The Best Years of Our Lives: Best Picture, 1946

bestyearsofourlivesposter.jpgThe 19th Annual Academy Awards ceremony was hosted by Jack Benny. The Best Years of Our Lives was nominated for 8 awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Actor (Fredric March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Sound and Best Original Score. It lost Best Sound to The Jolson Story and won everything else. In addition, Harold Russell was given an honorary award “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans,” making him the first and only actor to receive two Oscars for a single performance. He deserved the honor. This is impressive work.

Russell lost both his hands on D-day while training paratroopers, and had them replaced with hooks. The role in Best Years was created for him after the director saw him in an army training film. Best Years was his first big-screen appearance. As for other notable nominees, Best Years beat out Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (which also won an honorary award), It’s a Wonderful Life and The Yearling for Best Picture (and various other awards), and beat Claude Rains from Hitchcock’s Notorious for Best Supporting Actor.

The Best Years of Our Lives is quite long, and understandably so, for it is really three movies packaged more or less seamlessly into a single large story. World War II is over, and veterans are pouring back into the United States. All of them want to get home, but most will soon become painfully aware that things aren’t the same as they were before the war started. Three veterans from very different walks of life find themselves returning together to the same town and form a fast friendship that will change all of their lives in ways they cannot yet imagine.

Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a sergeant in the army, has a wife (Myrna Loy), two older children, and a successful banking career to come home to. His superiors at the bank want to put him in charge of loans to ex-GIs, but they don’t quite see eye to eye on who is deserving of aid and who is not. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a captain in the air force, is coming back to the wife (Virginia Mayo) he knew for less than three weeks before he was deployed. As a former soda jerk, he finds his marketable skills somewhat lacking in the search for gainful employment, and his wife less sympathetic than Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). Finally, Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), an ensign in the navy, both hands lost in combat, comes home to his parents and childhood sweetheart hoping they’ll be able to see past his hooks to the fact that not much else about him has really changed. Or has it?

I said this was three movies rolled into one. This is perhaps the movie’s only significant flaw. Each story intertwines effectively with the others to a certain degree, and perhaps more importantly, each stands firmly on its own. They are all excellent stories, well-scripted and well-acted, capable of holding the viewer’s attention, but all balled together the movie is simply too long. At times it is almost bound to defy our patience.

There is patriotism here, and raw emotion. Both elements could mire a lesser film in excessive sentimentality, but there is none of that here, only a quiet human nobility that makes you feel that this country is great instead of telling you that it is. When Homer swallows his pride and self-pity and shows his fiancée how he gets ready for bed every night . . . well, movie moments are only rarely that memorable.

However, its greatest value, great storytelling, powerful emotions, and magnificent performances aside, lies in the way it captures perfectly life in America after World War II. The eternal problem of what to do with a mass of fighting men when there isn’t any enemy left, translated into individual human terms in a particular place at a single moment in time. You can feel the mood of the nation 60 years ago and see the unique problems they faced. This is undoubtedly a great American movie experience.

As for the competition, whether this or It’s a Wonderful Life is the more deserving film is pretty much a toss-up, although the latter has proved to have a bit more cultural staying power. As usual, Hitchcock didn’t receive anything like the recognition he deserved: Notorious, which stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman (and reunites her with Casablanca co-star Claude Rains), is among his best, and should have been considered.

~ by Jared on August 2, 2007.

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