl- The Best Years of Our Lives sheds light on the plight of the soldiers’ return. Indeed it is not all parades and parties and everything one desires on a silver platter. How can a man who’s gone for five years and taught to kill or drops bombs be expected to fit into civilian society? How does society deal with the influx of such thousands? Work, housing, money, relationships, these aspects and more all have a serious statement to make in The Best Years of Our Lives.

Strange that The Best Years of Our Lives hits the nail on the head with the post World War II troubles, but what saddens me the most is that we seemed to have learned nothing since this 1946 release. When a simple soldier comes to Al’s bank for a loan with no collateral, home, or money but a dream of a farm of his own-banking wise, he should be denied. When Al gives him the loan, I cried. I cried because we are still dealing with the mistreatment of veterans in this country.

Google it and you’ll see all the statistics about American veterans in the 21st Century. One in four veterans is homeless, and one million are uninsured and ineligible for VA assistance. If The Best Years of Our Lives were in color and the women took off their hats, it would be today. This timeless quality and truth is what kept the boomers hounding me about seeing this film. Gone With The Wind, Citizen Kane, Casablanca. You talk to a classics fan, it’s only a matter of time before you’re asked, “Have you ever seen The Best Years of Our Lives?”

The title alone is haunting and deserves analysis. This is supposed to be the best time of these people’s lives? Are you for real? It’s the worst. Why is that? It shouldn’t be.

Of course, there’d be none of this deserved hype for The Best Years of Our Lives without the spot on cast. Dana Andrews (Crash Dive, The Ox-Bow Incident) looks like a suave bombardier and no doubt he’s got the range to be suave and in love or angry as the over grown soda jerk. WWII movies today don’t have the air as the films of old, largely because modern actors don’t have the look and style of the forties. It looks like playing dress up.

Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) plays the high scale banker to a Best Actor winning T. He can’t get used to no servants and nasty bosses, yet March sells the drunken slumbers and problem conversations with his wife, son, and daughter. The Thin Man alum Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright (The Pride of the Yankees) are also stellar as the patient ladies who’ve held things together before, during, and now after the war.

But of course, real life veteran and double amputee Harold Russell steals the show as Homer. A good chunk of time on film is spent in silence watching Homer use his hooks to do-or not do- routine tasks. The audience watches in twisted fascination at his skill to eat or light a cigarette, but Homer can’t button his shirt or close his door at night because he can’t turn the handle. Today, a film would never spend time on a real life person like this; much less let this heartbreaking situation speak for itself. Cudos to Best Supporting Actor winner Russell and Best Director Wyler for rising to the occasion. Some dialogue you can tell that this is Russell’s first film, but he holds his own against the stellar cast around him. In fact, his simplicity makes the film in many ways.

Based on a script by Robert Sherwood (who was also nominated for the adaptation of Rebecca) from the novel by MacKinlay Kantor, The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Oscars-including Adapted Screenplay. Words like this just aren’t spoken onscreen anymore. What’s said needs to be said. All the cues are made and lines delivered, but Wyler and Sherwood also know where to let the expressions, lighting, music, and action speak for itself. As heavy as The Best Years of Our Lives is, the audience is never hit over the head or underestimated.

There’s just so much to be said for a film of old, and The Best Years of Our Lives is the perfect time capsule. Not only could the style, look, and feel, of the post war era not be replicated today, but such a serious topic would not receive the direction, script, and time it deserves. Young folks today will probably find Best too slow, melodramatic, and cliché. Some might even laugh at the signs of the time captured on film. Women in hats and gloves, the slide across the front seat of a car (that’s not even possible in today’s models!), even the drinking, smoking, and eating habits portrayed have changed. We don’t even have soda jerks anymore-and Dollar Tree and Five Below have replaced five and ten cent stores.

All these changes and yet The Best Years of Our Lives captures America’s reactions and relationships to soldiers then and now. Not one minute of its near three hour run time is wasted, and once you sit down, you can’t turn away, despite how uncomfortable some scenes can make you feel. These things need to be witnessed.

The Best Years of Our Lives can’t be appreciated by cgi spoiled young folks. Although there’s no blood, little violence, and no language to speak of, the subject matter in The Best Years of Our Lives is not suitable for children or the overly sensitive. Boomers no doubt know the film by heart, and a DVD upgrade is definitely necessary for the tech savvy and collectors. If you’re interested in war films or are a budding classic enthusiast, you can’t watch The Best Years of Our Lives soon enough.

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